Turns out storytelling isn’t always the best way to get people to believe facts

Storytelling is one of humanity’s most powerful tools. Commonly used by educators, politicians and advertisers, stories have the power to influence and teach, inspire and persuade.

But there’s been some debate over whether stories help convince people of facts, or have the opposite effect. Now a new study has shown that it depends on the kind of facts you want to share.

A team of psychologists found that telling stories can actually dilute strong, more in-your-face facts – but they make it easier to spread more specious and easy-to-believe ideas.

It’s important to note, however, that the researchers only looked at facts that weren’t already controversial and polarising in our society – so we’re not talking about things like vaccines or climate change.

“Stories persuade, at least in part, by disrupting the ability to evaluate facts, rather than just biasing a person to think positively,” explains Rebecca Krause, who researches consumer psychology at Northwestern University.

The findings add to the ongoing debate over the benefits of storytelling. While some studies suggest stories make dry facts easier to swallow, others have found the exact opposite.

For instance, a 2008 study found that when information on the hepatitis B vaccine was given in narrative form, as opposed to factual form, a participant’s perception of risk of infection and their intention to get the vaccine were boosted.

On the other hand, some research has found storytelling to be more of a hindrance when it comes to issues less controversial than vaccination.

For example, a paper published just last year examining 627 American adults showed that a non-narrative video on pandemic influenza led to greater knowledge on the issue when compared to a narrative video.

With such mixed results, it’s been hard for psychologists to figure out what is going on. So Krause and her co-author Derek Rucker decided to dig deeper.

“One explanation for why stories reduce counterarguing is that stories bias people away from generating negative thoughts,” explain Krausse and her co-author Derek Rucker. In other words, it stops people from thinking critically about the facts they hear.

“Because stories are often engaging, and the process of immersing oneself in a story is enjoyable, efforts to counterargue might disrupt narrative enjoyment and pull people out of the narrative.”

But this is not exactly what the researchers found. In the study, 397 adults in the United States were asked to give their opinion on a made-up phone brand called Moonstone.

During the study, half the participants were given straightforward facts about Moonstone, while the other half received a story where the facts were embedded in the narrative.

Each of these respective facts was deemed either ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ – as in, the Moonstone can withstand a fall of up to 30 feet (a compelling or ‘strong’ fact), or the Moonstone can withstand a fall of up to 3 feet (a weak fact). At the end, each participant was asked to give their impression of the new brand using an objective scale.

Interestingly enough, the authors found participants were more persuaded by the story format when the facts were weak. But when the facts were strong or particularly compelling, the reverse happened: the facts alone without any narrative appeared to be more persuasive.

Replicating the first study, this time with 389 different adults, the researchers once again found similar results. Not only was there a decrease in negative reactions to the facts, such as ‘counter-arguing’, when they were delivered in story format, the authors also noted a decrease in positive reactions to the facts, such as acceptance. So they weren’t thinking critically about the facts in the story, but they also weren’t accepting them.

This implies that when a story is told, humans tend to suffer from a general lack of critical thinking, even when the facts are solid.

“These results suggest that the use of stories increased persuasion via a reduction in scrutiny of weak facts as opposed to a reduced focus on negative thoughts,” the authors write.

Not satisfied with their results just yet, the team conducted a third experiment. This time, 291 new participants were asked to read about a fictitious flu medication, and the information was given either on its own or in a story about a sick child. At the end, each person was asked if they would like to give their emails for more information.

For the third time, the authors noticed the same pattern. In this case, the participants were less willing to share their emails when strong or compelling facts were presented in narrative form.

Taken together, all three of these experiments suggest that storytelling makes the ‘weaker’ facts easier to swallow and the strongest arguments significantly harder.

In other words, storytelling might actually dilute strong facts while bolstering weak ones. In the modern world, where ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ are spreading like never before, this is an interesting insight into how anecdotes can undermine reality.

“Knowing that stories may provide the most persuasive benefit to those with the least compelling arguments could be important given concerns about ‘fake news,'” suggests Krause.

“But this does not mean a story is indicative of weak facts. Rather, when you feel especially compelled by a great story you might want to give more thought and consideration to the facts to determine how good they are.”

One important limitation worth nothing in this study is that none of the facts offered up were already notably polarising or controversial in society. The authors note that when it comes to more heated issues (for example, climate change) stories may play a different role.

“When people are naturally inclined to generate counterarguments, stories might serve the role of momentarily causing them to listen, which could bias processing away from the negative thoughts that would otherwise occur,” they wrote in their paper.

The findings are published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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