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Once Upon a Time, It Was All About the Narrative

By Steve Soden –

Once upon a time, man sat around the camp fire and told stories. And we still do.

We have had our old myths and fables, parables, and fairy tales, for ever. Stories were the main way that we passed on our collective knowledge, our memories, our lessons, and our values. So of course it seems as if they have been around for ever – mankind can’t remember a time without them. People have been telling each other stories since the beginning of mankind’s collective memory.

Increasingly during the past few decades, we have been talking about the power of the story; how political power comes from controlling the narrative; how the media, the establishment, industry or the politicians can manipulate the world by creating a narrative. Is Trump an evil force comparable to Hitler? Or is he a straight talking good guy like Ronald Reagan?Whichever version you choose will give you a viewpoint that will inform a whole set of political beliefs.

Stories are incredibly powerful ways to wrap up and pass on a message. They are memorable in a way that abstract concepts and lists are not. Many of the mind training techniques used to improve memory rely on building stories to associate things that you want to remember. It is easier to mentally link together items when there is a narrative to hang them on. So what is the recipe of a story? At its most simple, it is a sequence of events that occur over time, typically with an idea of the physical location where they take place. This is of course, how we experience the world – and a story is structured in the same way. Sometimes the storyline will explain how the causal relationships of events are linked; sometimes we infer these causal relationships ourselves. Again – this is the way that we learn from experience in the real world. In these respects, a story can be as real to us as our own experience.

In the Beginning: The Psychology of Stories

Historically, stories have formed the basis of a lot of our moral teachings. They illustrate some basic truths about life and what is right and wrong. A well-constructed story can have the same teaching power as a real life experience – without the need for each individual to learn for themselves. Learning for yourself through trial and error takes time and is potentially dangerous – imagine having to learn not to play with fire by yourself. It would also be a rather haphazard learning process for a community. How long would it take to work out that in general, it is better to help than murder one another?

Apart from being easily remembered, another value of a good story is that the message can be interpreted in slightly different ways by each person. The messages are not simple edicts – they are more nuanced than that and convey broad principles of good behaviour, rather than strict rules. So the Bible evolved from the Old Testament with commandments (ten) – to the New with parables (widely considered to be thirty three in total).

So whether we’re dealing with a cautionary fairy tale for children about straying too far from mum and dad – or a moral tale aimed at creating a civilised society, the story has always had a strong role to play throughout history.

People also simply love a good story. There is something satisfying about a well-rounded story, the wrapping up of interesting ideas in a memorable little package, recognising the patterns that repeat in story after story, and in life itself. Some people believe that the root of this pleasure is innate, that we have a built-in responsiveness to certain storylines.

There are many theories about storylines. Some say there are just seven – that is Christopher Booker’s theory. He maintains that there are seven basic plots and that they are archetypal forms that communicate perennial truths that inspire positive behaviour and values.

Take one example of an archetypal plotline – “Rags to Riches.” Apparently, there are over 300 versions of the Cinderella story in existence around the world. And there are no evolutionary links between them – no clear ancestry, they do not share common roots although the form of the story is remarkably similar. Cinderella stories appear to have emerged independently and to have flourished in many diverse cultures. “Rags to Riches” is also a classic feel good storyline in fiction – think Aladdin, Oliver Twist, My Fair Lady, Pretty Woman, and Rocky. And in real life it has the same effect, generating that warm inside feeling – think J K Rowling, Jamie Vardy, and Jamie Oliver.

Of course, there are many other stories that have been told which do not conform closely to the archetypal forms, either because they are subversions or surreal, dreamlike sequences. But Booker maintains that the basic 7 story plot lines are innately appealing to us.

Psychologists often argue that certain basic drives and motivations are innate – some would describe them as what makes up “human nature.” Just as we are predisposed to walk and to develop language skills, we are purportedly predisposed to react to storylines.

As the messages contained in the plots are important to our survival and well-being, it’s not implausible to think that the basic plotlines have become programmed into our genetic make-up, as part of our psychological evolution.

