Are We Storytelling Animals?

Are we storytelling animals? And, if so, should we be careful about the power of emotion in stories?

Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, recently published an article on the science literature around storytelling and the growing popularity of using storytelling as a communications strategy.   The trailer for his book is posted below:

The evolutionary nature of human cognition around storytelling is an interesting point to consider (we’re also currently reading On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction). However, Gottschall brings up another point worth noting. He advises us to be cautious about the increasing use of emotion in storytelling as a persuasive communications tactic.

He writes,

Over the last several decades, psychology has begun a serious study of how story affects the human mind. Results repeatedly show that our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by story. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence.

Does our affinity for fiction obstruct our abilities to parse communications using reason? Should we be more critical of the use of storytelling in communications that tend to be light on logic? Gottschall continues,

Master storytellers want us drunk on emotion so we will lose track of rational considerations, relax our skepticism, and yield to their agenda. Yes, we need to tell a tale to win, but it’s just as important to learn to see the tale coming–and to steel ourselves against it.

At FrameWorks, we recognize the power of storytelling in shaping beliefs about social issues in a way that expands the public’s understanding. Gottschall argues that stories, when laden with emotions, tend to short circuit reason and hinder our abilities to view the issue clearly and realistically.

Is there a way to tell stories that gets the public excited about our issues and allows them to reason for realistic solutions to collective problems?

We think so. This is the approach that we take in our work. We rigorously explore and test several elements of a story that work with the public in this way. For example, we identify values that are proven to trigger support for policies and metaphors that “unlock” new perceptions about an issue. We help experts and advocates share stories with the public that enable them to tap into “the storytelling animal,” but also recognize that we can, as a society, make deliberate collective decisions for the common good.

What examples of narratives do you see tap into the “storytelling animal”? What examples do you see that also recognize our abilities to reason through an issue? Feel free to post your thoughts below.





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