Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling

Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling

Harvard Business Review (Cambridge, MA), October 28, 2014


Paul J. Zak said, “A decade ago, my lab discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key ‘it’s safe to approach others’ signal in the brain. Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others.”

“More recently my lab wondered if we could “hack” the oxytocin system to motivate people to engage in cooperative behaviors. To do this, we tested if narratives shot on video, rather than face-to-face interactions, would cause the brain to make oxytocin. By taking blood draws before and after the narrative, we found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. Further, the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative.”

“In subsequent studies we have been able to deepen our understanding of why stories motivate voluntary cooperation.”

Key points about using stories in business:

  • Character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later.
  • Stories are useful inside organizations. People are substantially more motivated by how their organization improves lives than by how it sells goods and services.
  • Your organization has its own story – its founding myth. An effective way to communicate transcendent purpose is by sharing that tale.

When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It will capture people’s hearts – by first attracting their brains.

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