Processes before personalities
It's too bad we don't know more about persuading people without the help of stories
Every year, enormous sums of money are spent to persuade Americans about what to do and how to spend. Advertising and marketing are estimated to be worth $390 billion annually, or almost $1,200 per person. That's an enormous volume of expenditure -- and it doesn't include the investments required to try to persuade people through other means. Yet surely we devote considerable resources to everything from stemwinding speech-makers at political rallies to religious ministers exhorting people from the pulpit, not to mention bloggers, meme-creators, and podcast hosts -- all generally trying to persuade others to align with a point of view.
■ For all of the time and money devoted to persuasion, it's a shame that there hasn't been more devoted to cracking one of the toughest problems in psychology: Our predisposition to believing and remembering stories far easier than facts and abstract ideas. We have at least some understanding of the neurological and biochemical factors involved -- stories activate emotional stimulation, which in turn motivates us to remember and to act.
■ The problem is that people know this power, sometimes intuitively. Others study the effect and treat it as a way to "hack" the learning process. Done by people with good motives, it can be a useful tool. But it's done as well by people with ill motives who know that a story does not need to be the whole truth in order to work. Thus we are awash in "narratives", some entirely false, some misrepresenting the facts, and some fully true, all of which tend to influence the audience's thinking more than an objective report on reality. This is why "controlling the narrative" is such a powerful tool -- either for good or for evil.
■ Unfortunately, stories tend to be reductionist, especially in their ability to cast individual participants as either heroes or villains. This, in turn, makes it hard to keep fact and fiction in common play, especially when matters are in dispute or take place within gray areas (as most issues are). A more complex, more human James Bond is more interesting to some, but many people prefer simpler hero/villain dichotomies not only in their fiction but in their realities as well.
■ It would be a great public service to find not a new hack that makes storytelling even more powerful, but to find the tools necessary to make facts and abstractions and gray spaces easier to understand and internalize. Our tendency to favor stories makes us susceptible to casting our lots -- politically, socially, even religiously -- with personalities rather than with processes and principles. And that can be dangerous, not only because it leaves us exposed to the malice of charismatic evildoers, but also to mass movements that tend towards cults of personality. Somewhere, deep within our vast economic engine, can we find just a sliver of the $390 billion devoted today to persuasion and point it towards cracking the code on facts and abstract thought instead?