The Campfire v. the Podium: the Persuasive Power of Storytelling
by Daniel Riggs
The Lesson of Peter Venkman: An Introduction to Stories and Narratives
When discussing narratives and stories, an iconic film gives us an insight into their persuasive power: Ghostbusters. Towards the end of the film, the Ghostbusters (the protagonists) are in the NYC Mayor’s office pushing their solution to the paranormal bedlam and looming problem of Gozer, destroyer of worlds. Walter Peck of the EPA (one of the antagonists) is also present. He intends to scapegoat the Ghostbusters for his actions, namely releasing the contained ghosts that terrorize the city. Both are battling for the mayor’s approval. Peck is first up and provides an argument and accusation:
Walter Peck: “I'm prepared to make a full report. These men are consummate snowball artists! They use sensitive nerve gases to induce hallucinations. People think they're seeing ghosts! And they call these bozos, who conveniently show up to deal with the problem with a fake electronic light show!”
The Ghostbusters instead paint a powerful narrative that better illustrates the Gozer problem and the paranormal crisis in contrast to a blame game:
Peter: Well, you could believe Mr. Pecker…Or you could accept the fact that this
City is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.
Ray: What he means is Old Testament biblical, Mr. Mayor. Real wrath-of-God-type stuff.
Fire and brimstone coming from the sky! Rivers and seas boiling!
Egon: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes! Volcanoes!
Winston: The dead rising from the grave!
Peter: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!
Mayor: Enough! I get the point! What if you're wrong?
Peter brilliantly drives home their persuasive pitch:
Peter: If I'm wrong, nothing happens! We go to jail. Peacefully, quietly. We'll
enjoy it! But if I'm right, and we can stop this thing; Lenny, you will have saved
the lives of millions of registered voters.
Peter shrewdly paints a persuading and illuminating story, not a rational argument. This story casts the mayor (not the Ghostbusters) as the hero of New York. Peter has given the mayor the chance to live out a protagonist archetype in an existential threat, not rationally weigh costs and benefits. In contrast, Walter Peck believes rationality, bureaucracy, and processes have the power for meaningful behavior change. But the mayor, like any human, does not want rationality. He wants a persuasive narrative and story that satisfies his human desires and dreams, a universal impulse.
Currently, US Army Psychological Operations (PSYOP) doctrine wants its Psychological Operations personnel (PSYOPers) to be like Walter Peck and use rational arguments as the central means to facilitate behavior change. It states, “the main argument is the reason that the Target Audience (TA) should engage in the desired behavior” and “the general format for this main argument is engaging in X (desired behavior) will result in Y (desirable outcomes for the TA)” (Department of the Army [DA], 2007, 2-90).” Unfortunately, this tactic is reductive and coarsely transactional.
Operationally, this philosophy of behavior change, along with other factors (Mayazadeh and Riggs, 2021), has failed the Department of Defense (DOD) in the Information Environment (IE) over the past few decades. The following will argue (ironically enough) narratives and stories are more persuasive in altering behavior than logical arguments. After an initial definition of critical terms, the following will detail the evolutionary, biological, and epistemological reasons why narratives and stories are persuasively superior and why arguments fail at the individual level and in the “marketplace of ideas.”
The first term requiring definition is behavior. Generally understood, behavior is “a form of conduct towards others and responses to any external stimulation, the “mechanistic function of a thing,” a kind of “alignment with societal norms and mores,” or the actions of someone or something in a particular situation as a response to exogenous stimuli (Meriam Webster, Cambridge, Dictionary.com). For this essay, the PSYOP field definition fits: “overt actions exhibited by individuals” (DA, 2007, 2-9). This definition’s strength refers to a shift in the overt and observable actions of individuals and not whether it is a contextual and temporal violation of societal norms/mores. Therefore, it provides an understanding of behavior that is more objective than subjective norms.
Narrative and Stories
Central to this discussion are narrative and story. Narratives often appear as a buzzword in contemporary discourse with a subsequent requirement to “frame it” or “seize it.” The Assessing Revolutionary and Insurgent Strategies (ARIS) Project does an excellent job in providing substance to the definition of narrative: “stories/accounts of events, experiences, whether true or fictitious” (Agan, et al., 2016, 8). The online service Master Class provides an equally illuminating definition, with notable storytelling luminaries such as Neil Gaiman, David Sedaris, Margaret Atwood, and David Baldachi providing this definition: “a way of presenting connected events in order to tell a good story” (MasterClass, 2021). One can discern from these two definitions (from two credible sources) that narratives are the framing devices and techniques that yield different interpretations of stories.
This current emphasis on narratives started with Post-modern philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michael Foucault. They were some of the first to view narratives not just as hermetically sealed, objective items. They are culturally dependent, constructed, and critical in understanding social dynamics, beliefs, and phenomena (Agan et al., 2016, 5). Post-modern insights inspired literary historians and theorists to view and study narratives as a dynamic and analytical tool to understand people, their beliefs, their environment, and their behavior in it (Zweibelson, 2011).
Military intellectual spheres have since acknowledged the power and importance of narrative and have started inserting this language into doctrine. Doctrinal Guidance instructs staff planners to “coordinate and synchronize narratives” (Department of Defense [DOD], EXEC SUMM-18) and “provide a coherent narrative to bridge the present to the future” (DOD, I-3), which will provide a more precise focus for the commander (DOD, III-46). Unfortunately, narratives are not as easy to divine as a tangible adversary capability. Narratives are transitory, adjusted, or steered beyond the direct control of an organization or society and shaped by heterarchical and hierarchical entities in a participatory/iterative fashion (Zweibelson, 2011). They subsequently establish particular and often enduring messages (Zweibelson, 2011) that shape the world. They are not empty stories.
But understanding and utilizing narratives requires PSYOPers to understand stories, which are the frame for narratives. Just as a great painter must have expert dexterity, spatial awareness, and a sense of geometry in addition to fluid dexterity, fashioning narratives requires knowledge of storytelling. To some, this might appear to be a chic trend, but the importance of stories cannot be understated. Like narratives, stories shape an internal sense of self, the cultures and societies humans belong to, and the knowledge that allows humans to act within the world (Agan, et al., 2016, 1). Stories are how people want to receive information. Before Athenians were listening to the rigorous logic of Socrates in the Agora, humans were consuming stories as the basis for belief (and subsequent behavior) and coding this preference into the species’ DNA.
Evolution and Stories
A species’ continuation is contingent on adjusting to the changing order of its given environment. Humans will undergo physical changes and develop heuristics to create advantages to increase survivability. A species outward changes (e.g., a hedgehog beginning to develop quills 24 million years ago and emerging as a porcupine) are easy to spot. Still, the evolved mental heuristics due to environmental requirements are just as important. Stories and storytelling are one of these valuable evolutionary heuristics because they increase survivability. As it is evolutionarily beneficial, it thus has no geographic boundary.
Storytelling is universal. It occurs in every culture and from every age (National Geographic-Storytelling and Cultural Tradition). Cave drawings from 30,000 years ago depicting animals, humans, and other objects represented visual stories (National Geographic-Storytelling). These drawings were not just an aesthetic impulse for early man but a conceptual means to understand an environment undoubtedly considered chaotic and dangerous. Stories (including cave drawings) were a means to allow one to feel in control and make sense of the events in the random world (National Geographic-Storytelling) and even find recurrent formulas and patterns to traverse the chaos. When humans receive new knowledge (or a revelation), the static data can become dynamic intelligence that increases survivability or potential to thrive. Stories pieced together represent efficacious and crucial data that assists in formulating a better picture that might enhance survival. A story can result in a far more satisfactory sense of certainty than the previously unknown (Guzman, et al., 2013, 1186). Repeated over time, this has created a natural preference for humans.
The Agta Tribe of the Philippines, a hunter-gatherer community structured similarly to early pre-modern man, has helped corroborate this hypothesis. A 2017 study shows how a pre-modern hunter-gather community, in this case, the Agta, benefits from storytelling (Smith, D., Schlaepfer, P., Major, K. et al., 2017). The researchers conclude that storytelling may have played an essential role in the evolution of human cooperation by broadcasting social and cooperative norms to coordinate group behavior (Smith, D., Schlaepfer, P., Major, K. et al., 2017). Stories would “silence egos and perform the adaptive function of organizing cooperation in hunter-gatherers” (Smith, D., Schlaepfer, P., Major, K. et al., 2017). In contrast to philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes speculated pre-modern society as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” and a “constant war of every man against every man.” However, finding a means to cooperate was the norm not the exception. Stories helped facilitate survival.
Sexual opportunities are also numerous for an expert storyteller and their ability to engender cooperation. Due to their value, skilled storytellers were (and are) picked more as mates and are more likely to reproduce” (Smith, D., Schlaepfer, P., Major, K. et al., 2017). Without too much explanation, it should be obvious why this would be an incentive.
Biological Rewards of Storytelling
The evolutionary advantages of storytelling had a natural and logical impact on human biology. To continue to value stories as a means of survival, humans evolved to receive certain stimuli from storytelling. Captivating stories provide not just a pleasurable means of escape but chemical rewards for receptive audience members.
The neurotransmitter dopamine plays a crucial role in how we feel pleasure and assists one’s ability to think, plan, strive, and receive inspiration (“Dopamine”). It also aids in memory and processing information to help humans to break down complexities, explore big themes and questions through a narrow lens that stories provide (Padre, 2018). One key finding concludes compelling storytelling releases dopamine for listeners (Padre, 2018). Memorable and captivating stories activate multiple parts of the brain leading to increased information (e.g., facts, figures, and events) retention, which correlates to an increased capacity for behavior change (Padre, 2018). A story is not just fun but a chemically attractive way to receive information, unlike arguments.
The brain also releases oxytocin in the presence of an impactful story (Padre, 2018). Oxytocin, the hormone typically associated with pregnant and nursing mothers (DeAngelis, 2008), plays a substantial role in social affiliation and bonding overall. Studies from Nature (Kosfeld, M., Heinrichs, M., Zak, P. et al., 2005, 675) and PLoS ONE (Zak PJ, Stanton AA, and S. Ahmadi, 2007) had shown the introduction of oxytocin increased generosity in social experiments.
The release of oxytocin during storytelling means participants are far more likely to be receptive to the lines of persuasion in the story. Instead of having a defense up, the release of oxytocin via stories helps to modulate anxiety (Guzman, et al., 2013, 1186), which is one of the primary evolutionary reasons why stories developed the importance that they did.
The Dynamic of the Story
Stories, by their nature, are also far more accessible due to their reduced threat to the listener. Storytelling is a collaborative, non-hierarchical process involving the learners as active agents in the learning process rather than passive recipients (Padre, 2018). In contrast, when presented with an argument, the immediate response is defense. An argument is a formal and direct challenge to someone’s beliefs, which many regards as the means for daily survival. By their nature, arguments attempts to overturn beliefs. A natural (read evolutionary) defense arises to counter an argument (“Immersed,” 2018). Depending on one’s commitment to a given belief, an argument becomes an existential threat or an obstinacy to daily living.
Stories circumvent these evolutionary instincts and stealthily challenge entrenched views without listeners knowing it via “narrative transportation” (Mitra, 2017). According to Dr. Melanie Green, “narrative transportation is the experience people have when they become so engaged in a story that the real world just falls away and results in a suspension of disbelief or reduction of counter arguing (“Immersed,” 2018). A new (but analogous) setting serves as an accessible and safe proving ground for new ideas. Relatable characters and analogous situations can further enhance this suspension of disbelief as the listener/viewer has something to empathize with (“Immersed,” 2018). These practical elements of stories reflect the phenomenon of isopraxism. Isopraxism is an animal neurobehavioral (humans included) that involves mirroring speech patterns, vocabulary, tone, tempo, etc., that helps build rapport (Voss, 2017, 35). It is fair to assume that mirroring comparable experiences via story elicits this reaction and allows defenses to drop. After all, humans fear what is different and chose what is similar for survival (Voss, 2017, 36).
The original Star Wars trilogy, for instance, has this power. When the viewers first see Luke, they see someone longing for something more and looking to the stars for adventure and self-actualization. Luke’s situation mimics a very human feeling of feeling trapped by our environments, localities, and family commitments and wanting more. The subsequent hero’s journey, which goes back millennia, is also familiar. Even though viewers see far off Tattonie, they feel they are there because it grabs at universal impulses and reflects standard and successful aesthetic scaffolding. Star Wars generates narrative transportation, focuses the audience’s attention, elicits strong and emotional reactions and generates vivid mental images (“Immersed,” 2018). The viewer is not just passively viewing images. The transported participant maintains story-consistent beliefs even after exiting the experience (“Immersed,” 2018). They are inspired and ready to act. Maybe that action is a behavior change not considered before the story.
For US Army PSYOP, the “so-what” is that narrative transportation through story is more likely to show attitude and belief change (“Immersed,” 2018) leading to behavior change. Arguments do not get to behavior change, but stories will. There might be something uncomfortable with the thought that humans are irrational and require stories. However, modern behavioral science backs up this pre-modern pedagogy and forces us to come to terms with human fallibility.
