Making social change is tough business.

Social change is rooted in altering the structures of a social group or society. It happens when individuals or groups choose to go against social norms.

But by our very nature, people gravitate towards those norms, which makes our role as change makers ever more challenging.

This isn’t a newsflash for those of us working at the intersection of social change and technology. But it does underscore that we must work strategically – understanding the very tenets of human psychology and biology – that spur people to act and go against the current.

This is exactly why I co-wrote an ebook on the emerging science of behavioral economics and why it matters for the causes we believe in.  A reaction to “rationality”— the concept that people use logic and reason to make the best choices for themselves — behavioral economics identifies social, cognitive and emotional factors that influence decisions. If you missed it, you can check out the ebook here along with 10 principles I hope you can apply to your work.

Further, I recently watched a fabulous TED Talk by marketing guru Simon Sinek. In his presentation, he dissects a biological model for why certain individuals, companies and organizations have truly inspired people to join them against the current.

He calls his framework the golden circle.


At the outer edge of the circle is “What.”

These are specifics about what we do – features, benefits, facts and figures.

(For my organization Sea Change Strategies, we might say: We build, transform and integrate online marketing, communications and fundraising strategies for non-profit organizations).

Then comes “How.“

This is how we do what we do.

(Sea Change – We are a multi-disciplinary company that works across organizational silos to do research, develop strategy and execute cohesive online campaigns).

In the center comes “Why.”

Sinek proposes that very few people or organizations know why they do what they do, or they fail to communicate it.  And by why he means what is your purpose, your cause, your belief…

(Sea Change – We grew up believing that working to change the world is an imperative, not an option.)

The way most people think, act and communicate often goes from the outside of the circle in. But leaders who inspire people do so because of why they do something, not what they do.

Further, if you talk about what you believe, you will attract people who believe what you believe.

So where does the biology come in?

Sinek goes on to describe two major components of the human brain that correlate with the circle.

The first section is the neo cortex. It is responsible for our rational and analytical thought. It corresponds to the “what” section of the circle.

Corresponding to the “how” and “why” sections is the limbic brain, which is responsible for all of our feelings like trust and loyalty. The limbic brain is responsible for human behavior and decision-making (which ties into behavioral economics and why we don’t act rationally).

Sinek argues that when we communicate from the outside in people can understand vast amounts of information like statistics, features and benefits, but because of the make up of our brains that information doesn’t drive behavior. That’s what we do, not why we do it.

When we communicate from the inside out we are connecting directly to the part of the brain that controls behavior. First, you must inspire by why you are doing something, and then you give people tangible facts to rationalize their behavior.

In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath refer to this framework as the elephant and the rider. The elephant is the limbic brain. The tiny rider atop the elephant is the neo cortex.

While the rider might seem to have the control, she can easily be overpowered by the elephant and often is. But like Sinek, the Heath brothers argue that when we want to change things, we have to appeal to both – first, spurring the elephant, and then quickly telling the rider what you need her to do.

Many organizations are afraid to do what it takes to tap into the limbic brain, or spur the elephant. They worry about appearing less intellectual, less effective or overly dramatic.

But the reality is that the human brain is literally of two minds: Both sides compete for control, and the rational side usually doesn’t win.

So the next time you are crafting your message, hoping to inspire people to swim against the current with you, think about Sinek. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. A 12-point plan won’t inspire anybody. A dream will.