Humans tell stories

Communication is “a single act performed by two brains," says Uri Hasson. Modern neuroscience is revealing how a good storyteller can induce synchronization between them and their listener’s brains as long as they share common ground, experiences, and beliefs. This is powerful stuff as it suggests that stories have asymmetric effects. If you already share a belief, a good storyteller can literally make your brain buzz in time with theirs.

Stories hold a special place in human reasoning. Stories are how we make sense of the world. They are how we learn, remember, explore cause and effect and make sense of the world. Stories engage our causal reasoning systems.

Rarely is a problem a single thing; problems tend to come around again and solutions are works in progress. We need stories to follow the process of new knowledge revealing more about the problem. As Nobel Laureate Herb Simon says, “Solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent.”

Storytelling allows us to stay present in the problem for longer, helping us unlock deeper meaning and tease out confounders or hidden causes.

We use stories to imagine alternative realities and to compare and stress test our understanding. We use stories as part of our “mental rehearsals” to evaluate information and decide on courses of action. “Salt and sugar light up the human appetite in a primal way; stories do the same for our minds.”

We share our vision of the future through story. A dog can be trained to offer her paw in exchange for a treat. Once she learns that paw causes treat, she will predict that raising her paw will be a good moment. But she will never learn a more abstract relationship—that humans see her raising her paw as friendliness. We can generalize this concept of friendliness and apply elsewhere. We can share ideas of friendliness and what it means, how it feels, what it could be in different situations.

When we share abstract concepts, others can build on them, creating higher levels of abstraction. Morphing concepts and seeing patterns provides the foundation for inquiry and experimentation. Stories are not stuck in the present. They allow for “ambition and transcendence” by which we create a shared vision of the future.

Stories motivate us to act because they activate our emotions. Don Norman writes, “Cognition attempts to make sense of the world: emotion assigns value...Cognition provides understanding: emotion provides value judgments.” Stories make ideas more colorful, engaging and stickier. We are exquisitely sensitive to stories because we want to relate actions to outcomes and intentions. Stories intertwine how we feel with what we think.

Stories create meaning. They help us discover broader truths about the world and fill our brains with associations. We are wired for metaphor, for linking what we observe in the world to the context and concepts inherent in stories we’ve heard. Brian Christian likens stories to a filing system for our brains.

We remember stories. In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath cite an experiment Chip conducted with his Stanford class that tested the memorability of facts versus stories. Students had to give a one-minute speech about crime using statistics he provided. “In the average one-minute speech, the typical student used 2.5 statistics. Only one student in ten told a story.” On the next part of the study, students were asked to recall the speeches. While a mere 5% of them could remember a specific statistic, 63% remembered the stories.

Stories are spotlights for our attention and keep us focused on a narrow frame rather than broadening out our view. If we overuse stories we can stay too focused on the details which prevents us from seeing new possibilities.

Stories are language-based; it may not always be straightforward to translate a story into logic, probability, and analysis. We may interpret words differently in language than they are used in logic. When a co-worker says “I’ll grab a coffee and give you the debrief,” we take it to mean that she will pick up her coffee then tell us what happened in the meeting. Logic says it could be the other way around but most people’s intuition is silent on that point. AND in formal logic plays differently than and in a story.

Stories can support and spread fallacies because we like to win arguments. It’s easier to win an argument with a coherent story where people can follow intuitive links than it is with a perfectly laid out logic tree. People are more interested in a story’s coherence than in whether it’s true, making us vulnerable to believing what’s not true. Kahneman says, “It is the consistency of the information that matters for a good story, not its completeness.” The less we know, the easier it is to weave a coherent pattern in a story.

Great Human Strength: Stories are easy and natural. They help us learn, motivate us, and give us a way to engage other people.

Great Human Weakness: We can be unreasonably persuaded or manipulated by a good story.

Machine Opportunity: Designs which leverage our natural ability to learn and act through storytelling.

Machine Threat: Designs which make us vulnerable to bad outcomes through “storyselling.”