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Op-Ed: Why storytelling is an important tool for social change

An opening in a bookshelf reveals a person reading a book
(Photo illustration by Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times; photo by Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

I’m a parent of 6-year-old twins. When I first read about how some Inuit parents use stories to shape kids’ behavior, I couldn’t imagine having the patience to follow their example.

Then, one night a few years ago when the kids were quibbling while getting ready for bed, I tried it: “Once upon a time, Fezziwig and Cratchit were getting ready for bed. They were both frustrated because there was only one pair of red pajamas. They both really wanted to wear them. What should Fezziwig and Cratchit do?”

Instead of resuming their argument, one kid offered: “Maybe Fezziwig could wear the pajamas, and Cratchit could snuggle with Mama first.” It doesn’t always go this smoothly, but stories win my kids’ attention and help them reason better than many alternatives I’ve tried.

In retrospect, it seems funny to me that I was so surprised by the power and effectiveness of stories on my children. As a neuroscientist, I study what happens in the brain when a person is persuaded, and when they are not. And I study how the brain adopts new or different behaviors.

I know that stories can capture people’s attention and make it easier to process information when our mental resources are constrained. In fact, research in many fields supports the idea that stories can reduce defensiveness, teach complicated concepts, change individuals’ behaviors and promote social change.

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Neuroscience research also shows that stories are processed differently from other types of information in the brain. What is special about stories?

In one study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, we used noninvasive brain stimulation to test whether stories and other facts are processed differently in the brain. A method of brain stimulation called transcranial direct current stimulation can temporarily disrupt certain parts of the brain, and scientists can observe how people’s abilities change when the function is disrupted.

In our study, we used this type of brain stimulation to temporarily decrease activity in brain regions associated with reasoning in 65 people. Then, we showed half the group messages framed as stories (e.g., “Joe has never smoked cigarettes in his life. He has heart disease because he was exposed to secondhand smoke from his father”). The other half got the same facts in a more didactic form (e.g., “Smokers can harm other people. Every year, a lot of nonsmokers die from heart disease caused by secondhand smoke”).

After each message, we asked everyone to come up with arguments in support of or against the messages. We found that brain stimulation significantly impaired people’s ability to generate arguments for or against the straight facts. However, when asked to react to the messages framed as stories about individuals, people’s ability to reason remained intact.

This shows that the ability to process these types of stories relies on different brain mechanisms that may operate more automatically, even when we have diminished ability to reason. Like the volunteers under stimulation, many of us have competing demands placed on our attention and hence our ability to think. These demands are compounded with Zoom fatigue, stress about the pandemic, and the need to juggle priorities at home and at work.

Despite our reduced mental and emotional capacity, communicating effectively is more important than ever. Stories are one tool to help people simulate and understand social experiences they’ve never personally gone through. Likewise, when people retell stories to others, listeners’ brains reconstruct the same patterns that successful communicators originally had in mind.

Narratives like strong political speeches and compelling health messages also bring listeners’ brains into sync with one another, while weaker messages may not capture people in the same way. A new study further shows that personal stories are more consistently processed in the regions of the brain that help us understand what other people think and feel than other non-narrative types of messages.

Providing ways for people to share their perspectives through storytelling initiatives can contribute to bigger changes in society and even help reduce prejudice. The activist Raj Jayadev, for example, found with his criminal justice reform program that storytelling is an effective way to help judges understand the people whose lives they impact. Storytellers in hunter-gatherer societies promoted cooperation by teaching community values, and modern stories can nudge people toward healthier lifestyles and motivate action to combat climate change.

Narratives are especially powerful in changing people’s beliefs and behaviors when people are transported into the story. When this happens, people become emotionally engaged, are less likely to critically evaluate facts and are more open to changing their beliefs. This also means that stories based on falsehoods can be key ingredients in viral deception. Messages perceived as conveying a story also increase people’s willingness to share videos promoting extremism.

Our attitudes, experiences and starting assumptions also shape the ways that our brains interpret stories. When people have the same starting assumptions, their brains respond in similar ways to stories and synchronize more with others who share those assumptions than with those who don’t. In a polarized political environment, even when watching the same news stories about political issues, the brain responses of people with different political views show different patterns of activation in certain regions of the brain.

Storytelling alone, of course, can’t produce structural changes in the justice system or create better policies aimed at health, the environment and other issues that affect our well-being. But that said, changing systems large or small has to start with effective communication. Listening to someone else’s story can give us a new way of seeing the world, motivate us to care, teach values and change minds.

For these reasons, understanding how to use stories to communicate what they know is important for educators, scientists, government officials, healthcare practitioners, parents and others. Our brains are wired to connect with other people, and stories offer a deeply human way to accomplish that goal.

Emily Falk is a professor of communication, psychology and marketing at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the director of Penn’s Communication Neuroscience Laboratory and a distinguished fellow of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.


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