Narrative Change

Human beings are processing enormous amounts of information at any one time, and invariably, can’t make sense of all of it. To get by, we use heuristics (e.g., rule of thumbs) and narratives.

Nar • ra • ​tive   [ner-ə-tiv]   noun
A collection or system of related stories that are articulated and refined over time to represent a central idea or belief.

Narratives come from innumerable sources and influences. Some are deeply ingrained in us by our media consumption; others emerge from our lived experience.

As Ai Jen Poo and Eldar Shafir argue in an “Ideas Brief” from the U.S. Partnership on Mobility, some of the strongest held narratives in the U.S. are those about poverty.

Why focus on narratives? Narratives are powerful. They drive public imagination and attitudes towards people who live in poverty. Because narratives are a lens through which we view and judge the world, narratives also shape how we interact with the world: what positions we take on policy, how we vote, and how we treat other people in our communities. False narratives are also harmful. Policy and programs are less effective at addressing poverty when they are based on false narratives. But this also presents an opportunity: changing false poverty narratives has the potential to shift support for effective social policies and programs that actually address poverty’s root causes.

Harmful Narratives Harm People

  • They misguide policy and work requirements for benefits

  • They bias public servants and human service providers

  • They drive the false belief that poverty is caused by individual fault

Many types of organizations and disciplines are working to shift harmful narratives about poverty. With a deep understanding of human behavior and an experimental toolkit, behavioral science as a field is uniquely positioned to design new innovation approaches to narrative change. Our narrative change work aims to partner with community-based organizations in three U.S. cities to shift local narratives through behaviorally informed designs. We also seek to create tools to help measure the success of our narrative change efforts and potentially others, helping to advance the narrative change field. Centering the voices of people who live in these communities, our ultimate goal will be to ensure that policies and practices that aim to address poverty are based on science and the lived experience of people living in poverty, and not harmful false narratives.


Our narrative change work aims to collaborate with local communities to reimagine narratives about poverty and instill those narratives into effective social policy and program design.

We envision a U.S. where a shared, evidence-based narrative of poverty removes inequities that prevent all people from leading fulfilled lives of their own definition.

How will we do this?

Measure narrative change. We will partner closely with academics and narrative change experts to define the ways narrative change is measured, including appropriate metrics and frequency of measurement. Approaches may include quantitative methods, such as survey data, as well as qualitative methods, such as focus groups with community members, and the creation of novel tools.
Cultivate deep community partnerships. We recognize that we cannot do narrative change work alone, and we will need to engage with our target communities more deeply. We will partner with community-based organizations in New York City, Washington D.C., and San Francisco to leverage the tacit knowledge embedded in communities.
Uncover narratives and pathways to change. Working closely with community members, we will unearth narratives that influence attitudes and beliefs about social policy. We aim to understand:
  • What are current community narratives about poverty?
  • What are the existing community assets? Who are the potential messengers of (e.g., community leaders or other influencers) and channels for (e.g., radio, social media, etc.) narrative change?
  • What may be existing barriers to change in narratives?
Design and implement narrative change intervention(s). Building on the data we gather, we will work closely with our academic and community partners to design interventions tailored for each of our target cities and the narratives we find in them. Interventions might include: social media campaigns; deep canvassing; public art; film, video, or audio narratives; etc. As we implement these interventions, we will monitor and evaluate our success using the metrics identified earlier in the project. Broadly, we hope to see residents’ perception of people living in poverty shift to incorporate an understanding of the role of context, and for those experiencing poverty to feel greater dignity in their communities and when they interact with human service providers. Presuming that we achieve those shifts, we’d also expect to see improving attitudes toward social welfare programs and concomitant support for policy change.
Why behavioral science
  • Using our experience in quantitative and qualitative research, we can investigate how narratives about poverty come to exist and are shaped in local and national contexts.
  • Using our proclivity for smart design and iteration, we can design different narrative change solutions- replace deleterious narratives with those informed by the concept of scarcity.
  • Using our deep behavioral science knowledge and process, we can explore the ways behavioral principles, including identity, availability bias, framing, and confirmation bias, play a role in shaping, reinforcing, and potentially shifting narratives.
  • Using our experience running rigorous evaluations and defining and measuring success, we can test diverse solutions to evaluate what works and what doesn’t. We can play a role in defining what outcomes matter, and which will lead to the behaviors we want to see to reduce poverty--better policies, better program design, more informed residents.