Throughout the history of humankind, stories have always played an essential role: they shaped people’s traditions, defined their religious beliefs, gave birth to their common wisdom and their profound values. Perhaps most importantly, storytelling allowed cultural heritage to be transmitted across generations through a series of alterations or exaggerations. Our daily lives are pervaded by stories: we hear them in the news, on TV, in conversation, through texts and during some bedtime reading. The way in which stories unfold is referred to as narrative: a sequence of temporally ordered events, a meaningful flow in which previous events shape or cause subsequent ones. This article will explore how our brain perceives narratives, how it processes them and how they are ultimately relevant in the decisions we make.
Why are stories so important for us
According to a neurological study called “theory of narrative thought”, in order for our conscious experiences to make sense to us, our brain attributes to them a story-like structure, a narrative with a sequence of facts and some kind of correlation among them. In practice, we process facts and emotions through “packing” them into sequences of events. Such stories provide the basis for comprehending new experiences, making judgements and decisions about the objects to which the story refers, and developing general attitudes and beliefs. Furthermore, this peculiar mechanism of our brain expresses the need for the human mind to make sense of things, to see events as linked to each other instead of being merely accidental occurrences and to avoid a sense of disorder when perceiving the surrounding reality. In particular, we rely on a linear conception of time, we use past events (memories) to explain the present (perceptions), and present events to predict the future (expectations). As the theory further explains, such time-based reasoning has also an evolutionary trait: it is a mechanism of survival. For instance, establishing a causal relation between feeling an excruciating pain and stubbing your toe helps you recognize the same danger in the future and possibly prevent a similar accident to occur. The fact that narratives closely resemble the way we naturally think and process our conscious human experiences makes us particularly prone and receptive to stories. The theory of narrative thought entails various practical implications that will be explored in the following paragraphs.
Several theories claim that rational customers formulate their judgment about a product according to the so-called “piecemeal computational procedure”: they separately evaluate the implications of each piece of information they are given, and then sum or make an average of these implications to develop an overall opinion. However, it has been demonstrated that what really goes on in the mind of many potential buyers is a sequence of events that portray them in purchasing and using the product in various situations, known as “holistic computational strategy”. The key intuition here is that a story is much more appealing than single pieces of information because it stimulates our brain in a way that mirrors experiencing a real situation, in other words, we process stories almost in the same way we process first-hand experiences.
During an experiment, participants were asked to read travel brochures describing two different vacations. In one brochure, the places to be visited were described in the form of a narrative that conveyed the sequence of experiences that vacationers were likely to have on each day of the trip. In the second, the features of each place to be visited were conveyed in a list, with no indication of the sequence of activities that would occur. After reading both brochures, participants made separate judgments of how much they wanted to go on each vacation, followed by a comparative judgment stating which vacation they preferred. According to the result the brochure with a narrative form was more popular. The advantage of narratives was attributed to their structural similarity to information acquired through daily life experiences and the use of a holistic procedure as opposed to a piecemeal strategy for computing judgments.
The ultimate decision to buy an item may be based on the implications of the imagined sequence of events as a whole rather than a mere assessment of the product’s individual features. For this reason, the way in which product information is presented has a significant impact on this process. For instance, an advertisement for a camera that conveys a story that describes how specific features of the camera become useful at different stages of a person’s vacation is more effective than one that presents a list of useful features, and asserts that the camera is a good item to take on vacation. The findings are in line with the way in which many marketing campaigns attempt to sell a story, an experience, rather than the product itself.
We observed how convincing narrative-based communication can be, now the question is: can it lead to an actual change in people’s behavior? Can it serve as an instrument to improve the decision-making process at government level? As mentioned before, stories demonstrated to be both memorable and persuasive, moreover, they facilitate information processing and confer value and emotional appeal to the information provided. In addition, they function as means of inclusiveness by allowing a broad variety of individuals to relate to narrative information regardless of their level of literacy, expertise or culture.
Recently, especially in the field of healthcare, there has been a growing interest among public policy experts in incorporating narratives in community-based initiatives with the aim of instill trust in citizens and support positive change in health-related behavior. A successful outcome is represented by the “Witness Project”, a community- and-church-based program to increase mammography and breast self-examination (BSE) among low-income African American women in rural Arkansas, US. The program had local breast and cervical cancer survivors called “Witness role models” talking about their cancer experiences to small groups of women in churches and other community settings. Findings from a pilot study showed that self-reported use of mammography and BSE increased from pre- to post-exposure among women who attended a Witness session. A similar project was launched to spread awareness of risks related to HIV and registered a tangible impact on participants’ habits.
The use of narratives reveals itself a powerful advocacy tool for citizens to engage in collective action and influence policy-makers. Several studies showed how the use of personal stories would mobilize action for law reform. An example is a research conducted in Cape Town, South Africa where in a series of workshops, women with disabilities had the opportunity to talk about their personal daily-life experiences and struggles. The project raised awareness among people, in particular regarding the accessibility of public transportation to disabled people and ultimately it reached policymakers who took action. Comparable results have been obtained in the US where personal stories on breast cancer have led to changes in healthcare policies.
In conclusion, as the article illustrated, stories have a tangible impact on the way we think and make our choices, therefore, they can be useful tools for behavioral scientists to shape the decisions of citizens and consumers. However, as stories are so convincing, we must be careful of the kind of message they send and the repercussions they will ultimately have on recipients. For this reason, when promoting a narrative, whether we are a seller, a policy-maker, or a behavioral scientist, we must think ahead of the direction we want to head toward and the kind of change we want to bring to society.
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