The Science of Storytelling, Part 1: Understanding Cause and Effect

This series explains the science that makes storytelling such an effective form of communication. We begin by exploring how stories help our brains process the complexity of the world around us.

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From birth, our brains begin to understand the world by forming cause-and-effect relationships: “If this happens, then that happens.” Our brains are constantly searching for answers to make sense of the world. It’s why toddlers never get tired of asking “why?”

Learning cause-and-effect relationships can be amusing for children (“If I throw my food on the floor, then my parents have to pick it up”) or the source of important lessons (“If I don’t finish my vegetables, then I don’t get dessert.”)

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Evolutionary psychologists suggest an important reason for this tendency: We need to understand what in the world can cause us danger, so we can take action that helps us survive.

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Stories help immensely with this. By putting people in the picture — often in the form of heroes trying to create change and villains trying to stop them — stories give our brains a shortcut to understanding cause-and-effect relationships.

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Stories can help cut through complexity when the cause of a problem is hard to pin down — such as the financial crisis that rocked the world’s economy. Stories can put the focus on people affected by the problem, those who caused the problem and those with the power to change the system.

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The power of storytelling can cut both ways. After the financial crisis, for example, stories in the news media highlighted consumers who took out loans they couldn’t afford. This storyline led people to believe irresponsible consumers caused the crisis, which stalled momentum for reforming the financial system.

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The Hattaway team worked with advocates to build support for reform by telling stories of “fast-talking mortgage brokers” and “Wall Street speculators” who duped consumers and got rich in the process. Making the root cause of the crisis clear — with characters vividly portraying the real cause of the crisis — helped advance reform of the financial system.

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The lesson for effective communication is clear: Tell a story that helps your audience understand the root cause of a problem in simple, human terms — and they’ll be more motivated to support a solution.

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This article features original illustrations from Angel Kim of Hattaway Communications. To begin your own storytelling journey, visit Hatch for Good—an online resource to help you create powerful stories for the greater good.

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