How do stories work? You knew that movie was going to stink as soon as you got through the opening scene … but you sat through the whole thing to find out how the story ended.
Numerous studies have explored the relationship of brain chemistry—oxytocin, adrenaline, dopamine, etc.—to storytelling, but these explanations are needlessly nerdy. Stories work because they tap into our most primal instinct—survival.
As a species, we stepped out of the wilderness 20,000 years ago. Cro-Magnon man inhabited Europe as recently as 10,000 years ago. A flint arrowhead was found in the ribs of a 25,000-year-old-mammoth. In evolutionary terms, this is a blink of an eye. We may have surrounded ourselves with a veneer of technology but we are still hunter-gatherers at heart.
Like other hunter-gatherers, we spend much of our time scanning for threats and opportunities. Today, this may mean watching social media instead of listening for a rustle in the bushes, but the driving instinct is the same. We are driven by our nature to avoid predators and problems while pursuing food, love, shelter, sex, status, and safety.
Stand on a city street corner and look up at the sky. Soon others will join you. Is a dangerous object falling? Has someone dropped money from an airplane? When something catches our attention, we suspend our scanning behavior to evaluate whether the distraction is a threat or an opportunity. Do I engage with this opportunity, flee from this threat, or resume scanning?
If the environment is safe and we’ve identified a possible opportunity, we devote our full focus to the situation at-hand. We pay attention.
If the distraction is, for example, a movie—you forget that you’re sitting on a theater seat with people crinkling candy wrappers and munching popcorn around you. You are transported into the story as surely as if you were physically present. Though your rational consciousness knows you are in a movie—a safe simulation—your primitive brain (the amygdala) begins to make fight-or-flight decisions within the narrative. The story inspires fear, excitement, arousal, and other emotions. Your brain has been hijacked.
Moreover, because we know we can “pop back to reality” whenever we want, we find it entertaining to immerse ourselves in a powerful narrative. We get the experience—climbing Mt. Everest, scoring a Superbowl touchdown, escaping from prison, winning the heart of an attractive partner—without the dangerous and inconvenient realities. A story is an opportunity in itself.
Once a storyteller has captured your attention by establishing that their story is a metaphor for your journey, once they have established that their story is relevant and that it contains opportunities, they become your trusted guide. The message and the messenger both become memorable because they have connected to your survival instinct.
Storytellers’ ability to engage human consciousness on a deep and primal level means there are good and bad sides to “the force!”
- Hitler convinced the German people that Jews, blacks, homosexuals, and gypsies were a threat to their survival during the difficult economic depression that followed World War I. Eleven million civilians died.
- Ghandi convinced the Indian people that non-violent resistance would result in fewer casualties than armed revolt—that the opportunity outweighed the threat. India won her independence.
Stories work! Within today’s hunter-gatherer tribes—us—the most effective leaders are the most skilled storytellers, those who know how to craft and control the narrative. The simple and intuitive power of story builds community; sways decision-makers; and changes hearts, minds, and fortunes.