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Hearing Is Believing: Why We Are Suckers For An Absorbing Story

   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. In social worker and actress Rosemary Flanagan's story about the impact of Nikita Kruschev's visit to the White House on an elementary-school girl's imagination, she brought us thoroughly into her thinking as a child dealing with civil
by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP 
defense drills, threats of nuclear annihilation and other realities of the Cold War. The story was so engaging that her one (purposely) misstated historical fact went by unnoticed. And when former NYC police officer Regina Pasqualino described what she learned by being the only female from law enforcement at a rape scene, we were so caught up in the world she drew us into that we completely believed one not-so-subtle inconsistency. The details the storytellers change in these stories do not change the emotional or narrative arc of the story, and when they are revealed at the end of the show almost always shock the audience. There is science that explains this, which nerds like me have an abiding interest in knowing about. And 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 emotionally absorbing, we are more likely to believe it, according to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Stories can impact beliefs when they 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" by 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."
   Science seems to confirm that we are suckers for a good story. Which also means we can be suckered by a good storyteller, according to Gottschall, because "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." So a story can deeply impact our thinking, 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.


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