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Infecting An Audience: Why Great Stories Spread

In the second of a two-part series, Jonathan Gottschall discusses the unique power stories have to change minds, and the key to their effectiveness.

In his 1897 book What is Art? the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy defined art as "an infection." Good art, Tolstoy wrote, infects the audience with the storyteller’s emotion and ideas. The better the art, the stronger the infection—the more stealthily it works around whatever immunities we possess and plants the virus. Tolstoy reached this conclusion through artistic intuition, not science, but more than a century after Tolstoy’s death this is exactly what psychologists are finding in the lab. When we enter into a story, we enter into an altered mental state—a state of high suggestibility.

Note that this goes against our culture’s dominant idea about stories. When I ask my students why people like stories, most cite escapism. Life is hard. Storyland is easy. Stories give us a short vacation from the troubles of our real lives. We enter the pretend worlds of stories and have a nice time, and then walk away unscathed and unchanged. But if we think this we are wrong. Studies show that our fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by our stories.

Image: Flickr user Martin Cathrae

For instance, if psychologists get a bunch of people in the lab and just tell them all the reasons it is wrong to discriminate against homosexuals, they don’t make much progress. People who feel differently dig in their heels. They get critical and skeptical. They don’t walk out of the lab with more tolerant views. But if they watch a TV show like Will and Grace, which treats homosexuality in non-judgmental ways, their own views are likely to move in the same non-judgmental direction. And if a lot of us start empathizing with gay characters on shows like Ellen, Modern Family, Six Feet Under, and Glee, you can get a driver of massive social change. American attitudes toward homosexuality have liberalized with dizzying speed over the last 15 years or so, and social scientists give TV some of the credit.

So stories have a unique ability to infect minds with ideas and attitudes that spread contagiously. The next question is obvious: How do we get a piece of that power? It isn’t easy because the story has to be good or it doesn’t work. Here’s what I mean by "good": psychological studies show that we don’t get infected by a story unless we are emotionally transported—unless we lose ourselves in the story.

And how do we make an audience lose themselves? This is a hard task that countless books and courses on film and creative writing try to answer. But we can make a good start by learning to use story’s basic master formula. Stories—from great epic poems to office scuttlebutt—are almost uniformly about humans facing problems and trying to overcome them. Stories have a problem-solution structure. Stories are always about trouble. Stories aren’t often about people having good days. They are usually about people having bad days—the very worst days of their lives—and struggling to get through.

Image: Flickr user Tyler Nienhouse

But stories are not usually about meaningless problem solving. Unless a story is communicating some message or moral, some set of values or ideas, it seems empty. Moby Dick wouldn’t be a great story if it were just about a deranged whale smashing boats and chomping sailors. Moby Dick is a great novel because all that action communicates a deeper message about good and evil.

In a business setting, this makes story a natural vehicle for conveying our ideas, our values, our vision. At bottom, that’s what all the action in a story is for: a story is a delivery vehicle for the teller’s message. Story is the thing that sneaks the infection past our immunities, past our resistance. And the story then turns us into hosts who spread the infection through our social networks and help create epidemics.

The neuroeconomist Paul Zak studies how this works at a brain level. He paid research subjects $20 and then had them read a sad and compelling story about a father and his terminally ill son, taking blood samples before and after. At the end of the study, subjects were given the chance to donate money to a charity serving sick kids. After the story, the blood samples showed spikes of oxcytocin in the blood. Oxytocin has been called the empathy chemical. And the more oxcytocin there was in the blood, the more these cash-strapped, empathy-drunk, students donated to charity (on average they donated half of their pay). The study suggests that stories change our behaviors by actually changing our brain chemistry.

Image: Flickr user Nathal

But Zak stresses, as I do, that the information about the sick child has to be presented in a classic story structure. Lacking that structure, you don’t get emotional transportation, you don’t get chemical changes in the brain, and you don’t get the behavior change—which in this case consists, take note, of people deciding to cough up money.

