The story of a threat

Continuing my exploration of narratives that catalyze coherence, I would be remiss to not talk about the story of a threat.

The story of a threat is easily the most innately felt story. When compared to the story of an opportunity, it seems to be more visceral, primitive, and instinctive. It is also a prediction of compounding returns, but this time, the returns are negative. The story of a threat also conveys a vivid mental model of a compounding loop, but the gradient of the curve is pointing toward doom at an alarming rate. Living in 2021, I don’t need to go too far for an example here: the all-too-familiar waves of COVID-19 death rates are etched in our collective consciousness. Just like with the story of an opportunity, there’s something  valuable that we have and the story predicts that we’re about to lose it all.

Structurally, the story of a threat usually begins with depiction of the vital present (the glorious “now”), emphasizing the significance of how everything is just so right now. It then proceeds to point out a yet-hidden catastrophe that is about to befall us. The reveal of the catastrophe must be startling and deeply disconcerting: the story of a threat does not seem to work as effectively with “blah-tastrophes.” Being able to “scare the pants off” the listener is the aim of the story.

A curious property of the story of a threat is that it is a half-story. It only paints the picture of the terrible future in which we’ll definitely be engulfed. Unlike with the story of an opportunity, there is less agency. Something bad is happening to us, and we gotta jump or perish. In that sense, the story of a threat is reactive — contrasted with the proactive thrust of the story of an opportunity. Being reactive, it propels the listener toward some action, leaving out the specifics of the action.

This half-storiness is something that is frequently taken advantage of in politics. Once the listener is good and ready, sufficiently distraught by the prospect of the impending disaster, any crisp proposal for action would do. We must do something, right? Why not that?

The story of a threat is a brute force to be reckoned with, and is extremely challenging to contain. Such stories can briefly catalyze coherence. But unless quickly and deliberately converted to the story of an opportunity, they tend to backfire. Especially in organizations where employees can just leave for another team, the story of a threat is rarely a source of enduring coherence. More often than not, it’s something to be wary of for organizational leaders. If they themselves are subject to the story of a threat, chances are they are undermining the coherence of their organization.

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