Savvy Saturday – Narratives and Numbers

As I continue to study at the Ph.D. level, I become ever increasingly struck by the power of story and narrative on the human psyche. Academics and scientists like to pretend that facts and numbers drive society forward. If we can find statistically significant results, they say, we can change the way the world views important issues! We can eliminate disease and poverty; we can make people happy, wealthy, and wise! Surely, they say, if people just knew the facts, they would change their behavior and the way they think.

Surely, novelists say to academics, surely you jest. There is a huge difference between knowing a fact and having that fact impact your life. There is a vast chasm between reading a scientific paper and actually believing that scientific paper if it says something that you don’t already agree with. Emotion, narrative, and the personal experience of real or fictional others, far more than cold, hard numbers, are what sway people’s opinions.

Here’s an example for you. Suppose you were interested in purchasing a new television. You might go to Consumer Reports, where teams of experts rate different televisions on a number of objective measures and tell you which is the “best” quality for the money. Let’s say that you pick the one you like, and then go to your best friend and ask her opinion of the matter. “Oh, don’t get that one!” she says. “My cousin got that brand of television last month, and he’s had nothing but problems with it!” What do you do? If you’re like most people, that one personal review from a friend – passing along information from someone you don’t even know – will carry as much or more weight than the scientific tests as conducted by experts in the Consumer Reports magazine, whose jobs depend on making accurate comparisons between products.

Why? People are relational beings. We value experience. We value story. Facts and science are useful tools, and can provide a much-needed check on incorrect thinking, but even well-trained scientists have to work hard to overcome their natural urge to believe concrete narrative at the expense of abstract science.

As storytellers, then, it is our privilege as well as our duty to remember that the stories we tell may have a greater likelihood of impacting people’s perceptions than do the cold, hard facts of reality. On the positive side, we can tell a story that illustrates truths about life in a way that argues for the worldview that we believe is real and right and will result in positive outcomes. (Of course, we must make sure not to be didactic – narrative has the power to persuade only when people are swept up in the seeming reality of said narrative.) We need fairy tales, as Neil Gaiman put it, not because they say that dragons are real, but because they teach us that dragons can be beaten.

Charles Dickens exposed the social ills of his day by writing the character of Oliver Twist, who readers pitied and empathized with to such an extent that they changed their opinions of the way England treated its orphans. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was credited with influencing public opinion of the horrors of slavery in the Deep South to such an extent that individuals were willing to go to war to end it. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game gives an example of a brilliant child who is able to think on an adult level, take command of military forces, and save the world when adults cannot – inspiring adults to change what they believe about the abilities of children, and children to believe that they don’t have to wait until they grow up to do something important and heroic. More recently, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy gives us a concrete picture of the power of media to shape public perception, and the risks, rewards, and terrible costs of standing up to an oppressive regime. The fact that certain individuals in Thailand adopted the Hunger Games’ three-finger salute as a form of silent rebellion against their country’s oppressive regime (an action they were arrested for) just emphasizes the power of fiction, narrative, and personal example to shape our world.

Of course, like any power, the power of narrative comes with responsibility. When writers do sloppy research, or support a position that is harmful to our readers’ wellbeing, our work has the power to stick in people’s minds for years and actually keep them from changing unhealthful behaviors or beliefs. Works that glorify violence, fail to show the ramifications and natural consequences of illegal or rash behavior, or more subtly affirm stereotypes or beliefs that are untrue can have pernicious effects on the public consciousness.

For instance, the idea of “love at first sight” is a dangerous myth that psychologists, religious leaders, and academics have combated for generations. While individuals may be physically attracted to each other in an instant, enduring love is only built through work, self-sacrifice, purposeful choices, and a decision to continue to love when the other individual seems unlovable. But this true type of love isn’t what’s shown in our culture’s stories. Our fairy tales, YA books, and romance novels imagine an unrealistic narrative of two people meeting by chance, being swept off their feet, and living happily ever after. Though there is no way of quantifying the damage that this narrative causes to young men and women who are seeking examples of what it looks like to have healthy, happy relationships, it would be fair to say that the effect isn’t positive.

As storytellers, then, we need to both embrace and be cautious of the power of the words that we weave. We need to think critically about the issues that we deal with in our stories and the messages that we overtly or covertly share. We need to use our stories to accurately portray truths about the world we live in, to give faces to the facts and build our readers up rather than tear them down. We need to be thoughtful writers, and also thoughtful readers, doing the hard work of evaluating the stories we are exposed to and the facts in question rather than just accepting them. It is in this way that we truly can change the world, one heart, one mind, one narrative at a time.

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