Storytelling From a Three-Legged Stool

Speaking_of_Science_webOnce upon a time, I watched Dacher Keltner on the BBC series The Human Face and Lera Boroditsky on the National Geographic series Brain Games. Both segments captured the very heart of psychological science in an admirably accessible fashion, so I asked them what advice they would give to scholars who wish to share their science with intellectually engaged laypersons. Here is what I learned. Storytelling flourishes across time and space, through oral traditions and campfire ghost stories, ritual dance and modern ballet, cave paintings and picture books, 18th-century opera and Broadway musicals, photojournalism and 3-D movies. It is ubiquitous, entertaining, and instructive. When the opportunity arises to share our science, we do not simply reiterate the prevailing theories, detail our clever operationalizations, describe inferential statistics, and display impressive graphs. We instead assume the role of storyteller, drawing our audience into tales of the human condition, of the scientist’s journey, of the bizarre coincidences of psychological science. Our stories are best shared from a stool supported by three legs: Stories of psychological science are meaningful, coherent, and memorable.

Meaningfulness. As communicators of science, psychological researchers hold the enviable advantage of a ready and invested audience. Insights from psychology are useful across the broadest range of human endeavor: in law, business, medicine, politics, engineering, religion, arts, and everywhere in between. Psychological scientists work on questions that everyone already wonders about — the big questions about the human condition and human potential. Dacher says that these are timeless questions: Are we wired for goodness? How does language influence thought? What is happiness, and how do we achieve it? How do our experiences shape our actions? Why do our senses deceive us? The stories that we love best — from childhood fantasy novels to Shakespeare to sprawling sagas and tragic biopics — all speak to these questions, and so can we. Our work naturally resonates, and we should capitalize upon this fact.

Coherence. Stories have a predictable structure that renders them coherent. There is the hero’s quest, the great battle between two factions, the “just-so” story, the post-modern “everyman’s” search for meaning in a confusing world. When a scientist embarks upon a research journey, she or he encounters obstacles and enemies, fails miserably, devises solutions, and makes accidental discoveries along the way. Two opposing theories vie for prominence in explaining a phenomenon for decades until a meta-analyst defines territory through mediation and moderation. Speculation about the origins of a well-documented behavior cycle in and out of fashion until a serendipitous discovery casts earlier stories into the dust. Following these predictable structures, the audience learns about how the scientist went about arriving at his or her conclusions, the process of science, our mistaken notions, the authority of hindsight, and the cumulative and interconnected nature of the scientific enterprise. The story structure shares how humans try to discover who we are with the tools of our science, and the importance of perseverance, collaboration, insight, humor, and good-old-fashioned luck.

Memorability. Lera says that good stories are sticky and contagious: We remember them, and want to tell others about them at a party. The stories of psychological science are memorable not only because they are meaningful and can follow predictable story structures, but also because they allow flexibility in perspective, which helps shape what is remembered. The audience can be drawn into the “everyman” perspective of the research participant. (How do I tie these two hanging ropes together when they are 6 feet apart? Why didn’t I see that gorilla walk through the scene? Why did hearing someone describe a zebra riding a rhinoceros draw that image in my mind? Should I help that person in the ditch?) The audience may also be prompted to adopt the perspective of the scientist, following her or his inductive and deductive reasoning. (How would I know if happiness is stable across the lifetime? Why do some people defend public figures who make racist comments? How does chronic stress change neural structure and brain activity?) Granted, a lay audience may not remember every detail of a 10-minute segment about our research, but neither do our colleagues remember every detail of our latest journal article. If our stories are good ones, audiences will want to hear them again and again — or at least will be interested in sequels, prequels, and spin-offs. So relish opportunities to share a science that lends itself naturally to storytelling. And tell your stories often, widely, and well.

The End.


While I fully agree that good stories are more interesting and memorable than are journal articles full of arcane statistics, I don’t necessarily agree that these are the main pillars for good story telling about psychology or any other subject. What about surprise as a factor, for instance? Story telling works in all walks of life and for all subjects. But I think the most important secret is to make the stories more about the humans involved and how they did things and less about the gritty details of a wonderful find – Rusher’s Meaningfulness. I am trying to become an historian of military psychology in my old age and I very much subscribe to Barabara Tuckman’s admonition to always try to tell a good story.

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