WPC Research
“Leaders need to be able to communicate a vision in a way that creates change. Personal narratives can make a case for change.”
Ned Wellman, Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship typography
“Leaders need to be able to communicate a vision in a way that creates change. Personal narratives can make a case for change.”

Personal stories inspire greater giving


ourth-generation almond grower James Duncan is worried about the future of his farm in Red Lake Valley, Arizona.

“I take pride in my work and have been a farmer for over 20 years. But we farm on the margin already. I’m not sure how much more we can take,” Duncan says of the megadrought that has plagued the Southwest and is expected to worsen, bringing with it water rationing, the proposed elimination of generational water rights, and rising water costs. “This farm is my life. Losing it would be like losing a part of my family.”

Duncan is fictitious, though his situation is not. His story — and the way it is told — was the focus of an interdisciplinary study between W. P. Carey Associate Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship Ned Wellman and Emeritus Professor of Information Systems Ajay Vinze, as well as ASU’s Erik Johnston at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and Elizabeth Segal at the School of Social Work.

They wanted to know if personalized accounts, instead of “just the facts” news stories, led to greater empathy in readers and, subsequently, greater willingness to act on behalf of a social cause. The specific social problem they tackled was drought, using the above-personalized narrative and another, non-personalized version of the same topic.

Three kinds of empathy

“We thought the experience of empathy was a mechanism through which we could unlock prosocial behavior,” says Wellman, pointing out the three types of empathy they studied: cognitive (the act of putting oneself in another’s shoes), affective (the ability to mirror the feelings of others), and associative (identifying with the person in the story).

The 249 college undergraduates from a non-drought state were randomly assigned one of the stories to read, then completed a survey indicating the extent to which they felt the three forms of empathy for people affected by drought. They were also asked if they would be willing to donate personal money to this cause.

“The personalized story increased two out of the three forms of empathy — cognitive and affective,” Wellman says. “The affective form is also positively related to the intention to donate. So, when people felt more empathetic, they were more likely to say, ‘I’ll donate some of my money to people in Arizona I have never met, to a cause that doesn’t impact me directly.’ ”

The power of one

It turns out if you want to motivate people to act, in relation to drought or other social problems, a story about one person is more effective than speaking more broadly about big-picture ideas such as drought statistics, plans to mitigate water shortages, and general impacts on groups of farmers.

“This surprised me,” Wellman says. “Because I think like a scientist, I generally communicate in terms of the big picture — ‘Here are the general trends in data, here’s what we found.’ Leaders often communicate in the same overarching way, but it’s a less effective technique to engender action.”

That story of one, however, must address key touchpoints. In Wellman’s research, the narrative was specifically designed to include an identifiable farmer or individual, direct quotes about his or her experience with the issue, and direct quotes about the farmer’s economic and personal suffering.

Application to leadership, the world

“As a society, we’re facing lots of big social problems,” says Wellman, citing not only drought but also COVID-19, climate change, and political division — issues that require people working together for the good of the whole. “How can we communicate in a way that will motivate and inspire people to want to take collective action?”

Personalized stories are one clear path forward. “Leaders need to be able to communicate a vision in a way that creates change. Personal narratives can make a case for change.”

— Melissa Crytzer Fry