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Are we being seduced by stories?
Stories form the backdrop to much of the way we share knowledge but we argue for a more critical lens
Failed oil company Enron successfully marketed itself through stories which suggested they were not simply another energy company, but instead an innovative leader transforming the industry. What writer Christian Salmon calls Enron’s ‘storytelling management’ led analysts, politicians and the general public to view the company as being at the forefront of a new way of thinking about energy production, distribution, and trading. The business operations were diverse and complex but rather than this opaqueness being seen as a red flag, the story suggested it was because they were simply too advanced for the average outsider to understand.
As is now well documented, in November 2001 Enron revealed that it had overstated its earnings by $586 million since 1997, confirming suspicions that their financial health had been artificially bolstered by shady accounting. In December that year Enron filed for bankruptcy, the largest at that time in U.S. history. Thousands of employees lost their jobs, and many more lost significant portions of their retirement savings which were invested heavily in Enron stock.
This apocryphal tale offers a backdrop to the provocation that literary theorist Peter Brooks makes in his book ‘Seduced by Story’ that we have relied too heavily on storytelling conventions to understand the world around us, resulting in a ‘narrative takeover of reality’ that influences almost every form of communication—such as the way doctors engage with patients, how financial reports are written, and the branding that companies use to present themselves to consumers. Meanwhile, Brooks makes a case that other modes of expression, interpretation, and comprehension have fallen to the wayside. On this basis, the book makes a compelling case that stories are so much part of our lives that they can seem the only option we have to communicate if we want people to learn and understand. Brooks and Salmon are not alone - best selling author Yuval Noah Harari goes so far to suggest that story telling is a fundamental part of human evolution, enabling unique levels of cooperation that underpinned the development of complex societies.
This sets up some important questions to investigate. If the power of the story is really blinding us, then what other means should we be looking at more closely to share information? Does the social science evidence really point to story telling being a fundamental part of who we are? And what are the dangers of storytelling? Salomon and Brooks certainly make a case that powerful stories can come with pitfalls, suggesting this needs closer examination.
To start with, we examine the social science that supports the notion that stories are fundamental to the way humans operate.
The case for stories
In the famous Heider and Simell experiment, people were asked view a film of simple abstract shapes roaming around; they found that in those simple shapes, viewers often read into them stories involving characters with emotions, motivations, and purpose:
Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman’s book The Knowledge Illusion also highlights the importance of stories, suggesting they facilitate an understanding of the world’s causal mechanisms. Metaphor is an important part of this; for instance, despite the fact that we are crawling with bacteria and we are full of chemicals, hesitancy around vaccines can often be accompanied by stories and metaphors relating to the contamination of the natural state of our bodies.
But perhaps it is psychologist Jerome Bruner who has been one of the most significant influences for advancing notions of the importance of narrative in our lives, suggesting that ‘facts on the ground’ are not knowable until we make them into a narrative. This suggests that what we understand about the world is not determined by facts but is instead shaped by our expectations of narrative coherence and meaning.
But what is the alternative?
The story dominates in explanations of human life to such a degree that it is understandable if many marketers and policy makers do not always consider the variety of alternative ways to communicate knowledge. While of course these alternatives will be more familiar to people that specialise in learning strategy, there is a case for highlighting them and reminding a wider audience of their value.
To this end we can turn to philosopher of education David Carr who suggests that while stories are important to humans as they offer us a sense of coherence or understanding about our lives. they are not the only or necessarily always the best means for imparting knowledge and creating understanding. Other ways we can do this include:
Didactic Instruction: Direct teaching or lecturing: A maths teacher stands in front of a class and explains the Pythagoras theorem, writing the formula on the board and detailing each step of its application.
Experiential Learning: Acquiring knowledge through hands-on experiences and reflections. A child learns the concept of gravity by repeatedly dropping a toy and observing it fall to the ground. Later, the child reflects on why the toy doesn't float or fly but instead always descends.
Symbolic Representation: Using symbols, diagrams, and graphs. In a cooking class, a chart is presented showing different icons representing various cooking methods—boiling, frying, baking. Next to each icon is a list of foods best suited for that method. This visual aid helps students quickly grasp which foods are typically boiled, fried, or baked.
Intuitive Insight: Gaining understanding through sudden realizations or ‘aha’ moments. After struggling with a puzzle for hours, a person suddenly recognizes a pattern that they hadn't noticed before, leading them to quickly solve the remaining pieces. This realization might come after a period of rest or distraction, leading to a fresh perspective.
Collaborative Discourse: Knowledge construction through discussions and debates. A book club meets to discuss a novel they've all read. Through sharing interpretations and insights, members gain a deeper understanding of the text. One member might highlight a theme another hadn't noticed, or two members might debate a character's motivations, leading to enriched perspectives for all participants.
If we accept the provocation of Salmon and Brooks, then placing so much emphasis on storytelling we could be in danger of not considering these other means at our disposal to share information. It is critical to have a properly stocked ‘toolbox’ if we are seeking to influence others and support positive outcomes.
