Key Takeaways from the Science of Stories


I recently had the chance to watch a video from Stanford’s MediaX program that explored a scientific study on how, why, and which stories impact us. The video itself is rather lengthy and a bit rambly (and uses Comic Sans in its presentation), so I wanted to save you the trouble of viewing the presentation itself and pass along the key takeaways—as well as make some of my own commentary. Let’s get to it!

1: Stories Are Deeply Rooted in Our Species

According to the research gathered and conducted by Kendall Haven and his team, stories are deeply rooted in human neurology and psychology, going back further than 150,000 years. As Haven puts it, “We’re hardwired for stories.” The notion here is that the transmission of knowledge, wisdom, identity, and beliefs was substantially aided by the structure of a story. As an increasingly social group, early homo sapiens were able to make use of story for both social and survival functions.

2: “Storification” Is Pre-Conscious Behavior

When we take in information, it isn’t our conscious mind that transforms that information into a narrative structure. Rather, when knowledge is communicated, the brain transforms it into a story before it ever hits the conscious mind. This “storification” process happens to almost all knowledge that is transmitted to us, and it happens through what Haven describes as a “neural story net.” That neural story net is a sub-region of the brain that helps us make sense of incoming data, and re-structuring fact into narrative seems to be one of its primary functions.

3: Storification Distorts Factual Information

Consistently, people reverse or change the factual meaning of information, make major assumptions about what a given piece of information implies, invent new information, infer connections and motivations, or even brazenly misinterpret the data in order to help it all fit into place. This is what Haven refers to as the “make sense mandate” in our brain’s neural story net; we twist what we hear to make it fit within our existing beliefs and interpretations of the world around us. This also plays into the idea that everything is fiction, which I explored in great detail in my article “Fiction Shmiction.”

4: Story Can Be Defined

While there may be nontraditional forms that push at the borders of this definition, Haven and his team have put a working definition to story that allows for further exploration. Specifically, the notion is that a person faces problems or conflicts (which create risk or danger) as they attempt to reach a goal. Within this framework, we see the facets of characters, goals, motives, conflicts, risks, struggles, and sensory details. Identifying these elements of a story allowed Haven and his team to change individual facets of stories to see what elements improved the impact of a story.

5: There Are Key Facets That Make Stories Powerful

There were several findings on what regularly made a story more powerful. Specifically, stories benefited from:

  • Giving the protagonist substantial motivation for their goal.
  • Having their motive be similar to the typical motives for your intended audience.
  • Having an antagonist or antagonist force that provides a clear opposition to the goal.
  • Having a character who “steps up” and takes on an active role at the climax to determine the outcome of the story based on a single action or choice. (This does not have to be the protagonist character; whoever this is will become the “climax character” of the story)
  • Including a resolution that elaborates on how the story turns out and, importantly, how the protagonist feels about the outcome.
  • The optimal resonance happened with:
    • three main characters: one protagonist and two supporting characters.
    • two primary events in the plot.
    • two concepts or themes being explored in the story.
    • one lingering emotion in the aftermath of the story.

While it certainly irks me to think of this as a prescriptive formula for a story, it does show that certain measurable metrics within a story have “sweet spots” that are worth being aware of (whether or not you make use of the findings).

6: Three Questions Can Find the Story’s Message

If you want to find what story the message gives the audience, you can get to it in three questions:

  1. Who is the story about for the audience?
  2. How bad is the ending for that character?
  3. Who is to blame for that?

My assumption is that we can draw out one of four basic outcomes, dependent on whether the character is liked or disliked and whether the outcome is bad or good for them. Ultimately, the subject matter will be based on the character or force who receives the “blame,” and this will typically either be the climax character who caused the story outcome or the antagonistic force who prevented a good outcome. We will call this the “blame character.” This character will stand for certain elements of the world or certain values, and this representation is vital for the core message. The four potential messages can be boiled down to these:

  • Liked character / good outcome: The statement will be for whatever the blame character stands for.
  • Liked character / bad outcome: Statement will be against whatever the blame character stands for.
  • Disliked character / good outcome: The statement will be against whatever the blame character stands for.
  • Disliked character / bad outcome: The statement will be for whatever the blame character stands for.

So there you have it: The key takeaways from a fairly extensive scientific study into what makes stories powerful. What do you think? Did you learn anything new? Do you disagree with any of the findings? Let us know in the comments, below.


Note: This post was originally published in November, 2015.