Post No.: 0463
We learn about the world through copying, through direct observation, through tuition or instruction (e.g. via teachers in school), and through stories.
A story – or basically a lesson wrapped within a narrative – takes less effort to remember compared to a block of formal tuition, thus stories tend to be more persuasive for our ‘system one’. This is for the better if a story is true or insightful, but for the worse if not.
Compared to a presentation of bullet-pointed facts or statistics, a narrative is closer to how we live our direct present experiences, remember the past or imagine the future. And we tend to believe in stories that sound plausible. The most impactful stories are those that involve a character that we can personally identify with, who is engaged in a struggle, and there’s an outcome. It can be a successful or unsuccessful outcome but we learn a causal relationship i.e. ‘if I were to do the same thing too in those circumstances then the same outcome would or could happen to me’.
For children, positive role models are more effective than negative role models – as in stories of characters being rewarded after being good are more persuasive than stories of characters being punished after being bad. Asking children to reflect on their own past good deeds (rather than good deeds in general) will also encourage them to continue to be good.
Fictional characters or real-life people who share an attribute with us (even sometimes something tenuous) and who succeed can really inspire us, such as a story about a person with a particular physical disability, who then succeeds in life despite all of the obstacles in his/her way, can make other people in a similar situation believe that they can succeed in a similar way too.
For those who aren’t in a similar situation, they can increase our empathy with the characters or any real-life people who are like those characters. If you want someone to do something for you then it may help to directly ask that person to see things from your perspective to boost their empathy for you. Novels, movies, plays and stories, likewise, help us to see things from the characters’ perspectives – so if they’re from a minority group, for instance, we may start to empathise more with people from that minority group if we watch more dramas where they play the lead characters. Hearing heart-wrenching stories about refugees helps children, and anyone else, to better empathise with them and their situations. With children, it’s important to discuss any kind of distressing fictional or real-life news stories with them after they’ve been exposed to them though, to help them to put them into perspective and feel empowered rather than helpless.
Good stories have themes, plots and characters that resonate with their readers and their lives. Some may criticise popular stories for always basically following the same plotlines of love, loss, revenge, coming of age, greed, companionship, etc. but these are more-or-less universal human themes, drives, fears and experiences. Any social, economic and political issues that are contemporaneous with current real-world events will resonate even more. A particular story may be fiction but it can still help us to confront real issues. The settings, time periods, places and even the creatures (especially if they’re anthropomorphised e.g. Goofy is more relatable for humans than Pluto is) don’t matter so much hence fantasy or science fiction settings can work well to invoke vicarious adventures and emotions too. (Human characters may be more relatable than anthropomorphised animal characters when it comes to teaching moral lessons though, unfortunately.)
Reading novels can reduce loneliness because readers connect with the characters, even though they’re just on paper. Reading a word like ‘jump’ can trigger the same neurons involved as if you’ve actually physically jumped! Stories can produce what’s called ‘assimilation’ too – an example of which here is increasing the belief that one can magically move objects after reading a Harry Potter book (not to be confused with HairyPawOtter, my groomer) compared to having not read such a book. Wingardium Leviosa!
If we want to change people’s attitudes or beliefs, both the head and heart need to be persuaded because some people favour one over the other or need both to firmly decide. Sharing stories, especially personal and emotive ones, help you to better connect with the hearts and minds of your audience and build trust. Stories give others insights into us and make individuals seem more human and authentic. They are far more powerful at persuasion than plain facts or statistics because they are the more human way to connect with humans since humans are more emotional than rational.
Stories play a huge part in winning over juries in court if they’re coherent, plausible, cover everything adequately and are specific and detailed enough, especially if they tap into the jurors’ values, experiences, opinions and biases – an example is a story to explain how a sample of blood may have been contaminated, and narrating through other counter-hypotheses to cast reasonable doubt upon the reliability of a piece of evidence during cross-examination. Stories can also make you more memorable and relatable in job interviews. Many people find quotes inspirational too – they help the audience relate with a subject on a deeper level and can therefore far more effectively motivate and inspire them.
…However, when trying to express facts – emotional or personal stories or quotes often become the news sound bites rather than the statistics or facts. It can be concerning that narratives, anecdotes, gossip, catchy quotes and the relative ease of processing these things often convince far more than statistics and cold hard data for many people, and they capture attention and are more memorable than plain facts or numbers. This can lead to effects like the ‘identifiable victim effect’, where people can end up caring more about a single person than thousands of people who are in the exact same predicament. (You can check out Post No.: 0437 to learn more about this effect.) That’s why it’s been said that ‘one death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic’ (and yep, this is a catchy quote so you’ll probably remember it better(!))
