Skip to Content
9 Min Read

Stories Rule Your Brain

This article first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Change Agent.

Understanding the science behind them can empower you to build support for your cause.

During the summer of 2017, no topic garnered as much attention on Capitol Hill as Republicans’ repeated attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, or ACA. Health care policy, as many Americans discovered, can be unendingly complex. Debates often hinge on the nuances of block grants, tax incentives, and assumptions underlying economic forecasts.

But on May 1, late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel opened his show with an emotional story about his newborn son that put a human face on the debate. In vivid detail, Kimmel told the audience how his son had needed open-heart surgery mere hours after birth—and issued a heartfelt plea for policies to help children born in similar situations but without his resources.

“Until a few years ago, millions and millions of us had no access to health insurance at all,” Kimmel said, teary-eyed. “If your baby is going to die and they don’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make. No parent should ever have to decide if they can afford to save their child’s life.”

Kimmel recounts the birth of his son, William Kimmel, on May 1st episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live! Source: YouTube / Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Three days after the monologue went viral, the House of Representatives passed a version of ACA repeal that the Congressional Budget Office estimated would leave 23 million Americans uninsured. By late June, however, public support for the Republican plans brewing in the Senate cratered to 12 percent. And by late September, Republican Senate leaders had effectively abandoned their effort to repeal and replace the ACA.

Legislators had been arguing over the merits of health care policy for decades. Tax economists at the Congressional Budget Office and Washington, D.C., think tanks had toiled away for months to predict the impact of each proposal. And newspapers provided dramatic, above-the-fold coverage of the political dealings. Yet Kimmel’s personal story broke through, and helped change the debate. Why?

More than we might care to admit, stories—especially ones that focus on people, and their hopes and values—have enormous influence over how we view the world. Understanding why can help you harness the power of storytelling to advance your own cause.

We’re hardwired to understand the world through stories.

Understanding the power of stories begins with understanding patterns. Consider the following sequences:

Rock, paper, _____

A priest, a rabbi, and an imam walk into a _____

More likely than not, you instantly knew how to fill in each blank. That’s because our brains have developed a propensity for recognizing patterns. Evolutionary psychologists suggest an important reason: Humans need to recognize the things that can cause us danger so we can take action to survive. And we need to do it without stopping to think.

Rather than separately assessing every situation we encounter, our brains search for similar experiences stored in our memories. Each time we recognize a pattern, our brains actually release a burst of dopamine, a chemical that creates feelings of pleasure or joy. This “reward” drives us to engage in behaviors advantageous to our survival.

Because our early ancestors needed to hunt to live, they learned to recognize the sound of antelopes rustling in the bush and associate them with an opportunity to eat. Each encounter may have been a little different, but the hunters couldn’t afford to stop and think before pursuing their prey.

Stories help us understand the world by distilling the highly variable and complex situations we encounter every day into recognizable patterns that are easier to process. They help us respond, usually quickly and appropriately, to the world around us—even when we’ve never personally experienced a similar situation. Today, you might hear gunshots ring out in a crowded area and, without thinking, dive for cover.

But stories do more than help us recognize patterns in the situations we encounter: They provide a shortcut for understanding the factors behind them. From birth, our brains begin to process information by forming cause-and-effect relationships. We constantly search for causes to explain our circumstances. It’s why toddlers never get tired of asking, “Why?”

Stories answer the “why” by turning multifaceted events into simpler cause-and-effect relationships, complete with people we can envision. They are especially useful when the situation is complex or the cause of a problem is hard to pin down—like federal health care policy. Instead of abstract ideas, trends, or figures, stories introduce us to the people affected by the problem, those who caused the problem, and those with the power to create change.

Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue influenced the debate not because it added crucial new information, but because it presented policy abstractions in stark, human terms. A little boy—who we could see—survived because he had access to the doctors who could save his life, no matter the cost. The problem, unstated but no less clear, was politicians trying to take that same access away from millions of others.

The stories we hear shape our responses to events—for better and for worse.

While stories help us understand the world, they don’t always help us understand it accurately. The stories that quickly form in our brains to make sense of complexity can lead us astray—and lead to very real consequences.

Take the example of the 2008 financial crisis that rocked the world’s economy. In the throes of the crisis, many news stories highlighted the role of consumers who took out loans they couldn’t afford, leading readers to believe that irresponsible consumers caused the crisis. A Rasmussen poll showed that 54 percent of Americans subscribed to this theory, while only 24 percent blamed Wall Street.

Fox Business contributors discuss the causes of the 2008 financial crisis. They weren’t blaming Wall Street. Source: YouTube / Fox Business Live.

Echoing this logic, then-presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) moralized that “it was only a matter of time before a contagion of unsustainable debt began to spread.”

Because this oft-repeated story blamed aspiring homeowners rather than the people making reckless loans (and breaking the law), it stalled momentum for reform that could prevent future crises. No matter their accuracy, complex arguments about subprime mortgages and regulatory proposals failed to move the needle. Instead, advocates needed a new narrative that would motivate policymakers and their constituents to support reform, and stories to bring it to life.

Our firm, Hattaway Communications, Inc., worked with advocates to craft a different set of stories about “fast-talking mortgage brokers” and “Wall Street speculators” who duped consumers and got rich. This new narrative put this complex, abstract topic of subprime lending into human terms that people could understand and immediately relate to. People may have been confused by regulatory reform, but they were outraged by stories of homeowners who were pressured by fast-talking brokers into taking on expensive mortgage s  and later defaulted, losing their homes and savings in the process.

Making the root cause of the crisis clear through stories—with characters vividly portraying the real perpetrators—helped shift public opinion and clear the way for action. In July 2010, President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Act, the most significant regulation of the U.S. financial industry since the aftermath of the Great Depression. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, three years after Dodd-Frank’s passage, a plurality of Americans—49 percent—still felt the government had “not gone far enough in regulating financial institutions.”

You can put stories to work for your cause.

Helping people understand complex issues is challenging — especially when your goal is to transform systems, address deeply intertwined issues, or implement nuanced policies. Savvy communicators build support for their causes by taking advantage of how our brains are programmed. Telling stories that state the root cause of a problem in simple, human terms can shape how people view the issues you work on and the solutions you offer.

The most effective storytelling takes advantage of our penchant for pattern recognition, using chronological plots in which one action leads to another. A Hollywood thriller keeps us on the edge of our seat while a surprising plot twist at the end can leave us shaken (like Darth Vader declaring he is Luke Skywalker’s father). When we’re lost in the midst of a well-told story, our brain looks for patterns. Rather than consciously scrutinizing the information in front of us, we seek the satisfaction of seeing the pattern completed.

At Hattaway Communications, we use a simple but powerful tool, —called the Social Impact Story Map, —to help our clients craft stories that capture people’s attention.

The map prompts you to think about social impact in terms of a chronological plot—about the people pursuing change, doubts or concerns facing them, steps toward a possible solution, obstacles they encounter along the way, and ultimately the change they make in people’s lives. You can apply this tool to a specific policy or initiative, or use it to tell the story of your organization itself. To learn more, explore Hatch for Good (www.hatchforgood.org), an online resource with examples to spark your imagination and tools to help you create powerful stories that motivate your audiences.

Stories shape how we see the world. Now that you know how, why not use them to make it a better place?

Join The Network

Community, learning, and leadership to help you do good, better.

Become a member