Whatever the truth of the matter (and there are many who disagree with Booker’s proposition), we can agree that hearing a good well-formed story is a universal human pleasure. Why else would we read novels, watch soaps, and go to the movies? Whether there is a happy ending, or a tragic denouement, there will always be fans.

The story resonates with us. We don’t merely enjoy listening to stories or watching them. We use them to explain stuff to each other. We’ll give examples of stories from our lives, talking about people we know and their stories. The narrative of a storyline works better than laying out a series of dry facts and causal relationships.

But let’s think for a moment about causal relationships. If A happens, then B follows. As human beings, we have a strong drive to understand the causal relationships around us. It is one of those basic instincts that we have, so clearly linked to our personal survival. We all need to understand how to get food and shelter; we all need to know how to get along with people, and most of us need to know how to find a mate. We need to be able to predict outcomes, to form a mental model of how things work around here. Now, even in the simplest environments, this mental model is not infallible. Circumstances will change. A watering hole will dry up. A new predator may appear. But we need a set of working assumptions to operate with. Except we tend to regard them less as assumptions and more as facts. We believe it is a fact that the sun will rise tomorrow – but in reality it is only a (highly probable) assumption. We make predictions based on past experience and bake them into our mental model. We crave certainty and look for it wherever we can.

In a story, even more than in real life, the linkages of cause and effect can be made really clear. Either we are explicitly told the intentions and motivations of the characters or implicitly, through clues in the characterisation or plotline (of course the wolf wanted to eat Red Riding Hood – and of course, a good girl like Goldilocks will escape unharmed).

So here we see the power of the storyline and the narrative in influencing our behaviour. We wind up believing in stories, not just learning from them. We believe in the patterns in the stories – the repetition of familiar forms, the narratives that unfold in similar ways. They are both credible and compelling, which is why we use them to explain other people and situations. “It’s just like so and so,” we say. We take fictions and adopt them as truths.

Is it inevitable that boys on their own will behave like the characters in Lord of the Flies? Will everyone get driven to insanity by guilt, like Lady Macbeth?

From real life events, we simplify history and create narratives that are easy to understand. We create theories of great individuals who changed their world: Hitler, Napoleon, Thatcher. And then we look for more patterns –we want to find the reassurance of the pattern of the story.

When we were young, we knew that Hansel and Gretel didn’t get eaten by the wolf. We knew the end of the story, and that it all worked out.

We want real life to be as predictable in this same way. We accept stories as pieces of evidence we can use to make decisions and form opinions. We want to be sure of the future, what will happen next – and of course, we want to know how the story ends!

One other point relates to the way that we behave and make decisions. This is driven to a large extent by the network of beliefs that we hold. This applies to every decision we take, from those we’ve spent time researching and agonising over to minor everyday decisions – such as grocery shopping and off the cuff comments. Our brains rapidly consult our internal belief database; make a judgement, and move to action. And this is another way in which stories have extra power.

It is well proven that in general, our decision making is more influenced by things we have seen or heard about recently than older events – this is known as the availability bias. A recent event is easier and quicker to retrieve from our memory, Of course, you can sift back through a load of historical experiences, but most of the time we make quick decisions and move on. Storylines tend to be very memorable and so are more likely to influence our beliefs and therefore our behaviour. Whilst the detailed arguments surrounding an issue will quickly fade from the memory, the overarching narrative will not. (We know that Ed Miliband knifed David Miliband in the back – just as Cain did to Abel. Now tell me what their policy differences were). So of course, a memorable and emotionally charged story has an advantage – it will influence our views much more than dimly remembered facts or a nuanced argument.

The Political Narrative: Good Vs Evil

So if there is a narrative attached to events – what is the effect? Let’s go back to the example of Donald Trump and do a little thought exercise. Two starting points – Trump is like Adolf Hitler or Trump is like Ronald Reagan. As soon as the thought is implanted you can play out the rest of the story. One leads to war and a serious threat to world order and the other leads to the fall of the Soviet Empire and a more peaceful world. You fill in the gaps yourself – the story you remember fills the gaps in for you.