We hear many stories through our offline and online social networks, and we tend to believe in the narratives that we’re continually being surrounded by, which might in fact be an echo chamber. Our social networks are path dependent – they depend on what connections we had previously, including by extension the ones we were born with i.e. our parents and who they knew, where we were brought up in the world, and which schools we were put in, hence different people will have different social networks and will hear different (perhaps biased) stories or ways of understanding (or misunderstanding) the world.
So lots of people believing in something won’t necessarily make that something true or impartial because everyone involved may be falling for the same biases, such as stories that convey nationalistic pride. We often don’t use a randomised sample group to assess the prevalence of a belief – we typically just rely on the opinions of those we choose to hang around or interact with, who are usually similar to us and hold similar beliefs to us. The truth or fairer view may be more complicated or ambiguous than at first seems? We can virtually always find a bit of evidence for what we want to find but is there enough evidence? And what about all of the evidence that supports any alternative explanations?
Human cultures evolved predominantly by passing on knowledge orally (written, never mind printed, photographic or video, methods of passing on knowledge are only relatively recent methods of cultural transmission in human history) thus humans are chiefly storytelling creatures. But anecdotes cannot rival more complete evidence like data tables or graphs (if the latter are based on aggregating more complete evidence) – for example, a ‘rags to riches’ story would be just one data point, whereas the more complete dataset might include far more ‘riches to riches’ stories and thus be more representative of the fuller, more truthful, picture of reality in a world that lacks equal opportunities. Stories and pictures emotionally move and inspire people more than plainly stated facts and statistics do however. (Hence a tip if you want to be more persuasive is to present data with stories and vivid pictures.)
Fairy tales and kid’s cartoons are problematic when they lazily use, and therefore perpetuate, character stereotypes too. It’s (traditionally) considered bad character design in children’s stories if a writer or artist doesn’t pander to simple stereotypes because these make the characters more coherent and thus easier for children to comprehend. But teaching kids that people who have hunched backs, large crooked noses or other bodily deformities, facial blemishes or foreign-sounding accents (e.g. Russian or stiff English accents in American animations) are almost always the evil villains, and handsome characters with symmetrical features are almost always the good heroes, is teaching them faulty stereotypes and assumptions for real life. A character should be good or evil only according to his/her intentions and behaviours, and there is no reliable shortcut to determine whether someone is good or bad through the way they look. Characters who have mental health problems such as psychosis are typically cast as the villains rather than heroes too.
Traditional fairy tales also perpetuate a lot of gender stereotypes, such as the male hero and female damsel in distress. It could also be argued that too many fairy tales or fictional works portray the message that children need to be ‘the chosen ones’ or need to ‘inherit’ their gifts or powers according to whom they’re related to i.e. their fate is determined by some higher divine or external force or luck rather than their own choices and efforts. Although this reflects real life quite reasonably in many ways, perhaps it’s not what young children should hear? Children can fantasise for escapism and in the hope that they’ll one day be revealed to be ‘a chosen one’ in real life but wouldn’t it be even more inspiring if they felt that their fate is in their own hands? Perhaps an experiment to compare the effects of stories with ‘chosen one’ protagonists (e.g. superpowers stumbled upon) versus ‘self-endeavour’ protagonists (e.g. superpowers earned) will enlighten us.
Furry fairy tales are nevertheless again still invaluable for learning to see from the perspectives of other people, or even other creatures. Woof!
Religious messages and lessons are mostly passed on via fables, parables, allegories and sagas for the reason that they are more persuasive than plain or pure messages of morality or advice. Every popular religion has its own heroic and villainous or mischievous characters and epic sagas.
Human evolutionary instincts and cognitive tendencies are culturally codified into myths and stories (e.g. of heroes and monsters, good and evil, hope and salvation, tragedy and death, love and revenge, feasts and famines) for use as advice, lessons and guides to life that generally aid the survival and reproductive success of the groups who are exposed to them. But moral stories don’t need to be religious in nature – we can present and teach moral messages secularly too. Having said that, the creation and acceptance of legends and folk tales found in patriotism, for example, are sometimes no different to legends and folk tales found in religion.
Awareness and behavioural change campaigns often fall short because they fail to account for human psychology – instead of expecting humans to be purely rational animals and expecting the simple presentation of data or hard evidence to be enough, we need to understand their biases, and convey messages via stories with characters and emotions, so that our messages will resonate with ordinary people.
Woof. If you’d like, please use the Twitter comment button below to share with us what makes your favourite story so powerful for you?