The Power of Narratives in Decision Making

People have been telling stories to one another for thousands, maybe millions of years. They have told stories huddled around the campfire; they have painted them on cave walls; they have written them down on stone tablets, scrolls, and in books for future generations. People have journeyed from small hamlets to large cities to tell stories, fought wars because of them, and taken huge sacrifices for their sake.

Many different terms have been coined to represent the essential nature of humankind: homo faber (philosophical man), homo economicus (rational man), homo politicus (political man), and, of course, homo sapiens (wise man). Walter R. Fisher, an academic, proposed homo narrans (storytelling man) as an important addition to this list in 1985.

Because whatever the shape, form, or time, storytelling seems to play a major role in human interaction. Recent scientific attention has shed light on the power stories hold in determining human behaviour. Even now, we are still being surprised by the true extent to which stories bear influence in our everyday lives. This article attempts to share what we know about stories so far. 

We think in terms of stories

Stories seem to be hardwired into the way in which we process the world around us. This is what a neurological theory known as the theory of narrative thought (TNT) seeks to explain. The theory observes that the brain processes everyday sensations and things happening around us and compiles sequences of these sensations into events.19,21 Sequentiality is important because when we try to explain phenomena, we implicitly look to the past for their causes. That’s because our observations of the world rely on a linear conception of time: we look for ways in which the past has shaped the present or the present will shape the future, but never consider the future shaping the present. Thus, our understanding of causality is inextricably linked to sequentiality—this happened and then that happened—and sequences are, of course, linked to time.

When the events happening around us are organized by time and by causation, the result is a structure often formally referred to as a narrative: a causal chain of events that flows from the past to the present.

The theory suggests that there is evolutionary value in organizing the world around us into narratives. If you weave links between events in the past to their manifestations in the present (Joe stumbled into a bear’s den, he’s now injured), it can help you extrapolate what may sensibly be expected to occur in the future (stumbling into a bear’s den will probably lead to injury). In evolutionary terms, this can enable us to better understand and recognize threats before they happen, reducing potential harm before it even materializes. 

The evolutionary hypothesis is but one theory to suggest why stories may be hardwired into our way of being. Nassim Taleb suggests the Andrey Nikolayevich Rule, which says that in real-world economic life we are faced with a lot of information that is costly to obtain, costly to store, and costly to manipulate and retrieve. As a result, we simplify: we reduce the dimensions of life through the use of stories.20

According to Taleb, stories help us to make the world “less random than it actually is,” and they can fit in with our incessant drive for sense-making.6,20 Chater & Loewenstein similarly posit that our hardwiring for stories is based upon our dislike for entropy or disorder.6 We try to organize our lives into narratives, to force sense into the randomness around us.

So, there is good reason to believe that we use stories in the way we think.

What makes stories so special?

“Once upon a time.” These four words almost immediately transport you elsewhere and immerse you in elsewhat. And immersion, and we will soon see, is one of the reasons why stories are such effective communication devices.

Using a narrative as a communication device tends to be more effective than alternative forms of communication because it is more engaging, demanding more focus, more attention, and more involvement.

A study by Kilaru et al. (2014) shows that narratives are processed differently than other forms of information.13 They argue convincingly that we process stories the same way we process first-hand experiences; narratives invite you to mentally rehearse the actions within them. Within the brain, most of the same regions are stimulated when someone performs an action as when that person reads a narrative about that action!18

The same study describes an experiment about how narratives affect recall of medication guidelines. What they found was that those participants that had the guidelines explained to them using a narrative were better at recalling those guidelines than those who were simply given the information alone. When a narrative is involved, the brain simulates the actions described in it, making us feel like we are re-enacting them ourselves. This makes the story more memorable because it is as though it was your own experience, and it suddenly becomes intensely personal. 

Not only can stories help in recall, they can also help to persuade others. Adaval & Wyler (1998) have previously shown that stories are processed holistically—that is, you pay attention to the “whole,” rather than to the individual “pieces.”1 And when this happens, you are less likely to come up with counter-arguments. In other words, when someone provides you with all the details, you are more likely to come up with a counter-argument for one of those details than when that person provides the same information as a coherent story. In one of the experiments Adaval & Wyler ran to demonstrate this, participants were asked to evaluate vacation packages.1 Participants evaluated vacations more favorably when they were described in a narrative than when their features were simply listed.

When asked why narratives hold such an advantage, the authors provide two main reasons: (a) because their structure resembles that of information acquired through daily life experiences, and (b) because of the use of a holistic—rather than a piecemeal—strategy for computing judgments.

