Imagine you are presented with evidence of some sort, maybe pictures of a crime scene or some sort of accident. You see all of the physical evidence and you are given three stories to explain what you see. Each version is presented by a person who comes into the room to give their theory of the event. What we know about human nature tells us that you will agree with the best storyteller. Even if his story requires some leaps of logic.
Humans have been telling each other stories since we acquired language. Much of our social activity is story telling. When you go to a party, everyone there tells each other stories about their lives, their experiences, current events and so on. Some people are better at storytelling than others. These people tend to get invited to more social events, because they are entertaining and therefore pleasing. Even if they polish the apple a bit, people still like a good storyteller.
This is most obvious in politics. Ronald Reagan was famous for his short, pithy stories he would tell audiences on the stump. Sometimes they were just funny and other times they had a point. In the latter case, that point had something to do with some larger political point he was making. In the former case the story relaxed the audience and made them more open to his pitch. A man who can tell a good story is always someone we feel we can trust, even if we disagree with him.
Storytelling can be a highly effective form of logic. A persuasive storyteller will start with a set of objective facts. These are things that even a skeptical audience will accept as being true. Then the speaker provides a narrative to explain those facts and tie them to some cause, like a person or group of people. The narrative is presented in such a way that it appears to be the simplest and most likely explanation. For the listener, there is not obvious reason to dispute the conclusion.
This is a form of abductive reasoning. The conclusion is not proven in the sense that all other explanations have been eliminated. It is not proven in a scientific sense in that the causes are demonstrated to result in the stated conclusion. There is some doubt that the causal relationship is true, but it seems to be true and there is no obvious proof that it is not true. If the narrative is presented by a persuasive and charismatic speaker, then the listener is disinclined to question the conclusion.
The writer Ben Novak wrote a book explaining how Adolf Hitler was able to use the power of narrative to persuade the German people. For those looking for the short version, Greg Johnson reviews it here. The key to Hitler’s success as a politician was his ability to reframe events in such a way that changed how people viewed those events and the people involved in those events. Hitler changed the way in which people interacted with their world through his speeches.
Getting back to the example of three people trying to explain images from what looks like a crime scene, the reason you will go with “the best explanation” is that your brain has an idea of what the best answer is before you hear the stories. If you hear three dry presentations, then you will pick the one that matches the one in your head. On the other hand, if one is presented by a great storyteller and he takes you on a journey to an entirely new conclusion, your mental model will change.
Take a step back and the three great ideologies of the last century were basically narratives that framed how people experienced politics. The communist narrative was a story of class struggle. The workers versus the capitalists. The liberal democratic narrative was the story of political struggle. The people versus the powerful interests that rule every society. Fascism was the story of national struggle, the people versus the internationalists who run the global economy.
The point of all this is that human beings have evolved to understand the world through a mental framework. We have a conception of how the world works and we process information through that framework. That framework is the product of our upbringing, our experiences and the culture in which we live. It is not a permanent part of our consciousness that forms and remains static. It evolves and therefore it can be altered by new experiences, like a great story from a great speaker.
We see this in the current election cycle. Gavin Newsome, the governor of California, says his party is in trouble because they are “getting crushed on narrative.” It is not the economy or culture; their problem is they have not presented a “compelling alternative narrative” to the Republicans. No one can tell you what the Republican narrative is, but he is sure it must be better. How else can one explain why voters appear to be moving against the Democrats next week?
This incredible op-ed in the Financial Times lays the blame for inflation at the feet of the storytellers, rather than economic policy. You see, corporations are taking advantage of inflation to raise prices higher than necessary. They can do this because “the power of storytelling has conditioned consumers to accept price rises.” You see, “consumers seem to be buying stories that seem to justify price increases, but which really serve as cover for profit margin expansion.”
What those two examples suggest is that the great promoters of liberal democracy think the tenets of liberal democracy are nonsense. The politicians think people are morons who will fall for a good story, rather than vote their interests. The economists think consumers are not swayed by prices but by irrational beliefs. The premise of liberal democracy is that people understand their interests. If given the chance in a democratic system or a market economy, they will express those interests.
In reality, people will go along with that which keeps them in good standing with their fellows, even if it is against their interests. It is why a good storyteller can be so effective in liberal politics. He can get the crowd nodding along. Each member sees those around him agreeing to the pleasing story. Even if the story is clearly against his interests, he will justify nodding along with it. After all, every human brain has a narrative of sacrifice built into it at a young age.
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