Humans are storytellers. Long before the evening news, executive summaries, or pie charts, we sat around the campfire, weaving the day’s events into narrative. Through those first tales, our ancestors learned where to find the best food and how to escape from danger. Storytelling is still in our blood. We remember information better if it’s embedded in stories. We believe new ideas more readily. We take fictional characters as heroes, and use their exploits as guidelines for our own decisions.
Scientists are also storytellers. That’s what my graduate advisor explained when I started writing my first psychology paper. Actually, science has to tell two stories. The first is the tale of the research itself. The scientist has an idea about how the world works. There’s risk in testing it—if she knew the answer, it wouldn’t be necessary to ask the question. But she goes ahead, setting up the conditions just so, seeking an answer. What will she find? As in a good book, the conclusion should be surprising, yet make complete sense in light of everything that came before. If it’s not, the article reader is just as likely as the novel reader to throw the thing across the room. Or write a scathing critique. Scientists write good scathing critiques.
The second story is about why the findings matter. What do they mean outside the lab? My paper showed how wishful thinking can rewrite memories. Anyone who’s been in a he-said-she-said argument knows that we often recall what we want to be true rather than what is true. So I talked about those arguments—more a vivid example than a story. I also talked about a patient diagnosed with an unfamiliar disease, searching for facts—and then trying to remember whether the miracle cure was reported by the Mayo Clinic or a pseudoscience site. Suspense is vital to storytelling. Will our hypothetical patient remember the cure as probably false, and focus on real treatments, or will she succumb to temptation? I’m sorry to say that my results gave her only about a 40 percent chance of a happy ending.
This authorial bent doesn’t really jibe with the stereotype of the white-coated researcher. But science also tells us why we’re such story-driven creatures. There’s the evolutionary explanation that I started with—for a long time, paying attention to stories has been an important survival strategy. Too, stories match the structure of the mind. Broken down to its basic components, a story is a rich network of interconnected causes and effects, motivations and goals. Our minds depend on these kinds of networks. The more connections an idea has, the easier it is to think about, remember, and believe.
Over the course of my life, I’ve looked at stories from more or less every possible angle. I’ve read them, watched them, written them, and studied them. I’ve sometimes heard people describe the power of stories as irrational: we should get over the need for narrative, and judge the world based on pure numbers. From the numbers in my studies, this isn’t going to happen. Stories are in our blood and unlikely to get out. As scientists, we just need to tell good ones, and true.