The Faulty Apollonian: Bias of the Argument
Since Socrates, there seems to be the belief in the West that man is a rational animal. Concurrent with physical maturation, a human’s developing brain increases its capacity for rational thought to figure out problems in the world as they grow into adults. In the 20th century, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg helped buttress this belief through his theory of moral development. Kohlberg’s research contends that ethical behavior is contingent on moral reasoning (Kohlberg & Hersch, 1977, 54). Kohlberg’s process follows a linear and six-stage path as children reason their way to notions of justice (Kohlberg & Hersch, 1977, 56). Kohlberg’s work posits that even at the earliest stage, rationality is humanity’s epistemological default.
Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 The Righteous Mind challenged this hypothesis. Haidt theorizes beliefs (which pre-figure behavior) come through intuition and that reason is merely post hoc justification for the driving emotions (Haidt, 2012, CH 3-3:37). Logic and formal rationalism to establishing truth are not universal, and Haidt sees three models of choice, not just one (Haidt, 2012, CH 3-3:35):
- David Hume: Passions Rule, and Reasoning Comes Second.
- Plato: Reason Could and Should Rule (i.e., rationalist model).
- Thomas Jefferson: The Passion and Reason are “co-emperors.”
Echoing David Hume, Haidt argues that the rationalist model are decidedly exaggerated or non-existent for most people (Haidt, 2012, CH 5-34:27). Most of us are irrational. Kohlberg and other rationalists fail to understand that their epistemology and ethics is Western and in the minority. They are WEIRD: Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic.
Someone like Kohlberg and many other rationalists hail from countries that are consistent psychological outliers compared to 85% of the world’s population (Talhelm, 2015). They explain behavior and categorize objects analytically (Talhelm, 2015). In contrast, most majority of people think more intuitively—what psychologists call “holistic thought” (Talhelm, 2015). Argumentation and reason are not going to cut it. Even critical words in the language are deeply established and entrenched to have a specific meaning (Haidt, 2012, CH-3 14:24). When it comes to understanding behavior, rationalists are, in a sense playing tennis against a backboard on a hard court while everyone else is playing tennis with an actual opponent on clay (i.e., thinking holistically).
The doctrine for Military Planners and PSYOPers reflects the rationalist and analytical model for behavior and action. It is no wonder that WEIRD-inspired philosophy cannot to work in much of the world because it lacks self-reflection and fails to illuminate. The rationalist approach reflects the biases of planners and fails to empathize with target audiences.
The subsequent failure of this approach can be explained away via a type of updated false consciousness echoing Thomas Franks What’s the Matter with Kansas. Franks argues that the 2004 defeat of John Kerry was due to the population failing to understand the benefits of the Democratic Party. Similar thinking allows planners to fall back to faulty processes and merely blame the audiences. With humanity’s propensity for following intuition and irrational impulses, it is evident that logic and reason will always be second best.
The Unsecure Marketplace of Ideas
The micro failure to understand most individual’s decision-making processes (i.e., through emotions, intuition, and stories) extends to the macro level in PSYOP doctrine. One of the faulty propositions in PSYOP doctrine is that the most persuasive arguments emerge due to their logical strength and ability to appeal to rational needs and wants (DOD, 2007, 2-90 to 2-93). A target audience will receive a series of arguments and rationally select the best one with some vulnerabilities targeted. Subsequently, the desired behavior reflects a rational choice by the target audience.
The “marketplace of ideas” metaphor informs this doctrinal rationale, which states that rational consumers will carefully weigh the relative quality of products/ideas, like in a market economy (Gordon, J., 235, 1997). In the analogous “marketplace of ideas,” the most rational and just products (i.e., ideas) stick around, and mediocre ones fall to the wayside. The marketplace of ideas is self-regulating and minimizes subversion. However, if Haidt’s work is the most robust explanation for how people come to their beliefs, the marketplace of ideas (based on a classical behaviorist model) cannot remain sacrosanct.
Public Intellectual Curtis Yarvin details how this occurs. In the marketplace of ideas, no one is theoretically in charge. In theory, it is self-regulating and secure like blockchain (Quiones, P, 2020, 27:30). However, various means can manipulate it. These include (1) deliberate coercion (i.e., a specific message will be heard or silenced), (2) positive measures (i.e., the state or other power subsidize favorable influence entities), and (3) the state leakage of information (Quiones, P., 2020, 31:15). Truth and rational arguments have currency, but the marketplace favors stories. An argument typically does not have the evolutionary staying power of narratives that provide dopamine and oxytocin.
