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The Psychology of Stories

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Why do we spend so much time, money, and energy on reading, hearing or watching stories? What is the pull of the tale? What are the structures of stories that we enjoy over and over again? What effect do stories have on us? How can we harness stories to improve our everyday life?

People spend 10 times as much on their entertainment as on their education. We love stories; they enrich our lives, and have for as long as humans have been able to share them. 

In times past and present, stories are a great educational tool. That 10:1 spending figure may not be as it appears. Perhaps we are learning from stories, perhaps they are very educational. It could be that storytelling was a primary method of education long before education was formalised. 

While the oldest recorded written story, The Epic of Gilgamesh, was probably crafted around 2700BC, the oral storytelling tradition must have flourished for many thousands of years prior to then. Cave paintings and other clues suggest that storytelling may predates 50,000BC. Indeed, it seems likely that from the time humans were able to use language that storytelling quickly emerged.

Much of the earliest history of which we are aware comes from the written accounts of what happened, left to us be the victors. The way many of their accounts were written tells us much about the psychology of storytelling: self-vindication, whitewashing.

Rarely in history do the victors tell stories of themselves as the wrongdoers, as the invaders, as the rapists, pillagers, or murderers of innocent civilians. 

History books tell us much about human psychology; not just from the claimed facts, but from what ‘facts’  are presented and how. Historical negationism, or outright historical deletion of facts, is evident in almost every country’s history books. That aspect of storytelling, tells us that we have an aversion to truths that reveal who we are. We all want to think well of ourselves; that those ‘others’ are the evil ones; we are good and right. Festinger described such behaviour in us all as cognitive dissonance. We tell ourselves stories to make the wrong that we know we have done, feel right. Doing so enables us to reduce the stress that we feel when we have done wrong. Humans have a tendency to pitch their wrongs as rights; their vices as virtues.

Our understanding of storytelling as part of wrongdoing has recently been improved. Jennifer Freyd identified that many (most?) wrongdoers seek to blame their victims, by using this sequence of events: deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender (DARVO). The offender tells the victim a story. They seek to gaslight the victim into  believing that the victim of the offence caused the offence; that somehow their behaviour caused it. Wrongdoers seek to implant a story of self-blame in the minds of the people they harm.

As with all tools, stor-telling can be used for good or bad. Every minute of every day, all over the world people are engrossed in stories for entertainment, through every conceivable form of delivery, from books to apps, video, television, radio. In the UK, the average person spends a third of their waking hours engaged in consuming some form of storytelling entertainment. 

Storytelling improves memory of the information contained in the story. Memory works best when there is a clear structure on which to ‘hang’ information. Almost all mnemonic tools use a pre-existing memory structure. Stories give us a structure to remember vast quantities of information, and make it much more likely that we will remember information. Some research suggests that stories make us 20 times more likely to remember key facts. Even if the memory retention figure is only five times that compared to simply being told the facts, it makes it very wise to use stories to enable the information to be retained, by ourselves or others. 

Among the many effective techniques used by people who can remember vast quantities of information is their creation of self-told stories to provide a structure with which to retain the information. Many top comedians use exactly that technique to deliver their performances, and hold audiences spellbound, for hours, from memory, with no notes. 

All over the world, sales, marketing and advertising staff are seeking to influence thei  customers to buy their products and services. They know that the most effective influence tool is a well-crafted story; a narrative that appeals to the potential buyer, a story that presses all the right buttons, a story that will be remembered. Politicians use the same techniques; they craft a tale that is designed to appeal to voters, and be remembered. 

Storytelling can even create the future. If we tell ourselves stories that we can achieve this or that desired outcome, master this or that skill, the confidence that comes from believing the story enables us to persist long enough to develop the competence that is required to achieve our goal. It seems that people who are persistent, are persistent because they have told themselves a story that they are persistent. That seems to apply to most other characteristics. 

Stories have many effects on us. They inform, influence, educate, entertain, and can shape our futures. They can even cure our illnesses. A well-told story can mobilise the body’s healing powers; that is the basis of the placebo effect. The most effective placebos can trigger healing in more than 70% of cases. A placebo is a false story, which, if believed, can turn a false narrative into truth.

Most of us have stories about who we are. Those stories have been self-created over time, to the point where we are no longer aware that our identity is a series of stories that we have chosen to believe. The stories we tell ourselves can and do shape, and maintain, our identity.

Stories, it has been claimed by many thinkers, come in only seven forms: 

  • Overcoming the monster
  • Rags to riches
  • The quest
  • Voyage and return
  • Rebirth
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy

I would disagree. Since very soon there will be 8 billion people on planet Earth; I think there are 8 billion stories. Each person has crafted a story about who they are, about life, about their life, about their future, about other people. The stories we tell ourselves shape our every decision – even if those stories are completely made up. 

For each of us, it seems that reality is, to a large extent, a screen on which life will be played out. Some people see themselves as characters whose part is predestined and beyond their control, and live life accordingly. Others see themselves as the writer, director, producer, actor, sound engineer and director of photography. In other words, they choose their story, shape their own narrative, and create their own life.

Many years ago, a colleague, who had become a very senior police officer told me a story that has had a lasting impact on me. When my colleague was a young police officer, he was interviewing a suspect of a crime. The suspect said words to the effect of: ‘You don’t get it; you haven’t realised what is going on here. We are both playing a part.  You have chosen to be a cop, and I have chosen to be a criminal. Each of us is playing out our roles in a story we have told ourselves.’

Perhaps that is the choice we all make: to be the writer, actor, and director of a story of our own choosing. 

Storytelling is central to our existence; it shapes us in every conceivable way. 

What part do you want to play? What story do you want to write for yourself? What do you want to see happening on the screen of your life?

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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