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Beware: A Good Story Makes Us Vulnerable to Persuasion

Stories can provide answers that "feel right" even when based on misinformation.

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The pandemic, politics, and social protests make this a particularly volatile time: Emotions are on edge, and tension is high. This is a time when we are all vulnerable to embracing stories based on our emotions and fear—stories that confirm our beliefs and rationalize our behavior. When it comes to stories, we are all prisoners of our neural structures. Recognizing the innate power of storytelling and our instinctive response is an essential defensive skill in a chaotic and contentious environment when we’re most in need of certainty and reassurance.

Humans have always been storytellers. Stories have been delivered across different media throughout recorded history since the Cro-Magnon figured out that mineral pigments like iron oxide and black manganese could be applied to the sides of rocks and caves. Stories chronicle life, communicate information and social norms, entertain, inspire, and persuade.

How we tell those stories, however, has evolved to take advantage of changes in technology. Marshall McLuhan famously argued that “the medium is the message,” where technologies influence culture by forcing social adaptations over time to new systems and information flows that ultimately impact meaning.

The fluidity and capabilities of technology today present new challenges and opportunities for storytelling far beyond what the cave painters and wandering minstrels could imagine. Media content is delivered through a technology-enabled mashup of ancient traditions with the power and leverage of current communication networks. Where McLuhan claimed that the printing press led to the rise of the scientific method by forcing a linear progression on arguments. People now tell and consume stories across platforms and in non-linear spaces that McLuhan might argue spawned systems and network theories.

The ubiquity of technology means that all narratives are transmedia and immersive, with parts and wholes circling around our awareness from multiple sources. This is cognitively efficient, because this synthesis of sources is, in fact, how the brain builds understanding, models, and beliefs. Where entertainment would call this a story world—a defined universe with specific attributes that situates multi-strand narratives—stories don't have to be in a fully developed story world for us to adopt them.

For better or worse, the human brain fills in the blanks from existing information made up of previous experiences, beliefs, and other stories. An image of a frosty beer bottle in front of a sparkling, turquoise-blue sea tells a story of how we can escape into relaxation and lazy warmth, especially when we associate beer with relaxing. A phrase or political rhetoric can paint a vivid picture if it taps into fears about losing your job or closing your business.

The barest structure of a story that triggers emotion and images can wrap itself around us, framing our reality. Stories call up other stories, each serving to validate the whole through familiarity, leading us to believe fiction over fact and rhetoric over science. Technology adds to the persuasive impact with rich media that make things feel real, limitless channels that increase frequency and amplification validated by word-of-mouth sharing.

Technology may be increasingly sophisticated, but consumer tools are moving in the opposite direction, empowering an army of storytellers. The ability to capture, edit, create, and share is less expensive, more accessible, and very user-friendly. The boundaries are blurring not just across technologies but in all directions, as people assume multiple roles—creating, using, producing, augmenting, distributing, hacking, mashing, and self-promoting. Consumer-driven technologies have created new forms of authority that elevate "regular people" into influencers, self-publishers, and self-promoters who present as experts based on their ability to tell a good story and cultivate a massive fanbase.

Unfortunately, our human brains are on a much slower evolutionary trajectory than technology. No matter what the technology, stories start in the brain. Our brains respond to content by looking for a story that makes sense out of an event relative to what we already know or experience. However, technology tips the scales by conferring the perception of authenticity and verisimilitude on a storyteller that enhances resonance and believability.

It used to be that public experts and celebrities were curated by a system. Whether you agree with that system or not, it functioned as a filter. But more importantly, we assumed that anyone in the media must actually be an expert. We still operate from that model—where fame equals expertise and authority. When we're in need of an answer, justification, or just plain comfort, hearing a story from an authority that feels right also feels good. Facts be damned.

Stories have the ability to stick and persuade by triggering several psychological mechanisms: social connection, comfort, familiarity, reassurance, identification, imagination, and emotion. Engagement is not a conscious action. It occurs without our awareness, pulling us into a story, and lowering our cognitive resistance to persuasion. This quality makes entertainment satisfying but makes us vulnerable to narrative manipulation. Recognizing this can show us what we're up against in the media battles for our hearts and minds.

More from Pamela B. Rutledge Ph.D., M.B.A.
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