Do we see our lives as a narrative?
Next we turn to the question of whether there are really the grounds for stories having such a central role in the way we understand ourselves as humans? On the one hand we have Bruner who famously said the "Self is a perpetually rewritten story", reflecting his view that narrative is at the heart of the way we understand ourselves as people. On the other side is philosopher Galen Strawson who suggests that while many people do indeed have a strong narrative sense of self and view their lives as coherent stories, this certainly does not apply to everyone. Instead, some people live within a series of episodic, unrelated events and are less inclined to perceive their life as a continuous story. The past might be acknowledged, but it is not continuously used as a reference point to inform their current self-concept.
The way he describes the episodic nature of human experience has echoes of Ross and Wilson’s Temporal Self-Appraisal Theory, which suggests that we make distinctions between our past, present and future selves. However, rather than seeing these as separate episodes, Ross and Wilson consider that we seek narratives that highlight the way in which we have changed for the better over time, which does not particularly support Strawson’s point.
Alternatively, Philip Zimbardo's Time Perspective Theory suggests people can be oriented towards the past, present, or future, and this shapes our behaviours and attitudes. Applying Strawson’s thinking here, we might consider that the concept of an episodic sense of self aligns with a present orientation, as both involve a focus on current experiences without heavily integrating past or future into one's identity. Narrative selves, on the other hand, might span past, present, and future orientations because they see life as a coherent story that connects all three temporal dimensions.
Beyond these examples there is surprisingly little (that we are aware of) material from psychology which seeks to examine and develop Strawson’s distinctions – more work on our narrative or episodic way we approach life seems needed. But suffice to say for now, there is a reasonable case for challenging the assumption that humans are entirely ‘narrative-centric’ beings.
The danger of stories
In his book, Brooks points out there are dangers with a strong attachment to narrative because to be maintained it is necessary to ignore, forget, or distort events that don't fit neatly into it. The psychology of mental schema is relevant here, the way we hold stories about the world that determine our orientation to new information and events. If they are strongly held, then this means that we are in danger of ignoring or minimising the significance of new information that is not consistent with these schemas. We surely see this frequently in the way that dominant narratives reinforce stereotypes about marginalised and unfamiliar groups.
An example of this is the longstanding piece of work by Edward Said in which he examined how the West constructed a narrative about the ‘Orient’ (primarily the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa) that is grounded in stereotypes, fantasies, and colonial biases. This narrative, propagated by Western scholars, writers, and artists, presents the East as ‘mysterious’, ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilized’, in direct contrast to the ‘rational’, ‘progressive’ and ‘civilized’ West. The narrative that constructs the ‘Orient’ in this way effectively delegitimises the voices, experiences, and histories of entire regions and peoples.
A simple example of how this narrative plays out in everyday life is regarding the use of MSG (monosodium glutamate), a flavour enhancer commonly associated with Chinese food. Newspaper reports suggested this ‘foreign’ additive could be responsible for the faint feeling that some people reported after consuming Chinese food, which became known as ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.’ The media coverage about the possible harms of MSG were rarely backed by scientific research but because they tapped into existing narratives about ‘Oriental’ products being mysterious or potentially harmful, the issue gained traction.
The effect of this narrative meant that instead of seeing MSG as just another food additive (similar to salt, for instance), it was viewed as a foreign substance, making it easier for people to believe that it was harmful. We can see here in a very tangible way how widely held stories about the ‘Orient’ then fed into into stereotyping – and of course alongside many other negative and harmful perceptions.
Of course this does not mean that other forms of communication do not also have challenges that can have similar effects. For example, the 1954 book ‘How to lie with statistics’ offers us a longstanding examination of the pitfalls of one of the alternatives. But today’s apparent dominance of storytelling suggests the time now seems right for a closer scrutiny of the story as a means of communication.
Storytelling is an important part of human experience and is clearly a helpful and important means to share knowledge. But the apparently successful ‘story about story telling’ may at times blind those not specialised in disciplines such as learning-design to the other means we have at our disposal to engage people in meaningful ways.
In the complex knowledge environment we inhabit, there is surely more need than ever to be able to communicate effectively and that means thinking about other ways to share information rather than assuming we always need stories. For example, drawing on some recent experience, finding ways to help people to navigate retrofitting of their house to improve energy efficiency requires quite a bit of technical and complex knowledge transfer in order for people to be able to make informed decisions (and therefore to change behaviour). Narratives have a role here but surely a more limited one than other methods.
Finally, we can also consider the ways in which narrative has the potential to flatten how we see the world, given its characteristics of a linear trajectory, with a beginning, middle and end. This could mean we are less alert to (and consider less likely) the potential for moments of disruptions where we experience sudden transformative change. Given the global challenges we face, such as the cost of living, global warming and future pandemics, we need ways of thinking that challenge this rather restricted notion of change that humans are capable of.
Thanks to comments from readers on LinkedIn who offered helpful pointers to an earlier draft
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