Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Telling stories vs. telling data

By Claude Fischer

Ronald Reagan

In a just-releasedpreviewof his new book,Narrative and Collective Action, public-policy scholar Frederick W. Mayer of Duke University discusses the power of the well-told story for leaders of social movements and politicians. Starting with the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mayer recounts how effective leaders deploy stories rather than analyses. Stories compel us, he says, for almost biological reasons; they can draw people to collective action if they are the right stories, ones that resonate with the listeners biases. Perhaps by imaginatively making us actors in the unfolding excitement, stories move us to action.

Ronald Reagan

For many social scientists, stories, particularly personal stories, are mere anecdotes. They drive us nuts by driving out data. Commonly, undergraduates will respond to a well-established finding in the social sciences say, that rich people are happier than poor, that racial discrimination persists, that children face better odds if they live with two parents by raising a hand and saying, But I have an aunt who or I know this guy who. More importantly, the public persuasiveness of a personal story well told trumps tables of data anytime. Ronald Reagan taught me that.

Telling tales

Ronald Reagan, a B-movie actor and an experienced rubber chicken circuit speaker before he became a candidate for office, had remarkable skills in telling amusing, heart-warming, patriotic, and politically-pointed stories. Some of the stories were false or stretched. A famous one about an airmans self-sacrifice in WWII turned out to be drawn froma movie.

Reagan also told and re-told the story in the 1970s of a woman whodefraudedthe welfare system in order to undermine support for cash aid to the poor. The story was essentially true, but gave the impression of that cheating was the norm when scholars of welfare in the 1970s documented the more significant data, that millions who qualified for support had yet to get it. Throughout that debate and others like it, Reagans stories carried the day.

(Of course, Abraham Lincoln also deployed stories, many fanciful, for political ends, too.)

In that same policy debate, in the 80s, conservative analyst Charles Murrays book,Losing Ground, became a major tool in rolling back Great Society initiatives for the poor. Much of the books rhetorical power came from Murrays use of a fictional story, of Harold and Phyllis, to argue that welfare cheating and unwed motherhood had been encouraged by those policies. Murrays statistical analysis may have beendubious, but the story was evocative.

Mayer's suggestion that the seductiveness of stories are wired-in evolutionarily may help explain whyconspiracy theoriesare so popular. Or perhaps, it is just that such stories are simpler to understand: a bankers plot is easier to grasp than complex economic mechanisms; a backroom strategy by an all-powerful White House to sell out America is easier to understand than a world of clashing cultures and national interests.

The power of the anecdote is hardly a new discovery. As Mayer points out, skilled PR operatives have long deployed them. Charities get better responses by highlighting one needy case (especially if attractive) than tabulating the volume of desperation. Newspaper editors have long made sure that a story about boring facts say, the financial problems of pensions, or droughts in the Southwest start off with a couple of paragraphs describing the personal story of one particular person (whether representative or not). Magazine editors know this. It seems as if everyNew Yorkerfeature on a development in science is interlaced the an account of the scientists personal and usually odd biography. Same with films: Critic David Denby recentlynoted, while discussing post-apocalypse movies, that, In movies, the death of a single person is still a tragedy; the death of the human race is entertainment.

In any event, Im not sure we academics have successfully learned the Reagan lesson. (My previous blog post, on the persistence of racial disadvantage in America, for example, was heavy on references to data but lacking in stories.) Few of us convey the general findings of our research by including a concrete story of how things work on the ground for particular people.

Finally, this is not simply a matter of reaching the general public. Sometimes we social scientists would better understand how the general, abstracted patterns we discover actually work if we could tell a good, personal story showing those social forces in action.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischers blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History.