Stories are one of the oldest and most common ways of communicating with other people. If you look at some of the most ancient knowledge still available to modern humans, it comes in the form of stories: Myths, legends, fairy tales, and religious texts. In modern times, we see more complex forms of schooling moving toward case-based methods of learning, as in many medical schools, business schools, and law schools. Why, out of all of the tools in the human communication toolkit, do stories have such longevity and power?
Social science is increasingly finding out that there are multiple mechanisms for why stories are an effective communication medium.
Stories are easy to remember. This is one reason why the case method of learning is becoming more and more common for learning. Given the volume and complexity of information that is taught, using stories to communicate them can help students more effectively remember and retrieve the relevant details in the moment. Instead of searching a mental rolodex for a list of facts, professionals in the moment can pattern-match what they observe against a more vivid set of memories. The fact that stories are relatively easy to remember is also part of the reason why so many of them have survived in some form over centuries or even millennia.
Stories are accessible to tell. Stories work cross-culturally; people from different cultures have consistent and “appropriate” emotional responses to stories (Ekman & Friesen, 1971), especially stories about emotional universals (Hogan, 2003). Being able to tell and understand a story does not depend upon level of experience or intelligence, and are accessible to children as young as three (Peterson & McCabe, 1983). The fact that some people are more gifted story tellers than others notwithstanding, the ability to tell a story transcends class, education, and culture.
Stories help us talk about emotions. Asking people to introspect and report emotions assumes not only that people are aware of their own feelings at a given point in time, but that they can accurately articulate them. Yet, emotions are complex and tangled (Mehrabian & Russell, 1974), and people vary greatly in how they interpret emotional words and apply them to experiences (Feldman Barrett, 2004).
Stories reveal storytellers’ emotional involvement in relationships without requiring explicit comment. Language can reveal emotion through means other than direct, literal expression (Sandelands & Boudens, 2000). Stories reveal social relationships through figurative language and metaphor (Boudens, 2005), which serve as efficient holistic snapshots of reality (Krone & Morgan, 2000). The way a narrator describes events, people, and objects indirectly expresses feeling (Burger & Miller, 1999), sidestepping some of the difficulty in translating emotion directly to language.
Stories tap into shared emotions and experiences. On the listener side, stories also tend to be widely accessible because people are able to relate their own experiences to the story being told. Moreover, stories can actually influence our bodily experience; our hormones fluctuate in response to the emotional content of the stories we hear. It’s almost like we are physically and emotionally inside a story, if it has happened to hook us.
I think the last bit, about how stories have a physiological effect on us, is the start of an exciting line of inquiry. More and more psychologists are studying the neural and physiological correlates of behavior, and we’re learning that much of the human experience originates somehow in the brain. Hopefully, sometime in the next few years we’ll have a really good story about why the human brain thrives on narrative communication.
Boudens, C.J. (2005). The story of work: A narrative analysis of workplace emotion. Organization Studies, 26(9), 1285-1306. doi: 10.1177/0170840605055264
Burger, L. K., & Miller, P. J. (1999). Early talk about the past revisited: Affect in working-class and middle-class children’s co-narrations. Journal of Child Language, 26(1), 133-162.
Ekman, P., & Friesen, W.V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17(2), 124-129. doi:10.1037/h0030377
Feldman Barrett, L. (2004). Feelings or words? Understanding the content in self-report ratings of experienced emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 266-281. doi: 10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2066
Hogan, P.C. (2003). The mind and its stories: Narrative universals and human emotions. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Krone, K. J. & Morgan, J. M. (2000). Emotion metaphors in management: The Chinese experience. In S. Fineman (Ed.), Emotion in Organizations (2nd edition, pp. 83-100). London: Sage.
Mehrabian, A., & Russell, J.A. (2000). An approach to environmental psychology. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Psychology.
Peterson, C. & McCabe, A. (1983). Developmental psycholinguistics: Three ways of looking at a child’s narrative. New York: Plenum Press.
Sandelands, L.E., & Boudens, C.J. (2000). Feeling at work. In S. Fineman (Ed.) Emotion in organizations, 2nd Edition, p. 46-63. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.