The dangers of storytelling

One interesting thing about cognitive biases – they’re the subject of so many books these days. There’s the Nudge book, the Sway book, the Blink book, like the one-title book, all about the ways in which we screw up. And there are so many ways, but what I find interesting is that none of these books identify what, to me, is the single, central, most important way we screw up, and that is, we tell ourselves too many stories, or we are too easily seduced by stories. And why don’t these books tell us that? It’s because the books themselves are all about stories. The more of these books you read, you’re learning about some of your biases, but you’re making some of your other biases essentially worse. So the books themselves are part of your cognitive bias. Often, people buy them as a kind of talisman, like “I bought this book. I won’t be Predictably Irrational.” It’s like people want to hear the worst, so psychologically, they can prepare for it or defend against it. It’s why there’s such a market for pessimism. But to think that buying the book gets you somewhere, that’s maybe the bigger fallacy. It’s just like the evidence that shows the most dangerous people are those that have been taught some financial literacy. They’re the ones who go out and make the worst mistakes. It’s the people that realize, “I don’t know anything at all,” that end up doing pretty well.

This might remind one of an absolutely brilliant book published a few years ago, The 90-Minute Effect, which goes into further depth about how people fall prey to storytelling and let them conquer their lives.

From the book:

The mystery in a given story is a throbbing force that drives us through the duration of the piece and long after. It is no wonder that the most commercial of storytelling’s offspring—the television news report—relies heavily on keeping the audience interested through ‘tease’ promotions. When the reporter asks ‘What’s in your water?’ we may well know what’s in it already; but since we are engaged by the mystery of the question, we are compelled beyond our will to tune in at eleven.

This seemingly uncanny connection with mystery and our love of resolution has its backing in science. Studies in the emerging field of brain physiology have shown that whenever some mystery unfolds into resolution as it does in the climax of a great story, a synapse-firing phenomenon occurs in our brains, connecting neurotransmitters within, just as the dots are connected on the screen or in the text. When we witness a story’s resolution, it is almost as if we can see a light bulb flash or hear a pop in our head. An ‘Ah-ha!’ moment takes place thus giving us a very rewarding feeling of accomplishment and relief—Aristotle’s catharsis. It is the same thing that happens when we figure out a puzzle, hear a good joke, or when we remember something that has been eluding us for days—synapses gone wild!

A very precise example of this setting up mystery to unfold into resolution before the audience’s eyes is seen in one of the most beloved comic adventures of the last several decades, Back to the Future. Regard the scene in which Marty is stuck in 1955, trying to explain to Doc that the DeLorean needs nuclear power to travel in time—the memorable 1.21 gigawatts that Doc becomes so frantic about. The mystery is set: how can they harness the energy to make the time machine work and send Marty back to the future? As Doc is yelping about how it’s impossible, Marty flashes a piece of paper that his girlfriend signed in 1985 so as to prove the urgency in getting back. What the audience sees, however, is the advertisement on the other side, the advertisement that says exactly when the town clock tower was struck by lightning—in 1955. When Doc reveals that the only way to harness 1.21 gigawatts is through a bolt of lightning and that we never know when or where one will hit, it is as if a bolt of lightning surges through the audience. Marty turns around, realizing what the audience does, and says, “We do now,” and we are absolutely hooked.

This phenomenon can be described as a reaction to justice, when we are given a satisfactory resolution to problem that we have been concerned about. And there must be a problem in the first place, as there is no resolution without conflict. Once that problem has been adequately explained, we are then free to attempt to figure it out, and that is what brings us the joy in watching stories unfold. Climaxes and endings to stories are so important because they must provide this essential ‘Ah-ha!’ moment, the catharsis and justice that we long for. As Aristotle put it, a climax must be at once inevitable and unexpected. The storyteller who achieves that is to be celebrated like any great doctor or minister is.

Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Fennyman: So what do we do?
Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Fennyman: How?
Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
—Shakespeare in Love (1998)

To create this process of building up mystery and eventual resolution is the essence of storytelling. Masters at the art are able to provide just enough information at the right places to get the audience hooked from the open, and carry them to the close (and ideally well after). Of course, doing this means crafting the story to make it fit the formula—the ninety-minute format, for instance—and this is an action that severely separates the story from reality. It is not that reality is devoid of mystery and resolution, but, for the most part, these elements when seen in real life come on much more infrequent occasions. And, in real life, there is always the notion of a predicament that has no solution, or at least one that isn’t so poetic in its realization.

Given the constraints of the formula, we find stories and characters that simply could not exist in real life. Regard the love produced in some romances and romantic comedies these days. When watching The Notebook, for example, the audience is drawn into a beautiful romance and cannot possibly turn away (that is, unless of course you’re a straight male). Standing back and viewing it objectively, one realizes that the romance simply does not make sense. Since there is no time for character development, we can only know a little about the two love interests—that she’s well-to-do and that he’s from ‘the other side of the tracks.’ We also know that they’re both very attractive, but the sketches stop there. Nor are we given any other hints to make us believe that an attraction would make sense. Neither the girl nor the guy is shown to have any talent or quality that would in normal circumstances be attractive—they don’t even show imagination or intelligence when they meet. All we see are their actions: he pursues her, hanging from a Ferris wheel in one scene, they run and kiss in the rain, and they make passionate love all day and night. This is all we have to go on to believe that they are head over heels for each other.

Once the audience believes that they are head over heels in love, the story can unfold and we can enjoy the rewards of the romance, but making that first step is not as easy—or without consequences—as one might assume. Some—and especially teen girls in the case of tear-jerker romances—may end up taking it for granted that people can be attracted to each other without any good reason, without accomplishments or charm. Indeed, as it is with The Notebook, an impressionable viewer might think that showing someone that you’re disgusted with him or her is a way to be attractive to that person. Throughout the movie, Allie shows disinterest and often outright hatred toward Noah, sometimes in the form of slapping his face and bashing him, and yet he keeps coming back to her, showing her that his love will never die. ‘Is this the way to attract a dashing young fella to like Noah? Must be.’ I know of not a few young women who try to attract guys by acting cold and even vicious toward them. It’s a wonder why guys actually go along with it, but they do.

Adaptations of Nicholas Sparks novels are not the only place this happens—take any romance or romantic comedy and you’re likely to run into the same trap. In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, neither Toula nor her suitor, Gus, are shown to have any redeemable qualities, except maybe a little self-deprecating humor and being nice—Toula even admits that she has nothing to offer—and yet it is obvious that they are madly in love with each other. Or take Twilight, the recent young adult novel phenomenon about a high school girl who is courted by a chivalrous gentleman who just happens to also be a vampire. In this very popular series of novels and the movie adaptation, the protagonist is sarcastic, self-conscious, and very graceless, and yet, we are supposed to believe that the noble Edward (and others) wants to devote all his life (or the vampire equivalent) to her.

It is amazing how much we take for granted in these stories, all so that we can experience the joy that the mystery and resolution bring. The great folly is to absorb these fantasies to such a degree that we begin to take the missing elements for granted in real life or neglect these elements altogether. The assumption of the teenaged girl is rife: ‘Well, if Bella attracted the most handsome vampire of them all, and she wasn’t a very accomplished or interesting person, I should be able to at least attract the most handsome boy in school without being very accomplished or interesting. I should become popular just by being cool and sarcastic.’

Such examples might seem folksy to more sophisticated audiences, but the stories we embrace and cherish have great influences on our expectations and beliefs, beyond what we see in these romances. It is the ability for a good story to reflect the truths of life that make us think everything about them is true.

This entry was posted in Behavioral Economics, Influences, Inspiration, Psychology, Publication. Bookmark the permalink.

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