Stories: better than sex?

Give readers a shot of the love drug, oxytocin

We knew stories were more effective than charts, tables, graphs and simple assertions at helping readers remember what they’ve read, use the information and make good decisions based on the information.

Stories: better than sex

I love you, too! Stories — like canoodling — give your brain a hit of oxytocin. Image by India Tupy

That’s according to a 2003 study by University of Oregon professors Judith Hibbard and Ellen Peters.

But now it turns out that stories may perform better than sophisticated legal maneuvers, be the best way to help someone solve a logic problem, and flood our bodies with the same chemical we produce during sex.

Let’s take a look at the research:

1. The jury is in.

Here’s an argument for storytelling, if I’ve ever heard one: In a trial to determine whether the defendant, Johnson, was guilty of stabbing another man, Caldwell, to death in a barroom fight, it didn’t matter what evidence lawyers presented as much as how they presented it.

When prosecutors presented their witnesses in chronological, story order, but the defense’s evidence was out of order, 78% of jurors voted to convict. But when Johnson’s defense team presented its evidence in story order, but the prosecution presented theirs willy-nilly, 69% of jurors voted to acquit — even though the evidence itself was exactly the same in each case.

That was the result of a 1988 study by Nancy Pennington of the University of Chicago, and Reid Hastie of Northwestern University.

We create stories to understand. So why does story structure so drastically influence jurors? One reason may be that stories are easier to understand and remember than piles of facts.

The jury is in

The jury is in Jurors are more likely to convict when the prosecution presents its evidence as a chronological story. Image by lightest light

Jurors, after all, must process a complex mass of evidence. One way they deal with the complexity is to construct their own stories from the record. The side whose story best matches the juror’s own story wins.

(We’ve seen people make up stories to understand complex data in other studies: When readers face complicated financial information, they often make up scenarios to help them “see” the topic in action, according to a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University. That helps readers understand the facts.)

Bottom line: Stories are easier to understand and remember.

But rather than let audience members construct their own stories, let’s craft stories for them. Indeed, Pennington and Hastie’s research shows that jurors felt most confident in their decision when both sides presented their evidence in story order. That allowed jurors to understand both sides, to see the evidence more clearly and then decide.

I rest my case.

2. Pick a card, any card.

It’s one of the most famous tests of deductive reasoning: the Wason Selection Test.

For the test, researchers place four cards on a table. Each card has a number on one side and a color on the other. You can see two numbers — a 3 and an 8 — and two colors, red and brown.

Card sharp

Card sharp When a researcher added a story to a famous deduction puzzle, participants’ success rates increased by as much as 900%. Image by Carlos Sánchez Pimienta

Now, the researcher asks you, which cards must you turn over to determine whether this rule is true: If a card has an even number on one side, then it is red on the other?

Which cards must you turn over? If you do identify a card that doesn’t need to be turned over to help you find the answer, you fail the test. If you don’t identify a card that does need to be turned over to help you find the answer, you fail the test.

The right answer: Turn over only the 8 and brown cards. That’s because only a card with both an even number on one side and something other than red on the other side can invalidate this rule.

Problem is, fewer than 10% of people pass the test.

Until, that is, you add a story.

Just add story. That’s what Leda Cosmides — a psychologist, professor at University of California-Santa Barbara and Guggenheim genius grant award winner — learned when she reframed the Wason Selection Test as a search for cheaters.

In Cosmides’ 2000 version of the test, the setup goes something like this: “If I give you $10, then you give me your watch.” However, two potential cheaters lurk among the four people represented by the cards — they have accepted the $10, but they have not handed over the watch.

When Cosmides turned the test into a mystery story and transformed participants into amateur detectives, or characters within the story, 70% to 90% of participants passed the test.

Those are the highest scores ever recorded for the Wason Selection Test. And all it took was a story.

3. Give readers a shot of the love drug.

We call oxytocin the love drug, because it spikes when we kiss, hug or make love.

Oxytocin, which is produced in the brain, plays a huge role in building trust and empathy and in bonding two creatures together: Prairie voles, for example, are among nature’s most monogamous species; they also produce oxytocin in spades.

Now, researchers tell us, the same chemical that floods our bodies during orgasms also kicks in when we’re reading stories. And when that love drug floods our brains, we become more empathetic for our fellow man. And that makes us more likely to give.

Stories (and oxytocin) move people to give. Paul Zak, a professor of economics, psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, studies oxytocin. To see the impact of storytelling on the chemical, Zak’s researchers drew participants’ blood before and again after watching videos of character-driven stories.

The result? When viewers’ oxytocin spiked while they were watching the stories, they tended to help more — donating money to a charity associated with the story, for example.

You’ve got to love that.

Storytelling is a power tool of communication. Why not add a story to your next piece?

  • Master the Art of the Storyteller

    Whoever tells the best story wins

    It's “the most powerful form of human communication,” according to Peg Neuhauser, author of Corporate Legends and Lore.

    Master the Art of the Storyteller: Whoever tells the best story wins

    Indeed, stories can help you grab attention, boost credibility, make your messages more memorable — even communicate better.

    At Master the Art of the Storyteller — our two-day hands-on creative-writing master class on July 25-26 in Portland — you’ll learn to find, develop and write stories that engage readers’ hearts and minds. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Find the aha! moment that’s the gateway to every anecdote.
    • Elicit juicy stories with the key question to ask during an interview.
    • Organize your material into a powerful story in just three steps with our simple storytelling template.

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