Stories and consumer decisions

So, if you have a vehicle that is more engaging, facilitates better recall, and generates fewer counter-arguments, it goes without saying that it also wields the power to shape behavior. To expand on how we can implement this power in our environments, I will invite you to consider the following stories (wink, wink).

First, imagine you are buying a new phone. Most assessments of consumer decision-making processes would assume that before deciding on whether you will buy it, you will first examine each piece of information about the phone individually. But in reality, this sort of piecemeal approach is not necessarily what is happening. 

Instead, you might be judging the phone by visualizing a series of events involving its acquisition and its use in different contexts. You might imagine visiting many shops, buying the phone, reading its manual, playing with its functions, taking it on holiday and capturing lovely memories with it. And of course, during this imaginary situation, the basic features of the phone (weight, camera resolution, description, price, etc.) will come into consideration.  They could come into play as you imagine the ease with which it can be stored in your pocket, or how you can save enough to afford it on your salary.

So, the ultimate decision to purchase may not be based merely on the specific features of the phone, but rather the imagined sequence of events as a whole.1 In other words, our choices often rely on narratives.

This is arguably what GoPro does so well. They don’t sell you the features of their cameras. They sell you the swashbuckling, risk-taking, adventurous lifestyle narrative that accompanies their cameras. 

One of my personal favorite studies demonstrated on eBay how simply telling a story about an object, such as a travel souvenir or a name brand product, increased how much people valued it.14 In the world of vintage cars, it is generally known that “barn finds”—cars that have been abandoned and rediscovered years later, typically in a dusty decrepit space such as a barn—sell for more than their non-barn equivalents, even though they are usually in worse shape. The barn narrative wields power.

Narratives and public health

Next, I would like to bring to light a study in public health that documents the “Angelina effect,” which describes how more women had mastectomies after merely reading about Angelina Jolie’s own mastectomy story.8,9 Some may say that this effect only occurs due to some sort of “messenger effect,” which describes how people tend to focus on the person delivering the message instead of on the message itself. Maybe these women decided to have surgery just because they wanted to be like Jolie, and not because of concerns about their health. While this may be the case, health news stories can lead to behavioral change even when they do not involve celebrities, and can also lead to change when they are negative. 

The influence exerted on by stories on public health is not always for the better. In one study, a decrease in ibuprofen use was observed after participants read a single New York Times story about a woman who had a very rare, life-threatening reaction to this common over-the-counter medication.17

And since the world is today in the midst of a global pandemic, the role of stories in the case of vaccinations also comes to mind. One powerful story that has travelled the globe is that of parents relating how the emergence of autism in their young children coincided with their planned MMR vaccinations. The narrative they transmit is an extremely poignant one: if only I hadn’t vaccinated my child, they wouldn’t have autism today. Even though there is no evidence linking vaccines to autism, this message has spread very effectively from an extremely small number of sources, such as actress Jenny McCarthy, and has had a huge impact on vaccination choices in the U.S.4,5,7

Narratives in business

Finally, for a case of narrative implementation in business, we travel to a call center which was having trouble, as many do, retaining staff members. Working in a call center is tough: you have to deal with angry, impatient customers all day, and the nature of the role is very repetitive. So, most call centers have high levels of staff turnover, costing them significant amounts to constantly hire and train new recruits. 

But when researchers decided to provide job applicants with “realistic previews” of the very worst parts of the job—in this case, real experiences narrated to the applicants—something surprising happened. Job turnover rates decreased, and in some instances, job satisfaction increased.10, 11, 12

This is a good example of the power and usefulness of narrative transportation. The realistic previews are a form of narrative, and when you engage in a narrative you are invited to re-enact it. By re-enacting the worst parts of the job, you are, as an employee, preparing yourself for them. New employees will thus know exactly what they are getting themselves into, and won’t be disillusioned. 

It is also important to note that this impressive effect was not a result of the self-selection bias, which arises when individuals select themselves into a group. Because the narrative previews were provided after candidates made their decision to join, but before they started the role, it is safe to assume that there was no pre-existing difference between the groups that could have been responsible for this effect. So, these previews ended up being a practically costless yet powerful implementation of narratives.

Happily ever after?

So, stories are a fundamental part of who we are. Homo narrans not only thinks in terms of stories, but is gripped, entranced, transported, and influenced by them too. Clearly, their power is such that in many scenarios they will be the device of choice. But care must be taken when trying to wield them as tools to change behavior. This is where applied behavioral scientists should come into play: through rigorous testing and an understanding of the nuances of literature, powerful stories can be crafted to ethically avoid deleterious consequences, while keeping readers enthralled.

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