Archive for October 24th, 2004

The Animal Who Tells Stories

Sunday, October 24th, 2004

One of the issues brought up in response to my last post was that we, as humans, are really poor at statistically evaluating risk. We’re really good at remembering spectacular stories, or relevant anecdotes, but we’re really bad at taking numbers in the abstract and turning them into guides to behavior. And this isn’t just true in the evaluation of risk. In some sense, we use stories to define who we are. I was thinking about this and realized that the usage of stories ties together a whole bunch of scattered interests that I have (and was the subject of one of the first rants I wrote).

Anybody who has a stake in persuading us to do something understands the power of stories. Advertising is the obvious example. What are commercials other than miniature stories, designed to elicit the appropriate consumer behavior from the audience? Or, as Neal Postman described it, the “Parable of the Ring around the Collar”. Jesus used parables as well. He understood that moral laws such as the Golden Rule would be too abstract for most people, so he used parables to bring it down to specifics of how he expected people to behave in difficult situations.

Politics is another obvious application of stories as persuasion tactics. In 1988, the story of Willie Horton became a millstone around the neck of Dukakis, and eventually helped drag him to defeat. I don’t know if Horton was an exception to the rule, or a commonplace occurrence, but it was irrelevant. All it took was one case, because it created the story. Similarly, the cognitive framing that Lakoff refers to is an attempt to use language to evoke a story in our brain. “Tax relief” evokes the story of the cruel government oppressor, stealing our money away.

Stories are how we structure our memories. If you ask me about what I was doing on June 25, 1994, I’d say, “Um, what?” But, when you prompt me that that was the day that my friends Brian and Jen got married, I’d be able to tell you all sorts of details about that day. Our memories are not filed like a computer’s, with dates and times. Our memories are filed like del.icio.us, with tags on various memories that are associatively linked in a spaghetti-like fashion. (No, I’m not a cognitive scientist, and I don’t even play one on TV, but it makes sense to me). In fact, I might even argue that communication in all of its forms is motivated by the desire for us to tell stories to each other, to say something.

I suspect that our brains are still fairly unevolved from the hunter-gatherer state in a lot of ways – Dunbar’s number is a good example. And there’s really no need for a hunter-gatherer to have to process data in a numerical fashion or in an abstract sense. Simple stories in the form of myths are sufficient. And I can’t blame people that are paid for it to take advantage of that by framing things in the form of simple stories. But I wish that we could use that power for higher purposes.

Stories are one of the most powerful ways for us to get outside of our immediate experience and feel what it’s like to be somebody in another place or another culture. It can break down the barriers between us – the story of “America” and what it means to be in the land of opportunity and freedom is one of the few things that ties together this sprawling country of ours, from the liberals of the West Coast to the conservative Midwest, from the newest immigrant to the WASP who can trace their lineage back to the Mayflower.

Wouldn’t it be great if we started developing similar myths that made us aware that we are members of a global community rather than separated by our outdated nation-states? It would seem to be obvious in light of the many global problems facing us, from terrorism to global warming to ever-more-interconnected economies. But because the last several centuries have been devoted to developing the story of the nation-state (if my feeble historical knowledge is any guide, the first nation state in the modern sense was Bismarck’s Germany in the 1800s), we are trapped in that story line, that frame, and haven’t figured out how to move on from there.

The other thing that is really necessary is the awareness of strangers as more than an abstract concept. Because most of us do not deal with people unlike ourselves in our daily life, it is easy to demonize them as The Other, rather than realizing that they are probably people who are mostly like ourselves, just struggling to get by in this world. One of the things I liked about the Extreme Democracy salon was Tom Atlee’s presentation on deliberative communal decision making, how even people who thought they believed very different things were able to find commonalities when they talked about the issues in their lives. It kind of relates to an old post of mine about examining our assumptions. And it leads me to think that if we could use stories to help increase our connections, rather than using it to foment separatism (e.g. against Muslims, or “welfare mothers”, or proponents of gay marriage, or Indian companies outsourcing jobs), wouldn’t the world be a better place? I know I’m being idealistic again, since it’s in people’s self interest to try to make their slice of the pie bigger at the expense of others (Thanks Mancur Olson). But stories would be one way to try to make people aware that our self interests are now so intertwined that what is good for one is often good for all. Anyway.

There’s a lot of fertile ground for thought here. Actually, while I was thinking about this entry, and realizing that it ties several broad areas of my interest together, I started randomly speculating that if I were ever to write a book, this would be a good topic. Use the examples I gave above as a kick start to explore several chapters’ worth of case studies of how we use stories to remember our past, to persuade each other, and to organize our lives. Then go interview some cognitive scientists to get the basis for that. Plus some historians for their perspective (oral history, bards and storytellers, etc.). It could be pretty cool. And the title would be “The Animal Who Tells Stories”; hence the title of this post. Anyway. I’m sure there’s a bunch of similar books out there already (if you know of any, please let me know). And I doubt I’ll ever get motivated enough to pull it together.

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