As humans, we respond to stories. Roger Schank, a pioneer in artificial intelligence, wrote that we make sense of the world through the stories we tell and are told, and that the human brain is wired to understand, react emotionally, and retain information from stories.1
When we are exposed to a PowerPoint presentation, only the language processing part of the brain that decodes words into meaning is active. However, when we are told a story, not only are the language processing areas of our brain activated, but also other areas that we would use if we were experiencing the events—the sensory cortex if the way an object smells is described, the motor cortex if an individual in the story walks quickly.2 To some degree, we actually live the stories that we are told.
Not only do we connect to stories on the level of our senses, we also relate on an emotional level to individuals’ stories. For those reasons, in advocacy and awareness work, we often use individuals’ stories to call attention to social and political issues and to generate support for organizations.
A drawback to using individuals’ stories is that researchers have found that we are more likely to respond on an emotional level to the story of an individual than a story of many people. This may be because when we hear a story about one person, we can form a mental image of that person, and then we identify with that mental image. When we hear of a situation experienced by many, it becomes more difficult to form that mental image. Without that mental image, we care less. Joseph Stalin allegedly once said to U.S. ambassador Averill Harriman: "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic."
In addition to the difficulty in responding emotionally to the situation of more than one person, another factor that comes into play is the concept of pseudoinefficacy. Efficacy, according to psychologist Albert Bandura, is having the ability or capacity to produce a desired result or effect.3 With a greater sense of self-efficacy, there is increased motivation to act or respond to a situation. In contrast to efficacy is pseudoinefficacy, a state in which when individuals are aware of many people in a situation that they cannot help, they often feel less good about helping those they can help, and they help less often. 4
Motivation to act or respond may be diminished when the numbers affected by a catastrophe or debilitated social condition increase, when individual stories coalesce into statistics. Researchers tested this hypothesis with an experiment in which participants in an unrelated research study were given a small stipend, and then given the opportunity to donate a portion of this stipend to a starving child in a developing country. One group was asked to donate to one particular starving child. Another group was asked to donate to one of two starving children. Fewer individuals in the second group opted to donate. When in a related experiment, a starving child was presented as one of many in that situation, there was even less willingness to help. 5 Pseudoinefficacy seemed to be operating in this situation.
So how do we overcome the challenge of pseudoinefficacy? One approach would be to share personal stories that illustrate evidence-based approaches that have proven to be successful in addressing the issue, so that the listener/reader understands that actions can yield positive results.
The authors of the study on pseudoinefficacy suggest that examples of personal efficacy might combat the feeling that no actions will have an impact. An illustration of this comes from Loren Eisley’s essay “The Star Thrower.” 6 Eisley describes a narrator walking along the beach at dawn when he sees a man who had stopped and was looking down at the sand.
In a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud.
"It's still alive," I ventured.
"Yes," he said, and with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea. It sunk in a burst of spume, and the waters roared once more.
..."There are not many who come this far," I said, groping in a sudden embarrassment for words. "Do you collect?"
"Only like this," he said softly, gesturing amidst the wreckage of the shore. "And only for the living." He stooped again, oblivious of my curiosity, and skipped another star neatly across the water. "The stars," he said, "throw well. One can help them."
The narrator walks on, and after reflecting on our relationships to animals and the universe, returns to the beach to find the starfish thrower. He says, "Call me another thrower," and begins to toss the sea stars back into the ocean.
Being aware of the complexities of communicating for advocacy, awareness, and generating support, we can demonstrate what approaches are effective and tailor our use of narratives. Stories, either fictional ones like Eisley’s star thrower or ones from real life, can be used to challenge the prevailing attitude that there is nothing that an individual can do while appealing to our better selves.
1. Schank, Roger. (1995) Tell Me A Story. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
2. Paul, Annie Murphy. (2012, March 17), Your Brain on Fiction. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html?pagewanted=all&auth=login-email
3. Bandura, Albert. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Self-Control. New York: W. H. Freeman and Co.
4. Vastfjall, Daniel, Slovic, Paul, and Mayorga, Marcus. (2015). Pseudoinefficacy and the Arithmetic of Compassion. In Numbers and Nerves: Information Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data, Scott Slovic and Paul Slovic, eds. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press.
5. Vastfjall, Daniel, Slovic, Paul, Mayorga, Marcus, and Peters, Ellen. (2014). Compassion Fade: Affect and Charity Are Greatest for a Single Child in Need. PLOS/One. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0100115
6. Eisley, Loren. (1969) “The Starfish Thrower” in The Unexpected Universe. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.
Storying the Human Experience
Yes, it's a grandiose title. But, as Flannery O'Connor once said, "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way."