For an example of a brand that understands story structure, look at this commercial for Jack Links beef jerky. Jack Links expertly compresses a classic story arc into a sleek 30-second spot. We have our protagonist—an innocent sasquatch who is so gentle and hopeless that he can’t even catch a bunny for his supper. And we have our cocky, beer-guzzling antagonists who torment our sasquatch for no reason at all. And then we have the poetic justice that people thirst for in stories: the hero gives the villains what they deserve.

Notice that these ads say nothing about the qualities of the product. No smiling pitchman strolls out to say, "Try our beef jerky—it’s wholesome and delicious!" Jack Link’s strategy was simply to tell the coolest and funniest stories it could, with the jerky appearing in the stories only as product placement—in exactly the same way that a Coke can might show up in an episode of CSI. This attempt to create a positive emotional connection with consumers worked big time. People liked the commercials so much that they went out of their way to watch them millions of times on YouTube and to spread them around through their social networks. As a result of the "Messin with Sasquatch" campaign, Jack Link’s is now a brand that most of us know and think about positively.

This all raises another question. Should marketers feel bad about using stories as a tool to shape values and earn a buck? Sure. But maybe not too much. After all, guys like Melville and Tolstoy and Shakespeare were playing the same game. They hoped to infect us with particular ideas about life, while earning as much money and fame as possible. This article isn’t a set of instructions for turning story into a prostitute. It’s an explanation for why story has always been a prostitute.

But let’s back up for a moment. Is storytelling really locked into a master formula? Hasn’t the digital revolution paved the way for a new kind of storytelling? That’s the subject of my next post. Is it time for story 2.0?

Jonathan Gottschall is the author The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. His work has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others.
Read his previous Co.Create post: The Science Of Storytelling: How Narrative Cuts Through Distraction Like Nothing Else.

[Image: Flickr user R. Halfpaap]

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  • RCWillis

    Quick question about the Sasquatch ad: Did the ad actually increase sales? The reason I ask is that the ad, as currently presented, suggests only assholes eat Jack Link's Jerky. You'll note, the Sasquatch (our hero) never touched the stuff, while the jerky-chomping antagonists set out to tease the creature. Cute spot, mildly amusing, don't see the benefit you described.

  • danwrit

    Regarding this:

    "Should marketers feel bad about using stories as a tool to shape values and earn a buck? Sure. But maybe not too much. After all, guys like Melville and Tolstoy and Shakespeare were playing the same game. They hoped to infect us with particular ideas about life, while earning as much money and fame as possible."

    IMHO this is seriously flawed thinking. Melville Tolstoy & Co. were using their craft, intuition and genius to explore who we are as human beings, and to give their readers or audiences the chance to access that tremendous insight in the most engaging possible way. This is very different than someone using the tools and art of storytelling to sell some potato chips or sugared syrup, i.e. reinforcing the audience's identity as blind consumers. Art is one of the most advanced forms of knowledge transmission in the world, and advertising subverts this power to reinforce learned patterns of behavior in audiences, instead of opening people's minds like true (read: non-mercenary) storytelling. Sure Melville Tolstoy etc. wanted "as much money and fame as possible" -- but only insofar as they got it writing that they believed in, not bowing down to the needs of some fast-food maker, and lobotimizing their audience in the process.

  • vernsviews

    Wow that was a great article. It's reminds me of a quotation from Pump Up the Volume (1990)

    "I like the idea that a voice can just go somewhere, uninvited, and just kinda hang out like a dirty thought in a nice clean mind. Maybe a thought is like a virus, you know, it can... it can... kill all the healthy thoughts and just take over. That would be serious."


  • Mike Sowden

    I do think stories are escapism, but in an odd way - they present a view of how the world should be, if everything made sense. We fall in love with stories because they fit that classic structure and in doing so, make sense - unlike the messy, depth-riddled, often seemingly chaotic structure of real life. In stories, villains get nobbled because they're villains and that's what happens to the bad guys at the end, right? Good triumphs, because if it didn't, the story would obviously go BANG and fall over. And it's easy to diss stories as make-believe...until those so-called "imaginary" stories feed back into the world and make it more meaningful, more just. More *right*. I see it as a circular process, and get frustrated when I hear people dismissing stories (primarily fictional ones) as irrelevant to the real world - a perfect example being songwriter Noel Gallagher's rant about their apparent uselessness the other day.

