• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

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.

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