A long, long time ago, in an electorate far away…

Nothing’s easier to understand than a story. It’s as if human beings were hardwired for narrative — stories with beginnings, middles and ends populated by people doing things. According to cognitive scientists Roger Schank and Robert Abelson that’s not far from the truth.

Back in 1995 Schank and Abelson hypothesized that virtually all human knowledge is based on stories constructed around past experiences. Whenever we come across something new we try to fit into the framework provided by an old story. So it’s no surprise to find, as Andrew Norton does, that most of Australia’s top public intellectuals are storytellers and moralists rather than social scientists.

As Schank and Abelson say, most of us aren’t like Star Trek’s Mr Spock — we struggle with abstract theories and logic:

The understanding problem is simply that humans are not really set up to hear logic. People tell stories because they know that others like to hear stories. The reason that people like to hear stories, however, is not transparent to them. People need a context to help them relate what they have heard to what they already know. We understand events in terms of other events we have already understood. When a decision-making heuristic, or rule of thumb, is presented to us without a context, we cannot decide the validity of the rule we have heard, nor do we know where to store this rule in our memories. Thus, what we are presented is both difficult to evaluate and difficult to remember, making it virtually useless. People who fail to couch what they have to say in memorable stories will have their rules fall on deaf ears despite their best intentions and despite the best intentions of their listeners. A good teacher is not one who explains things correctly but one who couches his explanations in a memorable (i.e., an interesting) format.

And it’s not just teachers who need to learn how to tell good stories. As Ronald Reagan knew , stories are a powerful political tool. Schank and Abelson say that at the core of any political ideology you’ll find a morality play::

There are good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys, using illegitimate methods, are trying to bring about an evil state of affairs. This can only be averted if the good guys mobilize their forces, recruit people from the sidelines (who are in danger of being seduced by the bad guys), and press forward to glorious victory.

It surprising how many influential political books have the same basic structure as a story like Star Wars. For example, Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose begins with the settlement of America and the growth of a prosperous free market society. Immigrants flood in and through hard work and peaceful cooperation the nation thrives. But then the intellectuals arrive with their evil European plans for big government. The founding fathers had warned the people of the dangers of big government but prosperity had made them soft. Gradually a new class of intellectuals and bureaucrats began to take over, their Bismarckian plans for domination casting a dark shadow across the land. Will our once prosperous American society fall to the dark side? Or will our free market heroes save the day?

Books like Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Charles Murray’s Losing Ground share a similar form. The narrative begins in an ‘ordinary world‘ where markets are free and welfare states minimal. But after the evil intellectuals arrive on the scene the trouble starts. And of course there’s Ayn Rand who made no effort at all to cloak her stirring narratives in facts. Like Orwell and Bellamy she used fiction to get her message across. Adding rough sex probably helped.

Often our fondness for stories makes us overestimate the influence of the individuals we cast as heroes and villains. Some people act as if we could end the threat of terrorism by launching a well-aimed missile at Osama bin Laden’s underground lair — as if he were a monster in a B-grade sci-fi movie. Never mind that those boring experts who tell us that the real world doesn’t work that way.

14 thoughts on “A long, long time ago, in an electorate far away…

  1. Be fair, Don, it isn’t just free-marketers who use storytelling in this way. The entire ‘left’ project since 1789 can be seen in this way with the heroic ‘working class heroes’ fighting the evil capitalists/reactionaries/monarchists etc…

  2. Did Schank and Abelson acknowledge Popper’s very old story that all of science grew out of storytelling and mythmaking, by adding on criticism according to the criteria of truth and logical consistency?

  3. Scott – Of course you’re right “it isn’t just free-marketers who use storytelling in this way”. The post reflects the books I’ve been reading recently.

    Orwell and Bellamy were great leftist storytellers and I thought it was interesting that Friedman their books among his ‘top tomes’.

    It’s easy to see how Marxism lends itself to the storytelling form — the hero can be an entire class. One of the things I find interesting is the way that some radical storytellers personify abstractions like globalization and neoliberalism and use them as villains.

    Rafe – That wasn’t a real question was it?

  4. If we all unanimously sign a pledge swearing that we accept that Karl Popper is God, would Rafe stop mentioning him in every comment thread? I’m waiting with breathless anticipation to see how Rafe manages to work old Karl into my thread on Joanne Lees.

  5. Ken, perhaps Wittgenstein defamed Popper by an “imputation” that there aren’t any philosophical problems and therefore no answers?…

    I understand that God Karl was fairly touchy about his proper place in the philosophical pantheon (or should that be “symposium”? I’m thinking of Raphael’s wonderful painting).

  6. Some people act as if we could end the treat of terrorism by launching a well-aimed missile at Osama bin Laden’s underground lair –

  7. Katz – Interesting questions. But I couldn’t help noticing that I wrote “the treat of terrorism”. I’ve fixed it up now.

  8. Ken, Karl Popper is not God, he got into dead ends, made numerous mistakes and corrected some of them as best he could. The point is that he traced science and literature to the common root of story telling. That can be a commonplace observation or it can be profound, depending on where you go from that point. In his case he elaborated a theory of levels of language to account for the rather significant difference between the story telling of modern scientists and the myths of tribal societies. If this is a topic that interests Don or is important for his research I can help out with references.

    Schank and Abelson apparently placed a lot of importance on the learning of autobiographical storytelling by children, incidentally that was an approach to child psychology (study of diaries and life plans) that Charlotte Buhler pursued in the 1930s. She was the wife of Karl Buhler (Popper’s most important teacher) and one of the moving spirits in the Third Force (Humanistic) psychology in the US. http://www.webster.edu/~woolflm/charlottebuhler.html

    This may be interesting and helpful for you and Don or it may not. But the reason why Popper’s name comes up in many unexpected contexts is that he had an extraordinary range of interests and he usually had something useful to say, which is more than can be said for most of his critics:)

  9. I found this an interesting read on Online Opinion. I’m surprised I missed it here the first time.

    I too was waiting for the story that cast the free marketeers as the bad guys for the sake of balance but Don has all ready explained that.

    Also I had come to the same conclusion as Schank & Co. That is the reason we tell stories and We need to be able to relate it to a context everyone can understand. I think it is also how we get our mythological heroes like Heracles.

    I find David Edding’s Belgarath the Sorcerer with a lot to tell on the state of world affairs today. I’ve read it numerous times over the past decade and get something new out of it every time.

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