Science of Story Building: Use Emotion With Intention

If you work in a news organization or as part of a communications team that tells a lot of stories, this will sound too familiar: “We want to tell stories that pull at people’s heartstrings.” And that quest is at least halfway right: scientists at New York University have recently discovered that events associated with strong emotion are not only more memorable, but when we experience profound emotion, we also have stronger memories of the events that immediately follow whatever triggered that emotion.¹

Stories may often invoke the fear, sadness, joy and anger — emotions that psychologists have suggested are the basics. However, in a recent study led by researchers at UC Berkeley in which more than 800 participants reviewed 2000+ clips, researchers mapped 27 unique emotions. They placed them in an interactive map that you can explore . Their work was published in the Proceedings on the National Academies of Science.²

Why we have emotions, how and when they evolved, and how they affect behavior is a rich area of study. There have been significant new insights in recent decades about how our emotional processes may have evolved to help us overcome particular challenges. Evolutionary psychologists examine these in the context of adaptive problems: challenges directly connected to survival and the adaptations that would have allowed organisms to outcompete them. In essence, our emotions have evolved to help our brains and bodies sort out the most effective responses to a range of adaptive challenges like fleeing from a predator, fighting a foe or pursuing a mate.

A group of scholars at the University of Texas point out that most research has focused on emotions related to survival: fear, disgust and anger, but that from an evolutionary perspective romantic and parental love, sexual arousal and jealousy are equally relevant.³ When we consider the role of emotions from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, it becomes clear that feelings of embarrassment, envy, jealousy and both parental and romantic love — those associated with finding and keeping a mate or rearing a family — may be just as compelling as those associated with survival.

Looking at our emotions from an evolutionary perspective makes it easier to understand some of the specific functions associated with particular emotions. For example, disgust and memory might have a strong connection because remembering a pathogen that made us sick creates a desire to avoid that pathogen in the future. It might also help us understand why some emotions are so much easier to read on people’s faces than others: Fear, sadness, joy and disgust are hard to mistake. It would have been useful to a social group to observe when a member saw something that made her afraid even before she could describe it in words. Disgust would provide a signal to the rest of the group of something to be avoided.

This evolutionary perspective is important to us as storytellers because if we’re willing to consider that emotions evolved to create particular actions, then we know that activating those emotions through story may inspire specific kinds of responses.

Fear leads us to fight or flight. So if you use fear, it will be important to help your audience see how they can fight. While these emotions can be used effectively, we also know that people don’t willingly engage in unpleasant emotions, and. And those emotions that are so often overlooked — parental love, embarrassment or pride — may be more effective in your story than fear or sadness.

As organizations work to make their cause understood, they often try to invoke empathy — particularly for those we most want to help. It’s natural to want others to care as much as you do about the issues you are working on. That empathy is often directed toward the people that organization hopes to help — seniors, people who are homeless, refugees. But given that they’re asking their audiences to resonate with unpleasant emotions — such as grief or loss — it’s possible that people may tune out those stories.⁴ Other emotions might be more effective. For example, researchers at Columbia found that pride was far more effective than guilt in getting people to act to help the environment.⁵

A March 2018 MIT study that made headlines on fake news suggests that false news stories may travel six times as fast on Twitter as true ones. While the reasons for that are certainly complex, a summary of the research in Science points to a critical aspect of those most-tweeted stories: “As it turned out, tweets containing false information were more novel — they contained new information that a Twitter user hadn’t seen before — than those containing true information. And they elicited different emotional reactions, with people expressing greater surprise and disgust. That novelty and emotional charge seem to be what’s generating more retweets.”⁶

Pleasant emotions often get overlooked in storytelling, but they can be extremely powerful. Scholars have long understood the power of awe, also known as the “.” This theory was first captured by writer Frank White after he interviewed 29 astronauts. He found that people who had seen the Earth from space, or who observed someone who had, were filled with a sense of awe that opened them to new perspectives and connection to humanity. More recently, psychologists have suggested that inspiring awe in your audience can open people up to new ideas, foster self reflection and

We see this effect at work most often in film. Chasing Ice tells the story of James Balog, a time-lapse photographer on a quest to capture images of melting glaciers. This story juxtaposed against jaw-dropping images of the arctic landscape inspire awe, thrill as he goes on this adventure and anxiety for the ice caps we come to admire through his eyes. As a result, the film opens us to a new perspective on climate change.

Director Jeff Orlowski and his team at Exposure Labs built an effective social impact campaign around the film focused on the Ohio congressional district of former Republican Representative Patrick Tiberi. Tiberi had been public in his skepticism about climate change. The campaign showed the film throughout his district, and afterward, encouraged filmgoers to write to the congressman and post signs on social media encouraging him to change his stance. After three months of the campaign, he reversed his stance on climate change. While the film’s overview effect may not have directly caused the congressman to change his views, it certainly inspired his constituents to take action.


  1. Tambini, A., Rimmele, U., Phelps, E. A., & Davachi, L. (2017). Emotional brain states carry over and enhance future memory formation. Nature neuroscience, 20(2), 271.
  2. Cowen, A. S., & Keltner, D. (2017). Self-report captures 27 distinct categories of emotion bridged by continuous gradients. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(38), E7900-E7909.
  3. Al-Shawaf, L., Conroy-Beam, D., Asao, K., & Buss, D. M. (2016). Human emotions: An evolutionary psychological perspective. Emotion Review, 8(2), 173–186.
  4. Norgaard, K. M. (2006), “People Want to Protect Themselves a Little Bit”: Emotions, Denial, and Social Movement Nonparticipation. Sociological Inquiry, 76: 372–396. doi:
  5. Schneider, C. R., Zaval, L., Weber, E. U., & Markowitz, E. M. (2017). The influence of anticipated pride and guilt on pro-environmental decision making. PloS one, 12(11), e0188781.
  6. Vosoughi, S., Roy, D., & Aral, S. (2018). The spread of true and false news online. Science, 359(6380), 1146–1151.



What Science and Research Tells Us About Why Stories Work

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Ann Searight Christiano

Ann is the Frank Karel Chair and director of the Center for Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida.