One of the masses

Yes, this is a post about adoption. It’ll just take a while to get there.

I’ve been reading this book called Made to Stick: Why some ideas survive and others die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. It’s basically a marketing book. You might be wondering why I’m reading a marketing book. Partly because Mr. HM is in this general field, and partly because I ramble on and on to him about how much the adoption profession/industry is about marketing.

Made to Stick outlines some of the basic requirements for a "sticky" idea – wittily formed into the acronym SUCCESS. I get to chapter 5, "Emotional" and the authors begin by introducing the Mother Teresa Effect. The  Mother Teresa Effect is a concept based on the late nun’s quote, "If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will."

In 2004, Carnegie Mellon University** conducted an experiment to see if this quote held true in real life. They gave participants five $1 bills to participate in a fictional survey, then presented half of the participants with a fact sheet about starving children in Africa along with an envelope for a donation. The other half of the participants received the same envelope, but instead of a fact sheet, they were given a photo of a young girl named Rokia and a paragraph about how her life would benefit from the participant’s donation.

As you might expect, those with the picture of Rokia gave more than twice as much as those with just the fact sheet.

The researchers tried the experiment again, this time giving one group the fact sheet and the story about Rokia and the other group just the story about Rokia. Again, those with just the story of Rokia donated more than the group with both the story and the facts.

According to the authors of Made to Stick, "once we put on our analytical hat, we react to emotional appeals differently. We hinder our ability to feel" (p. 167).

This got the hamster in my brain working the wheel overtime.

Maybe this is one of the reasons why emotional stories about adoptees garner so much attention while fact-based articles are often overlooked. I know, people’s eyes tend to glaze over when a bunch of statistics are thrown into an article. Even if they believe in the story.

What surprised me is that having both facts and personal story together did not inspire people to act the same way the personal story alone did. Why is this? Are people so willing to connect purely on an emotional level that to receive information with a story makes someone less apt to act? If so, then this concerns me.

According to the authors, it isn’t difficult to get people to connect with your story – you get them to link your concept with emotions they already know. If you do this often enough, the concept immediately brings the expected emotional response. The authors of Made to Stick wrote:

"When associations to certain terms are drawn repeatedly . . . the effect is to dilute the power of the terms and their underlying concepts. [T]his process – exploiting terms and concepts for their emotional associations – is a common characteristic of communication. People tend to overuse any idea or concept that delivers an emotional kick. The research labeled this overuse ‘semantic stretch‘" (p. 173).

Certain adoption concepts definitely fall into the overused, "semantic stretch" language category. It explains why all these stories by the New York Times and others fall so often into the same framework and tell the same story. For example, just Google "adoption" and "miracle" and see how many hits you come up with.

I began by talking about Mother Teresa and her quote, "If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will." Mother Teresa is, of course, a "semantic stretch." By invoking the emotional response to who Mother Teresa is and what she stands for, people are probably more likely to follow her advice and act on "the one." This is a frame that is repeated often. Remember the story of the child who runs along the beach and throws a starfish into the sea? His parent tells him, "You can’t save every starfish that’s washed up on the beach" and the child responds, "Yeah, but I can make a difference in the life of this one."

This is why people respond to the New York Times articles about transracial/transnational adoption featuring hopeful/optimistic/loving adoptive parents and snuggling/smiling/grateful adopted children. It’s easier to relate to a personal story about how a person adopted a child from China, and seems hopeless to read an article about China’s struggle to deal with the overflow of children in orphanages.

This concept is also used to personalize stories about adoption fraud or unethical practices. Interviewing teary adoptive parents gives more immediacy to the fraud story than just a story about an agency that took their money and ran. And if the paper is able to take a photograph of their intended child, in raggedy and dusty clothings with a tear streaming down a dirty cheek in some orphanage courtyard someplace – then letters to congresspeople and e-mail campaigns are begun and laws are changed or made.

Names are always more persuasive than numbers.

For transracial adoptees, maybe this is a challenge for us. How do we somehow present the adult transracial adoptee’s point of view in a way that can get people to change their emotional attachment to overused, "sematic stretch" language – and not just understand, but emotionally connect – with our stories? And how do we find venues where 0ur stories can be told? As I’ve mentioned, one of my biggest critiques about the media today is their emphasis on adoptive parent/young child/parent perspective. Our stories — adult adoptees — are written but rarely published.

For example, there are three adult Korean Adoptee memoirs that have been published by traditional publishing houses. Last time I looked, there were over 20 memoirs written about the international adoption experience by adoptive parents.

As the authors of Made to Stick write, we need to "appeal to their self-interest, but we also [need to] appeal to their identities – not only to the people they are right now but also to the people they would like to be" (p.203).

We have a ways to go — somehow TRA "stories" get singled out as being "individual" while parent-driven stories are more generalized as shared experiences — but I am encouraged every time I see an article written by or about adult TRA’s.

We may not be able to reach all the adoptive parents/agencies out there, but we can and have made a difference in the life of some.

Small, D.A., Lowenstein, G. & Slovic, P. (2005). Can insight breed callousness? The impact of learning about the identifiable victim effect on sympathy. Working paper, University of Pennsylvania.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

6 thoughts

  1. Hey Jae Ran, great post. I also read “Made to Stick” recently and thought it was excellent. Have you checked out Robert Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” yet? It’s an oldie but goodie – I would definitely recommend it.
    I think it’s smart for us to look to marketing books like these to figure out how we can make our ideas about anti-racism “sticky” and “contagious.”

  2. I wonder how many adopted adults are in the publishing industry who can help shape decisions about what gets published and what doesn’t and how much of an effect that has had on what types of stories and books get published about adoption?

  3. I find this very interesting. The thing is I have been trying to find stories that relate to our experience–my daughter, husband and self. She was adopted from China at 25 months, with limb difference, a foster family, and from a minority group (most likely from appearance and location) that would not have been subject to the one child policy–good luck finding that. All the books are about babies, babies, babies and only girls (I have friends who adopted boys from China and people just don’t understand how). I am considering publishing my own book–I know another a-parent book, but one that will speak to more than the “typical” China adoption.
    It is so interesting because even within the adoption community there are divisions about how much weight should be given to past TRA stories–What??? I know every story is individual, but I feel that all are important and valuable in understanding and helping my child to cope in her future, how do I know how she will perceive being adopted to another country? I get angered when I see arguments over whose story it is to tell (the adoptive parent or the adoptive child), and harsh criticisms of TRA’s that seem bitter or are bitter for that matter, don’t they have a right? Of course some people are happy/content/angry/mixed/ etc on their life experiences, that is what makes them theirs.
    Anyway, I am off track with the subject at hand. I can tell you that I have seen the power of the picture and know all to well that if you don’t find the connection, emotion, sympathy, empathy, etc. you will not appeal to the masses or even the crowd. There are the individuals that have true interest and seek enlightenment and there are those who just follow the lights and glimmer.

  4. I think you make a lot of good points here and ask good questions. I think that just by blogging you are reaching a big audience (and probably largely the target audience) and are making a big difference. I know that I see changes in attitudes of parents that I talk to on private adoption IA message boards.
    It makes sense though that further positive change is going to require some calculation.

  5. What strikes me about the adoptive parent stories I’ve read, and not that many of them, is how alike they seem to be.
    That is the quantity of them hasn’t made a difference to me.
    Reading “The Language of Blood” had a much greater impact.

  6. I found Carmen’s comment very interesting because as I read your post, I too thought about anti-racism. Why experiences of racism are so often discounted as coming from whiny minorities who can’t get on with their lives, while the myth of a meritocracy lives on and on and on . . .

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