Beware the Power of “Story”

[The following is another post originally up in slightly different form at “Context with Lorna Dueck.”]

“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

Well, let’s see.

Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Random House, 2007), caution us that stories that are simple, memorable, emotionally provocative, a little bit surprising, but mostly reinforcing of our settled beliefs will be far more believable to us than those that lack those qualities.

You’ll notice that none of those qualities have anything to do with whether the story is actually true.

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his bestselling survey of Thinking, Fast and Slow (FSG/Macmillan, 2011), likewise warns us that we tend to believe any story that corresponds to what we already think we know. It takes less effort to keep believing what we already believe, and the brain resists extra effort.

“That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”

As we daily make our way within the Great Information Paradox—we have more information available than ever before, but fewer trusted authorities to help guide us than ever before—we love our story-tellers. For stories combine vividness, specificity, and order.  And these elements cut through the noisy complexity to set before us something interesting, something of a manageable scale that we can see and understand, and something that assures us that life will somehow turn out intelligibly.

Again, however, we find that those qualities describe fairy tales of what didn’t happen at least as well as they describe historical accounts that describe what did.

We therefore must both welcome and beware of story-tellers. Story is constructed. “This is my story.” I am telling it, which means that I am making it (up?). Stories include a certain list of characters, settings, and plots, and exclude…all the others. So story-telling is highly selective, and some particular person or group is always doing the selecting.

There is a lot to disparage among the wide and wild varieties of postmodernism. But at its heart is the truth that powerful people have dominated others most effectively when those others have believed The Big Story (= the “metanarrative”) promulgated by the elite. Such stories—whether the divine right of kings, or the national myth, or the goodness of capitalism, or the inevitability of communism—nicely keep everybody in their places and moving along in an orderly fashion toward the goals set by the rulers.

Saviours and demagogues, helpers and hucksters, both trade in stories. We know that from Marx, we know it from Orwell, we know it from Foucault—and we know it from Jeremiah, Jesus, and Paul, who warned us time and again about those who would preach a false story and lead us lethally astray.

So in the marketplace of ideas, we dare not select only those stories that immediately appeal to us, that seem just obviously true.

We also must beware of ideas that grow on us, we know not why. Kahneman’s research shows that merely hearing a story or a claim repeated increases our likelihood of believing it. It’s as if we think, “Well, that keeps happening, so it must be real.” That’s why advertisers and politicians keep repeating their messages: not just to communicate, but to convince.

What finally matters, however, cannot be merely what story is most entertaining or impressive, not what story promises what we most want, and not what story easily confirms our sense of ourselves and the world. What matters is what story is true.

We dare not make big decisions “by anecdote”—whether about finances, family, or faith. We need to keep our wits about us, and do the homework necessary to find out what we need to find out in order to avoid being someone’s victim and to arrive instead where it is truly best for us to go.

This particular way of viewing the world might so far have been “our story.”

But it might be best if we didn’t stick to it.

4 Responses to “Beware the Power of “Story””

  1. june van farowe

    Interesting about Story. But you implied that Capitalism might be bad. Did not Jesus assume cap. many times? He scolded one man for not investing, but again assumed that money would be used.

  2. Fiona McGregor

    This is a truly important message – my mother became an adult in Nazi Germany; my enduring memory was her fury at having been “taken in” – at the time I believed (naively) that with a free press that would never happen in my time. After all we had a free press who were free to report the truth. Increasingly I have come to realize that it is not the simple facts but the story that matters and our media and news sources are less free than we thought. One could argue June, although I hadn’t thought of it until your initial argument that instead of a media controlled by the state we have a media controlled by the need to sell stories. Of course social media increases complexity – we’re at risk by the elite of only reading the stories that fit as John reminded us

  3. Fiona McGregor

    This is a truly important message – my mother became an adult in Nazi Germany; my enduring memory was her fury at having been “taken in” – at the time I believed (naively) that with a free press that would never happen in my time. After all we had a free press who were free to report the truth. Increasingly I have come to realize that it is not the simple facts but the story that matters and our media and news sources are less free than we thought. One could argue June, although I hadn’t thought of it until your initial argument that instead of a media controlled by the state we have a media controlled by the need to sell stories. Of course social media increases complexity – we’re at risk by the elite of only reading the stories that fit and are comfortable for us as John reminded us. As always thanks for your succinct eloquence John

  4. Tarnya

    Helpful advice! We need to examine the stories we accept as truth and that includes the stories we tell ourselves. Stories can heal or hurt. I find the idea of narrative theory intriguing. In my own life when feeling overwhelmed, I can tell myself a quite different story about my circumstances then when I am not. Yet they both seem “true” to me at the time. I appreciated your point June, about social media. Many people use their social media accounts to get their news, which consists of news items shared by their friends, who probably see things in a certain way and it all reinforces what fits.

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