When A Story Is Transfixing, Hearing Is Believing

After some recent performances of (mostly) TRUE THINGS — a show in which 3 out of the 4 storytellers in the line-up change a few details in their narrative of a personal experience and 1 person tells it straight — some friends were discussing how difficult it was to pick out the little white lies. When Brian Grossi, a New York comedian, told a hilarious story about working the night shift of a hotel where he had difficult dealings with an out-of-control famous baseball player, no one picked up on a sports reference he included that was completely made up.

In our April show actor/director Ron Hines, of the Leadership Through Drama organization in Iowa, told a heartbreaking — and ultimately hopeful — story about his daughter’s harrowing illness in which he managed to weave a song playing on the radio as he drives home thinking about her, a song that had not yet been written at the time of the story. Often audiences miss these discrepancies because the stories are so engaging. The mostly true parts of the stories in this show almost always shock the audience when revealed, and science explains why. It turns out that the more emotionally absorbing — and well-told — a story is, the more powerfully it persuades us that every word is true.

When a story is transfixing, we are more likely to believe it, according to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. When stories are compelling enough to “transport” the listener — a state of mind which “causes people to be less motivated (or less able) to disbelieve any particular conclusion” — they have the effect of diminishing the desire to think question or think critically. Teacher and author Jonathan Gottschall writes about this research in his Fast Company article “Why Storytelling Is The Ultimate Weapon,” “The more absorbed readers are in a story, the more the story changes them. Highly absorbed readers also detected significantly fewer “false notes” in stories — inaccuracies, missteps — than less transported readers. Importantly, it is not just that highly absorbed readers detected the false notes and didn’t care about them (as when we watch a pleasurably idiotic action film). They were unable to detect the false notes in the first place.”
 So if we want to persuade people to an idea or to buy into a cause, we need to tell a good story. According to Gottschall, “the story is actually just a delivery system for the teller’s agenda. A story is a trick for sneaking a message into the fortified citadel of the human mind.” In this way, a story can deeply impact a person’s thinking and beliefs, for better or for worse. Advertising and politics are creative storytelling at their most persuasive, through which our beliefs can be remarkably influenced in ways that have nothing to do with the truth about a product or a policy. A discerning mind can deconstruct a carefully-crafted deception, but it does take some of the fun out of it.

Jude Treder-Wolff is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. She is the host and creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS. Follow her on Twitter.