Arts, Culture & Humanities

Telling stories vs. telling data

Claude Fischer

In a just-released preview of his new book, Narrative and Collective Action, public-policy scholar Frederick W. Mayer of Duke University discusses the power of the well-told story for leaders of social movements and politicians. Starting with the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mayer recounts how effective leaders deploy stories rather than analyses. Stories compel us, he says, for almost biological reasons; they can draw people to collective action – if they are the right stories, ones that resonate with the listeners’ biases. Perhaps by imaginatively making us actors in the unfolding excitement, stories move us to action.

For many social scientists, stories, particularly personal stories, are “mere” anecdotes. They drive us nuts by driving out data. Commonly, undergraduates will respond to a well-established finding in the social sciences – say, that rich people are happier than poor, that racial discrimination persists, that children face better odds if they live with two parents – by raising a hand and saying, “But I have an aunt who…” or “I know this guy who….” More importantly, the public persuasiveness of a personal story well told trumps tables of data anytime. Ronald Reagan taught me that.

Telling tales

Ronald Reagan, a B-movie actor and an experienced rubber chicken circuit speaker before he became a candidate for office, had remarkable skills in telling amusing, heart-warming, patriotic, and politically-pointed stories. Some of the stories were false or stretched. A famous one about an airman’s self-sacrifice in WWII turned out to be drawn from a movie.

Reagan also told and re-told the story in the 1970s of a woman who defrauded the welfare system in order to undermine support for cash aid to the poor. The story was essentially true, but gave the impression of that cheating was the norm when scholars of welfare in the 1970s documented the more significant data, that millions who qualified for support had yet to get it. Throughout that debate and others like it, Reagan’s stories carried the day.

(Of course, Abraham Lincoln also deployed stories, many fanciful, for political ends, too.)

In that same policy debate, in the ‘80s, conservative analyst Charles Murray’s book, Losing Ground, became a major tool in rolling back Great Society initiatives for the poor. Much of the book’s rhetorical power came from Murray’s use of a fictional story, of “Harold and Phyllis,” to argue that welfare cheating and unwed motherhood had been encouraged by those policies. Murray’s statistical analysis may have been dubious, but the story was evocative.

Mayer’s suggestion that the seductiveness of stories are wired-in evolutionarily may help explain why conspiracy theories are so popular. Or perhaps, it is just that such stories are simpler to understand: a bankers’ plot is easier to grasp than complex economic mechanisms; a backroom strategy by an all-powerful White House to sell out America is easier to understand than a world of clashing cultures and national interests.

The power of the anecdote is hardly a new discovery. As Mayer points out, skilled PR operatives have long deployed them. Charities get better responses by highlighting one needy case (especially if attractive) than tabulating the volume of desperation. Newspaper editors have long made sure that a story about boring facts – say, the financial problems of pensions, or droughts in the Southwest – start off with a couple of paragraphs describing the personal story of one particular person (whether representative or not). Magazine editors know this. It seems as if every New Yorker feature on a development in science is interlaced the an account of the scientist’s personal – and usually odd – biography. Same with films: Critic David Denby recently noted, while discussing post-apocalypse movies, that, “In movies, the death of a single person is still a tragedy; the death of the human race is entertainment.”

In any event, I’m not sure we academics have successfully learned the Reagan lesson. (My previous blog post, on the persistence of racial disadvantage in America, for example, was heavy on references to data but lacking in stories.) Few of us convey the general findings of our research by including a concrete story of how things work on the ground for particular people.

Finally, this is not simply a matter of reaching the general public. Sometimes we social scientists would better understand how the general, abstracted patterns we discover actually work if we could tell a good, personal story showing those “social forces” in action.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History.

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Comment to "Telling stories vs. telling data":
    • Avi Rosenzweig

      When commerce is the main tool in your tool chest, everything starts to look like a commercial.

      People are short-sighted and selfish, so do you cater to them or try to improve them? The answer is both; the tricky part is deciding how much of each.

      Contrast commercial television and PBS: advertising-driven shows are all sizzle with as little steak as possible, while PBS follows the formula Fischer mentions where every scientific advance and nuanced history has to be leavened with neato graphics and personable badinage.

      Some on the committee want to bring the church to the people, others want to bring the people to church. It’s always like this. What’s new is the waxing paradigm of commercial success being ultimate success, and entertainment value being the ultimate value. When that happens, the best marketing strategy wins.

      Well, to paraphrase the sainted Mario Savio, some of us don’t mean to be commoditized, packaged, and labeled with a catchy photo and a web-friendly anecdote. It makes us sick at heart.

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