Why Story Is Powerful, According to Evolutionary Psychology
Corporate gurus the world over proclaim the “Power of Story” to be key to everything, from effective advertising to powerful public speaking. And they are absolutely correct.
But why is storytelling such a powerful way to convey information? No one knows for sure, especially frustrated marketing executives suddenly tasked with turning their tried-and-true sales pitch into a “more appealing narrative. “
Which is why literary historian Jonathan Gottschall, with the help of ethnographers, evolutionary psychologists, and centuries of great novelists, has tried to figure it all out in his 2012 classic of evolutionary psychology, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.
It’s a quick, enjoyable, 200-page read packed with gripping stories of its own, relevant research and all the fascinating insights they imply. It isn’t written specifically for businesspeople, and probably won’t help you design the shiny new narrative marketing campaign that your CEO wants. (We will, however. Drop us a line!)
This book is about the power of story in a broader, almost anthropological context. It’s not academic—some reviewers even criticized it as too lightweight. We call it accessible, and this is just a taste of all that we learned by reading it.
If you’re on the fence about whether or not to read this book, check out Gottschall’s Ted Talk for an introduction to his work.
Fish Don’t Know That They’re Wet
You probably don’t realize how entirely, and inexplicably immersed in story we all are. Books, television, video games, celebrity gossip, Facebook drama, music, religious allegories and advertising are just the beginning. Even “factual” media, like news and sports, are embedded in narratives. Story is how we process our world.
When you talk about your day, you don’t just give the facts: “I ate lasagna for lunch.” You create a narrative, with drama, conflict, and meaning: “The Mexican place was packed, I guess they decided to do a Groupon. Bummer, but we tried the new Italian place instead. I got the lasagna, which was OK, but Jerry from accounting had the calzone and it was amazing. We’ll definitely eat there again.”
Where no story exists, your brain will try to impose one, connecting the dots in a way that explains a series of random events in a logical, sequential and meaningful way. Your wife went to lunch with Jerry from accounting, again? Didn’t he recently get a divorce? Why was she working late last week?
You probably just connected those dots yourself, with no help from me.
She clearly lied about the lasagna. What else is she hiding?
Even as we navigate the stories that surround us on all sides, flowing through us and thereby finding form, we are drifting in and out of our own personal fictions. We spend between 15% and 50% of our waking hours lost in daydreams. A third of your life is spent sleeping, but “even when the body goes to sleep,” writes Gottschall, “the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
We never really graduate from those kindergarten games of make-believe. They simply take on different forms.
Moreover, these reveries aren’t usually “escapism,” as you might expect. Sure, we fantasize about a beach vacation or endless wealth on occasion, but most fantasy scenarios fit a standard story template. Which, as Gottschall so efficiently puts it, comes down to “Story = Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication.”
“Our various fictional worlds are, on the whole, horrorscapes,” says Gottschall. “Fiction may temporarily free us from our troubles, but it does so by ensnaring us in new sets of troubles, in imaginary worlds of struggle and stress and mortal woe.”
The zombie witch aliens are coming to take our dolls and snacks. We must kill them all!
Indeed, when researchers examine “child’s play,” it is relentlessly troubled. Boys tend to act out fearsome space battles and deadly swordplay (despite the adults’ best efforts to promote gender-neutral activities). While girls, who usually seem ensconced in tranquil domestic scenes, are killing enemy My Little Ponies with explosives, to save their homes, or resuscitating babies that have been poisoned or mutilated by dogs.
Skimming Grimm’s Fairy Tales, or enjoying a quick a rendition of “Rock-A-Bye Baby,” makes it clear that this is no modern aberration. Briefly reviewing the last few television shows and novels you really enjoyed should make it clear that our addiction to troubling fiction is not just a childhood phase.
Practice Makes Perfect
Why aren’t we spending our downtime at some fictional Caribbean beach, surrounded by beautiful and talented people, all having a great time?
Living the dream. But, based on your dreams, what do you suppose is at the end of that path?
There are several hypotheses discussed in the book. Perhaps dreams are merely the brain’s way of processing waste, or pointless rumbling of the stomach. Maybe they are how we file away memories. Or delete old files.