What is the narrative on Brexit? Are we overcoming the monster and escaping the clutches of the undemocratic evil EU? (We can do it – just look at WW2!!) Or is it a tragedy that will slowly unfold as we are bought down by our hubris and find ourselves lost and lonely (or worse – like Macbeth!!)

Certainly it appears that the emotional narrative of the strong island race defending itself from the outsiders had a stronger influence over voters than the tragic narrative of a deluded and over ambitious country trying to assert itself through force of will.

Once you have accepted the overarching narrative the facts will, in an almost mysterious fashion, appear to confirm that you are in the correct narrative and there will be a reassuring certainty that the outcomes are predictable. Trump bans Muslims because he is a racial supremacist / Trump improves security on the borders to protect the American public from harm. Big banks fleeing London and opening offices in Brussels / banks open small branch offices in Brussels for technical and legal reasons only. And of course, if your friends and the media that you read also accept the same storylines, that will keep you right on course.

Once someone believes the overarching narrative, they are difficult to disuade. Beliefs are highly resistant to facts. Many British Communists were staunch supporters of Stalin long after it was discovered that he was responsible for millions of dissident deaths. Their bullet proof narrative had Stalin as a tough man who was fighting for the good of the common man.

One classic political narrative is the brave freedom fighter making sacrifices for his fellow countryman. Another is the misguided terrorist committing atrocities against his fellow countryman. And another is the gangster who is exploiting political unrest to enrich himself. The IRA in Northern Ireland and FARC in Colombia – both could be characters in any of those three narratives.

Next time you find it really difficult to understand someone’s behaviour, consider the narratives that they accept. An Islamist suicide bomber knows the story about the honour of martyrdom. A Christian climate change denier knows how God created the world for mankind and how He will continue to provide. Conspiracy theorists are completely convinced by their narrative and know for certain that man didn’t step on the moon, Princess Diana was murdered, and 911 was an operation planned by the Bush administration. The narrative reinforces their beliefs and their beliefs form their views and guide their action.

Some beliefs are firmly built on real life experience. I tried Marmite and I don’t like it. I touched a flame and it hurt. But others come from storylines and narratives. Lynx body spray makes men attractive to women. Jeremy Corbyn is a good leader, unfairly ridiculed by the mass media.

And the Moral of the Story Is. . .

Perhaps the first step is to be fully aware that the world does not conform to storylines. Not everything has a happy ending. Not every good guy wins in the end. There are broken dreams. Some Cinderellas stay as downtrodden skivvies. Some Macbeths do get away with murder. Life is essentially unfair and unjust. It’s not a fairy tale.

Secondly, it is important examine the way that your beliefs can be unduly shaped by narratives and stereotypes. On a political level, it might be that the capitalist establishment is evil, the monster that needs to be slain. Or that the outsiders, the immigrants, are a blight and the cause of our unhappiness. A whole storyline can be created from a single event or a single image. It can be convincing and it can be compelling. A simple storyline that explains everything can be really attractive. But it doesn’t mean it is true. And once you have adopted a narrative, it is very difficult to take a more nuanced view.

Of course, on both a political and a personal level, it is very difficult to see the narratives that influence us. Our beliefs and biases are to us what water is to a fish – you don’t even realise they are there.

So how do you recognise them and look at them with objectivity? Of course you can stop and think, check your assumptions, and analyse everything more deeply. That is possible but pretty tough to do. The answer for most people is to listen to other people’s stories. Ideally, they should be very different people with very different stories. And listen without too much judgement, with a willingness to be changed by what you hear. The world is not made up of people who agree with you and others who are either evil or idiots (or both). It is simply full of many good people who believe in different sets of stories.

Others may seek to control the stories, but you can decide if you will be controlled by the story.


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