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Can you use narrative to shape your life?

Storytelling has been a human tradition for thousands of years and for good reason: It holds a powerful influence over our psychology.

Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash
  • Some researchers argue that humans have been telling stories for tens of thousands of years.
  • Because it's so deeply embedded in our psychology, the stories we tell about ourselves and others can have a major impact on our minds.
  • How can we use storytelling to improve our lives?

Humans have been creating stories for a long time. Among the earliest examples are five Sumerian poems about Gilgamesh dating back to 2100 BC, which would later become the source material for the Epic of Gilgamesh nearly 1,400 years later. But we've been telling stories even before this. Some argue that mankind's earliest cave paintings, dating back 30,000 years, are a form of storytelling.

With a history as long as this, it should come as no surprise that narrative is deeply embedded in our psychology. We are constantly organizing things into stories, in spite or because of the fact that reality doesn't have a nice and neat structure like it does in our storytelling.

Shaping identity

That stories are a corner stone of human psychology has not been lost on researchers. "Life stories do not simply reflect personality," wrote psychology professor Dan McAdams for the APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology. "They are personality, or more accurately, they are important parts of personality, along with other parts, like dispositional traits, goals, and values."

Much of McAdams' work has focused on how humans use stories to construct their identity. For example, in one study, McAdams and colleagues looked at the coherence of individuals' life stories and compared this with their overall well-being. A coherent story contained all the elements of a well-made story: sufficient context, a good structure, a consistent emotional tone or theme, and an integration into the overall world of the storyteller's life. The more coherent somebody's life story was, the greater their well-being. People who thought of their lives in more disconnected, unstructured, and disorganized ways tended to have lower well-being.

We can also use storytelling to our advantage, especially when it comes to dealing with trauma. Studies show that writing about traumatic experiences, though painful and unpleasant in the moment, can help people process and incorporate the traumatic event into the larger life story. During follow-ups from these studies, participants reported fewer illnesses, went to the doctors less often, suffered fewer symptoms of depression, were less likely to miss school and work, and performed better at work. Researchers speculate that by processing traumatic memories in this way, they are less likely to be compulsively recalled, causing further suffering.

Circumventing our critical thinking

But like anything deeply embedded in human nature, storytelling can also be used to manipulate. For instance, a recent study tried to assess the persuasive power of stories and facts. Over the course of three studies, the researchers presented a fictitious product and showed some participants a list of strong or weak facts about the product or a story with those strong or weak facts embedded within it. A fictitious phone, for instance, was advertised as being able to withstand a fall from 30 feet (a strong fact) or a fall from 3 feet (a weak fact).

They found that when weak facts were presented in stories, participants were persuaded to view the product more favorably compared to when they just read a list of facts. However, when strong facts were presented in stories, participants viewed the product less favorably compared to viewing the list. The rationale is that storytelling bypasses our ability to process information — this can hurt us when we want to highlight something's objective merits, but can benefit us when we want to exaggerate the facts. We don't have to look very far to see examples of how storytelling can be used against us; politics is probably the ripest field to see how stories that are low on facts can be irresistibly persuasive.

Being aware of the power of storytelling in your life is something of a superpower. You'll be better able to tell when somebody's trying to manipulate your perception, and you'll be better able to persuade others. You can reframe and reshape the impact of traumatic experiences in your life with storytelling. You can even make your life more meaningful. It might not be a bad idea to spend some time writing in a journal, or even just reminiscing about a particularly meaningful episode in your life.

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