    Stories are blueprints for real experiences. We can leave them rolled up, or we can unfurl them and build something new into our heads and into our lives (or those around us). But either way, they're *useful*. I love how that message - something marketers have known for donkey's years - is now getting out to a wider audience that is arguably more ravenous for story than in any point in human history. The potential for meaningful action that does some good in the world? Massive. Literature as a toolkit for change.

    Thanks for 'The Storytelling Animal'. Best book I read last year.

  • @StorytellerBill

    Love your comments and agree that "The Storytelling Animal" is one of the best books on the subject. I recommend it constantly. Also love your idea of stories being blueprints for real experiences. In our strategic storytelling work with companies, we call stories "idea blueprints for the future."

  • Casandra Campbell

    It's not surprising that stories have so much influence over us. When we get caught up in the drama of a great story, we hardly notice the underlying message or idea that is changing our opinion. This is why viral storytelling is so valuable!

  • @presensing

    Facts tell - stories sell. Since the caveman's campfire era we're programmed to share stories. From epic legends to everyday events, everyone has an agenda and the stories we tell are our way of interacting with the world, of voicing ourselves and being heard. We ache for meaning, connection and transformation.

    A powerful story can make an emotional connection and shift something, even cause a breakthrough as a new insight is born. That imprint (or infection) left me with something I did not originally have. The subtle difference between a teacher and an educator.

    How about the inner stories we tell ourselves that no one else ever has access to? The inner voice directing the Story of My Life. The everyday story lines, let alone the countless hours of counseling and a plethora of therapeutic modalities intended to create those shifts in the story we tell ourselves and the life scripts we play out. Would those not be equally infectious?

    It seems the human condition is a constant narrative and like Shakespeare says "We are such stuff As dreams are made on; and our little life Is rounded with a sleep."

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  • @StorytellerBill

    We all agree that stories can be a great way to spread ideas. But where as Jim saw the notion of stories infecting people as being potentially manipulative, I saw it more as being strategic: having an appreciation of what is required to truly liberate an idea and ensure it has the ability to take hold.

    A leader who is using storytelling to evangelize and institutionalize ideas must think past the story, first identifying the actions he wants people to take and then the mental and emotional shifts that will be required in order to get them to take those actions. But often mental or emotional barriers (resistances) can get in the way of those shifts taking place. Telling a good story can break through those barriers, lower defenses and allow a leader's key message or take-away to get through and be truly heard.

    To be strategic about storytelling and use it effectively to seed and cultivate ideas, a leader must first have a full understanding of what resistance, skepticism, cynicism, etc. his or her ideas are up against. Only then can the leader make certain they are telling the right story versus any ol' story.

  • jimsignorelli

    I'm not a fan of the idea that we should use stories to "infect" audiences. Attract, engage, resonate perhaps, but to state that stories "sneak infection past our immunities or past our resistances," is to suggest that stories are manipulative. Manipulation is a one-sided affair and is the result of someone getting the upper hand using deceit. By contrast, and as this author himself suggests, stories are like "emotional transportation." Certainly a well told story can do a lot to invite our participation , but we, not the storyteller, decide whether the ride was worth the price of attention. Stories, unlike faithless rhetoric, are not forcefully cunning, they are potentially comforting. And their full potential becomes realized to the extent that we allow them to create or reinforce important beliefs and values.

    That said, and looking past the disease analogy, this article does make some important points about story and its possibilities relative to persuasive attempts that rely on meaningless facts and opinions

  • Margaret Doyle

    I agree with Jim here. I don't like the use of 'infect' or the disease analogy. But then, I guess it goes hand in hand with using prostitution as a model for storytelling. I think storytelling for social good is more exciting than the newly acquired ability of advertisers to write a 30 second story. How about story for social change? An architected virality that actually makes a difference to people's lives and not an agency's pocketbooks.

  • disqus_W4KjfaOksA

    Great post, Jonathan. Information is much more likely to be remembered in a story, too. I can still remember stories read to me when I was a kid.