What are stories good for?

Apart from the personal enjoyment we derive from telling or listening to stories, there may be other benefits for both the storytellers and their public.

Puppeteers appearing on the stage together with their puppets at the end of a show (Brussels, 2019). Puppets make great storytelling devices, despite their deceptive simplicity.

I’ve written before about the purpose stories may serve, and their capacity to speak to us as if they were written for us.

Stories are shared fictions. In contrast with other shared fictions, such as political ideologies, we accept them as fictions. We don’t take them at face value.

What speaks to us is not their literal truth or resemblance to reality, but their capacity to transmit things we consider valuable. Such things can include an intuitive understanding of complex life situations or an appreciation of social values such as cooperation and fairness.

“The story — from Rumplestiltskin to War and Peace — is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” (Ursula Le Guin)

While the individual benefits of storytelling seem obvious, we don’t think too often about its possible collective benefits.

In an experiment conducted in 18 villages of the Agta community in the Philippines, investigators asked people to vote for the best storytellers in their group. Then they were asked to play a resource allocation game, in which they were given tokens that could be exchanged for rice. They could keep these tokens for themselves or offer them to other members of their camp.

The experiment showed that “camps with a greater proportion of skilled storytellers, were associated with increased levels of cooperation” – meaning more tokens offered to the community.

A second experiment, carried out shortly after, showed that storytellers were more likely to be chosen by community members as people with whom they would be happy to live. Out of the 857 people designated as preferred life partners by their community, those who had been identified as good storytellers in the previous experiment were nearly twice as likely to be chosen as those who were not. Interestingly, storytellers were often selected as potential life partners over people who were known as good hunters or foragers.

This resonates with our intuitive understanding of the power of stories to change mindsets and behaviors.

As a species, we know only too well how toxic stories can be mobilized to gather people under the same flag and make them do things that would otherwise seem unacceptable to them. It’s high time we focused on the positive potential of storytelling.