Scientific American Mind (New York, NY), September, 2008
Storytelling is a human universal, and common themes appear in tales throughout history and all over the the world. The best stories—those retold through generations and translated into other languages—do more than simply present a believable picture. These tales captivate their audience, whose emotions can be inextricably tied to those of the story’s characters.
People tend to make stories out of everything. A classic 1944 study by Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel, then at Smith College, elegantly demonstrated this tendency. The psychologists showed people an animation of a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square and asked the participants what was happening. The subjects described the scene as if the shapes had intentions and motivations—for example, “The circle is chasing the triangles.” Many studies since then have confirmed the human predilection to make characters and narratives out of whatever we see in the world around us.
By studying narrative’s power to influence beliefs, researchers are discovering how we analyze information and accept new ideas. 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.
Subjects Covered: business, education, healing