Gottschall believes that we are practicing for future challenges.
Most of our dreams, fantasies, and popular fictions present problems that we must overcome, or risky situations we need to navigate. For example, one common, shared nightmare involves being chased. This was also a common, shared problem humans had to consider until quite recently; perhaps our dreams helped plan strategies and escape routes through the wilderness.
We don’t always realize it, but our stickiest situations involve socializing—an activity that can have enormous consequences in terms of economic opportunity, mating options, and building community. Reading (and probably watching) fiction improves empathy, which gives you an edge.
In the same way that watching sports improves athletic performance, stories seem to improve our ability to handle social challenges. And that is why Gottschall suspects we spend so much time in Neverland.
What does this mean for your audience? If you’re trying to “find your story” for a presentation or sales pitch, your audience will pay attention if there’s a payoff for them. When you reframe your message in story form (character + predicament + attempted extrication), make the predicament relevant. Make it a challenge for which they would be willing to spend time preparing.
The Divide Between Fact and Fiction is Porous
When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the best selling novel of the decade, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
The story may be apocryphal, but the sentiment was true. In the run-up to the US Civil War, her book was read by millions of whites, who already knew the horrible facts of slavery, and who were already sympathetic to the cause (otherwise, they would have read something else). The bullet-point list of slavery’s sins—torture, rape, exploitation, lynchings, families torn apart on a whim—was well known, and had been published in abolitionist pamphlets since the 1750s.
Eliza clutching her infant son as she crosses the heaving ice flows of the Ohio River, her feet torn to shreds, fleeing the dogs that threaten to tear her apart.
But it wasn’t until they followed Eliza Harris—really, until they became Eliza Harris—that the will to defeat slavery finally manifested.
A century later, Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill A Mockingbird—the best-selling novel of its decade—was credited with winning white support for the Civil Rights Movement. People who Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks simply couldn’t reach were finally willing and able to understand the injustices and indignities of systemic racism through the eyes of a six-year-old girl, Scout.
You probably think you have a firm grip on reality. The reality is, however, that your brain files fictional people, places, and events alongside the real ones. Stories—fictions and dreams—bring you closer to others, whether they are made of flesh or ink.
You regularly attribute quotes by fictional characters to real people. You may have been immediately comfortable with iPads because you’d seen Captain Jean-Luc Picard using them for years. The sacred stories that surround the world’s major religions dictate behavior in ways that no flesh-and-blood dictator ever could.
This is the power of story.
We Are All Walking Fictions
You may already know that you are lied to between 10 and 200 times per day. You are also lying to yourself, far more often. So is everyone else.
Our stories, the stories of our lives, are facts, memories, and events that have been subconsciously woven together into a rich tapestry of meaning and narrative by fiction. Memoir is a notoriously fictional literary genre. And so is the unwritten story of your life.
Where were you on September 11, 2001? If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember that morning as well as this one. What if I told you that there was a 70% chance that you’ve misremembered key details? But, 73% of respondents to one study confidently remember seeing footage of the first plane flying into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, just like President George W. Bush.
There is no footage of the first plane hitting the WTC.
Not only is your memory unreliable, your self-perception is totally off. Most of us believe we are of above average attractiveness. Ninety-percent of us believe we’re better-than-average drivers. The list goes on and on. Gottschall calls it the “Lake Wobegone Effect,” because everyone is above average, and it is almost universal.
There is only one group that is consistently immune to overestimating their attractiveness and abilities: People with chronic depression. So don’t fight it.
You also imbue events with meaning. You’ve probably been told, at some low point in your life, that “God has a plan for you,” or “everything happens for a reason.” Which may be true.
Even if it’s not, however, our brains will rewrite the bullet-point list of events and experiences of our lives into a story that is filled with meaning. You will be the brave and beautiful protagonist of that story. More than that, you will have been an excellent driver. One of the best.
We are stories. And this is why story appeals to us.
If you’re interested in understanding the Power of Story beyond the current buzz, this book will appeal to you. Check it out.