It’s a well-established claim that humans are narrative animals. Artists, neuroscientists, ad designers, psychologists, and even political scientists are aware of the uniquely powerful relationship that we have with storytelling. As an English educator for over ten years, exploring the tools and influence of narrative has always been a central feature of my work. And as much as educators encourage children to read for pleasure and language fluency, understanding narrative also helps to navigate the world by understanding relationships, traits, meaning, and values.
But narrative can also be put to darker purposes, especially in political and economic situations employing narrative instead of evidence-driven messaging. We’re used to interacting with storytelling in specific arenas like theaters and libraries, but less accustomed to spotting it in the wild. Since narrative can easily frame our expectations and tap into our emotions, it has the ability to circumvent our higher reasoning if we aren’t aware of the ways it functions.
Below are four commonly-used storytelling tools that can trick us if we’re unprepared.
This is probably the easiest tool to spot, since it involves saying the same word or phrase over and over. What’s less apparent is the lasting impact that repetition can have on our memories. Repeated information becomes more familiar, and it’s this familiarity that can let the information slip past our mental defenses.
In part of his Nobel-winning research (presented in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow) psychologist Daniel Kahneman points to research that shows how we can confuse our familiarity with an idea and that idea’s factual correctness. In an experiment, subjects were “primed” by casual exposure to invented names before being given a list of names and tasked with identifying celebrities on the list. Primed subjects were more likely to identify the invented names as celebrities due to the familiarity of the name.
Narrative loves to cash in on this sense of the familiar by repeating words or phrases or ideas to increase our associations with the material. It produces a satisfying feeling when we see all the elements of a story fit together into a brilliant pattern at the end.
But the real world is hardly as tidy and clean-cut as a story, with plenty more information to consider beyond just the familiar.
2. Plot-Focused Narrative
Stories usually offer a clear conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist. And while several subplots emerge and resolve along the way, a single conflict typically drives the main plot of the story. From a storytelling perspective, this makes sense so your audience isn’t forced to keep track of several variables of greater or lesser importance over time. Storytelling prioritizes entertainment, after all.
But when this kind of thinking is applied to the real world, it results in the single cause fallacy, in which a simplified single cause ends up being responsible for a problem. A common target of this fallacious thinking is the K-T extinction 65 million years ago, which many people and sources mistakenly conceive of as a single and immediate eradication of all dinosaur life on the planet rather than multiple causes across a period of time.
And when analyzing political issues, with multiple competing motivations and perspectives, the probability of neatly pointing to a single cause becomes all the more unlikely.
Seeking out multiple sources and weighing the many factors that contribute to an issue are part of making informed decisions — noticeable departures from the expectations placed on us when digesting narrative.
This is among the sneakier narrative tools, especially in the modern digital landscape where context is both incredibly important and increasingly rare (see: Poe’s Law). Irony — a powerful narrative device wielded by literary giants like Swift, Twain, and Vonnegut — has become so problematic recently that many publications have taken it upon themselves to put disclaimers or bold-type labels on their satirical work. And while irony has always had to walk a fine line to do its job, paralipsis doesn’t require nearly as much skill.
Paralipsis is the term for emphasis through denial. In narrative, it directs attention and expectations for the audience; by denying that a possibility exists, the audience both puts the supposed impossibility to the side and responds with that familiar “a-ha!” when it eventually happens. This is the device at play in Titanic when Billy Zane’s Cal Hockley declares, “It is unsinkable! God himself could not sink this ship!”
In narrative, paralipsis produces a satisfying turnabout. However, the tool can be co-opted for gaslighting an audience when a speaker attempts to have it both ways by downplaying or disregarding a subject while delivering a jab along the way. A typical version looks like: “I don’t want to talk about [an opponent’s negative quality], so let’s stick to the topic.”
Paralipsis can also flow into red-herring avoidance in ways like: “I don’t know about [the question I was asked], but what I will tell you is [an unrelated idea that is helpful to my argument and/or harmful to an opponent’s].”
This is the same kind of bad faith behavior seen in the final narrative tool of deception.
Anyone who’s taken a 9th grade speech class knows the triad of ethos, pathos, and logos necessary for delivering a well-crafted argument. And anyone who’s read a story knows the importance of having emotional dimensions to make the reader care about the plot and the characters. So what’s the problem?
The problem comes when the pathos, or emotional content, dominates the message. Our judgment is particularly susceptible to emotions like anger and fear, which narrow our focus toward the short term and impulses rather than the long view. Messages lacking in facts and credibility make it difficult for us to measure their content and determine what’s useful.
And while these difficulties with measuring content aren’t a problem when we consume stories for entertainment, they are problematic when we’re asked to accept narrative for informational or instructive purposes — both areas of our life that are becoming more integrated with narrative techniques every day.
Narrative may be integral to expressing our humanity, but when engaging with stories we are often asked to temporarily suspend our disbelief, to lower our mental defenses to allow ourselves to be entertained. Understanding how narrative operates — and in what situations to suspend our disbelief and in what situations to engage it —helps to protect ourselves against the tricks that would exploit our vulnerabilities.
And by better understanding narrative, we also learn how to better tell our own stories and to appreciate the stories of others.