Research on the Power of Story

The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn

Our love for telling tales reveals the workings of the mind

By Jeremy Hsu

As many as two thirds of the most respected stories in narrative traditions seem to be variations on three narrative patterns, or prototypes, according to Hogan. The two more common prototypes are romantic and heroic scenarios—the former focuses on the trials and travails of love, whereas the latter deals with power struggles. The third prototype, dubbed “sacrificial” by Hogan, focuses on agrarian plenty versus famine as well as on societal redemption. These themes appear over and over again as humans create narrative records of their most basic needs: food, reproduction and social status.

Happily Ever After
The power of stories does not stop with their ability to reveal the workings of our minds. Narrative is also a potent persuasive tool, according to Hogan and other researchers, and it has the ability to shape beliefs and change minds.

Advertisers have long taken advantage of narrative persuasiveness by sprinkling likable characters or funny stories into their commercials. A 2007 study by marketing researcher Jennifer Edson Escalas of Vanderbilt University found that a test audience responded more positively to advertisements in narrative form as compared with straightforward ads that encouraged viewers to think about the arguments for a product. Similarly, Green co-authored a 2006 study that showed that labeling information as “fact” increased critical analysis, whereas labeling information as “fiction” had the opposite effect. Studies such as these suggest people accept ideas more readily when their minds are in story mode as opposed to when they are in an analytical mind-set.

Works of fiction may even have unexpected real-world effects on people’s choices. Merlot was one of the most popular red wines among Americans until the 2005 film Sideways depicted actor Paul Giamatti as an ornery wine lover who snubbed it as a common, inferior wine. Winemakers saw a noticeable drop in sales of the red wine that year, particularly after Sideways garnered national attention through several Oscar nominations.

As researchers continue to investigate storytelling’s power and pervasiveness, they are also looking for ways to harness that power. Some such as Green are studying how stories can have applications in promoting positive health messages. “A lot of problems are behaviorally based,” Green says, pointing to research documenting the influence of Hollywood films on smoking habits among teens. And Mar and Oatley want to further examine how stories can enhance social skills by acting as simulators for the brain, which may turn the idea of the socially crippled bookworm on its head.

One thing is clear—although research on stories has only just begun, it has already turned up a wealth of information about the social roots of the human mind—and, in science, that’s a happy ending.

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