What succeeds in the marketplace of ideas are narratives and stories that satisfy physical desires to receive the natural chemical enhancement. Compelling stories and narratives in the marketplace of ideas do not necessarily say how X solves Y. For instance, how does it logically follow that (X) I support the Democratic Party because (Y) Black Lives Matter (Quiones, P., 2020, 42:45)? Dominant narratives and stories are often non-sequiturs, not arguments, which satiate human desires and inflate the egos of target audiences. Those forming winning narratives and stories do not expect the target audience to be informed King Solomons.
However, the audience of these successful narratives does feel kingly. There is a beneficial power exchange between the successful narratives and stories in the marketplace of ideas and the audience (Quiones, P, 2020, 41:30). Successful narratives and stories in the marketplace of ideas reward its followers with a feeling of power which people invariably enjoy and subsequently want to receive more of (Quiones, P., 2020, 38:30). Returning to the evolutionary point, humanity’s cave ancestors wanted to feel as they were in control of a chaotic world. With COVID and many other displacing phenomena, it can feel just as irritating and messy. If someone can receive a sense of power (and do so while passive), they will elect to do this every time. If an idea is going to flourish in the marketplace of ideas, it requires (1) the target audience to feel important and (2) serve the power structure (Quiones, P. 2020, 43:35). It does not require rationality.
Let us take an American example, the 2017 Parkland Tragedy. Someone reads about the 17 innocent people who died that day. If it is from the New York Times or CNN, it provides a left-of-center interpretation. If it is Fox News or the Wall Street Journal, it provides a right-of-center interpretation. These outlets offer narratives and stories to excite the reader’s emotions and make them feel like they matter (Quiones, P., 2020, 43:55). When one reads the left side, a reader feels energized to post on social media calling for strict gun control and providing a romantic story of the civilized European Countries. On the right, one reads accounts of past totalitarians who seized private firearms and prophesized a future big brother. A rational look at first principles to include personal security or security production is far from the list of priorities in modern discourse.
The powerful stories online are not just passive consumption of information but enable the reader to feel as if they are digitally marching on Selma. Again, how exactly does (X) gun rights or gun control solve the (Y) issue of school violence? It does not require a rational response because storytellers have accomplished the narrative's intent. The audience feels powerful. Reason would say these responses are non-sequiturs, but it does not matter. In the summer of 2020, plenty felt pedaling their Peloton contributed to Black Lives Matter (Quiones, P. 2020, 45:25) because the story of fighting for civil rights could be satisfied with oxytocin and dopamine received along with every burned calorie on a bike seat.
Moving Forward with Stories
If PSYOPers are to be successful, they need to reexamine the first principles in doctrine. If it is true that the US Military is inherently WEIRD, it ought to recognize it and adjust accordingly. Future publications should look to the lessons of Joseph Campbell, not just Clausewitz, to understanding how to understand what motivates people. The insights from a Campbell type might reveal cultural considerations, tensions, vulnerabilities, and opportunities to accomplish strategic goals. This essay is not a call for increased budgets and the newest tech but challenges PSYOPers to travel to the past and access the right side of the brain cognition to develop holistic doctrine.
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 The images of Biblical destruction also target the mayor’s likely vulnerabilities as a Christian. It is probably not a coincidence the mayor has New York City’s Catholic Cardinal in his Crisis Room as an advisor and looks to him for the final say.
 Ludwig von Mises understanding of human action (in the aptly named Human Action) via praxeology might be instructive for PSYOPers: “Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego's meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person's conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life.”
 One issue in the doctrine requiring further research and elucidation is narrative. Narratives are not as well-articulated and defined as they should be, nor is there is a defined means for developing, identifying, or countering narratives.
 Imagine the cost of a small battle with an opposing tribe a few millennia ago. Even in victory, a simple cut might be enough for infection and subsequent death. Would you not want to exhaust every possible option before tribes charge into battle?
 See Jill Gordon’s “John Stuart Mill and the ‘Marketplace of Ideas” in Social Theory and Practice Vol. 23, No. 2 for a further explanation of how this metaphor was ascribed to Mills though it doesn’t reflect his opinions on how to protect free speech.
 A critical concern for state entities is how the fifth estate will narrate their actions. At this point, the state is leaking influence (Quiones, P., 2020, 35:30). This dynamic mimics the relationship between tiger Richard Parker and Pi Patel on their survival raft in Life of Pi: Pi has to find fish for the tiger or become lunch.
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John, thank you so much…
thank you so much for reading and commenting. Please share it with friends. At the very least the ghostbusters intro is fun.
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Really enjoyed your article. I often refer to the need for 'vision based selling' when encouraging/influencing change. Thought nests perfectly with your points. JMG