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Epistemic status: I spent three years (not full time though, I did this alongside my studies) delving into the literature on the impact of stories, so I have a high level of confidence in this information. Based on my understanding of the science, I have extrapolated criteria and tools to improve storytelling for positive impact, but these are not scientifically proven. I think they make a lot of sense, but I can't say for sure.

The very short summary

Stories have a significant impact on people's beliefs and behaviours and are often more persuasive than arguments. They can be seen as simulators that we humans use to train and learn in a safe environment. There are several ways we can make stories more useful, including:

  • Choosing relevant topics that can increase well-being (e.g. topics like AI, animal suffering or conflict de-escalation)
  • Representing relevant causal relations accurately (e.g. what causes harm in the real world has to cause harm in the story)
  • Paying attention to the values and attitudes conveyed in the story
  • Making connections to groups that are suffering (as opposed to dehumanising groups) to widen our circle of care
  • Creating moral puzzles and challenges

Structure of this post

First, there are three summaries about the impact of stories, how to improve their impact and how to use them well. 

After these summaries, I explain one of the key concepts that can help make sense of the bullet points in the summaries. I also address common concerns and moral issues at the end.

Out of respect for your time and mine, I have decided not to go into depth on each point, so this post is a very condensed version of what I have been working on.

If any points are unclear, please let me know and I will try to clarify them as best I can. If you would like more resources on this topic or would like to talk about it, feel free to contact me here or on the EA Anywhere Slack channel.

Summaries

Summary 1: Influence of stories

  • Humans possess a specialised, evolved ability to engage with and tell (fictional) stories1
  • The functions of telling and engaging with stories include:
    • Acquisition of contingent knowledge1
    • Stress relief and distraction from reality2
    • Social bonding and connection3
    • Communicating culture and values4
    • Expression of emotions and development of social skills, empathy and identity5–9
    • Persuasion and communication of ideas10
    • Training mental models of the world through simulation-like experiences11
  • Experiencing stories can be a highly emotional experience, while our action systems remain inhibited (we may be afraid of a monster in the story, but we rarely run away from it).
  • Experiencing stories has significant, measurable effects on:
    • Worldviews, beliefs and behaviour12
    • Problem solving strategies13
    • Social skills such as empathy, theory of mind, altruism and compassion6–9,14
    • The prevalence of stereotypes15
    • The capacity for moral judgement16
    • Values and character traits17–19
    • Cultures as a network of stories20
  • Interdependent factors that moderate the effects include:
    • Degree of immersion in the story, influenced by:
      • Perceived utility21
      • Perceived realism and possession of prior knowledge 17
      • Aesthetics of the story22
      • Situational factors23,24
        • Expectations
        • Peer opinions
        • Setting (such as distracting environment)
      • Use of music25
    • Relationship to the characters12,26,27
    • The emotional flow experienced while engaging with the story28
    • Perceived intention to influence29
  • There are many examples for how stories influence their audience, both positively and negatively. Some interesting examples are:
    • How stories influence stereotypes by associating groups with character traits30
    • How stories influence attitudes towards contraceptive use31,32
    • How stories can lead to negative attitudes and the dehumanisation of refugees and other groups33,34
    • How context-dependent depictions of violence affect aggression, attitudes towards violence and violent behaviour35
    • How stories can increase intentions to engage in healthy behaviours (quitting smoking, preventing skin cancer)36,37
    • The impact of the documentary Blackfish38, a documentary about captive orca whales, which led to people protesting against the captivity of marine mammals and to a loss of profit for Sea World

Summary 2: How to write valuable stories

  • Using tools to improve stories is not enough, it also requires personal development to write more valuable stories, as the writer's attitudes and beliefs unconsciously colour the story.
  • Choose relevant topics: We have evolved to be interested in certain themes in stories that had evolutionary significance, such as violence, romance and sex. Danger grips our attention, as in horror movies or thrillers. Because evolution doesn’t maximise well-being and because our lives have changed significantly, what we are most interested in isn’t always what is most important or useful for us. This is why it matters to choose relevant themes and topics for a story that are not only pique our interest but also meet our needs and help us learn and grow in useful ways.
  • Represent reality accurately: Simulations are only useful if they prepare us for reality. If a flight simulator misrepresents flying, it is at best useless and at worst harmful. The same applies to stories. Relevant causal relationships must be represented accurately, which means that events must have reasonable consequences. More on this in the text.
  • Be aware of the attitudes and values being conveyed: Underlying values and worldviews communicated in the story need to be challenged. They may not always be visible to the storyteller, as they arise from not always conscious personal and cultural beliefs. Are people portrayed as evil? What are the attitudes towards animals? What about the antagonist, are they dehumanised?
  • Give suffering minorities a face and a voice: While stories can separate us from groups and try to justify harming them or treating them worse (as with Jews during the Holocaust), they can also increase our connection and connect us to groups and individuals we have not previously recognised. The story Uncle Tom's Cabin could connect people to slaves and their suffering and make them care.
  • Challenge people's moral compass: Stories can help us explore terrain on the moral landscape, sharpen our moral judgement and challenge our beliefs. They can present dilemmas not in the abstract but in an immersive experience. They can increase not only our compassion and empathy, but also our mental models of what is valuable and right to do in any given moment. Learning ethics from experience rather than reason can make them feel more intuitive and natural. An example of such moral exploration can be found in the show Black Mirror.
  • Some practical questions: 
    • Could this story be suitable for children? Why not?
    • If I acted like the hero, would it work in the real world?
    • What could be the reason for this tragedy, other than the evil nature of the antagonist? What systemic causes could there be for this suffering?
    • Could this story be misleading?
    • What values are represented in this story?
    • Does it ignore a risk or glorify a harmful behaviour?
    • Is this representation accurate and valuable?
  • Stories can be both tasty and healthy. Giving stories deeper meaning and value can sometimes be challenging, as they still need to be interesting and attractive. They also shouldn't seem (or be) manipulative. However, research suggests that ethically valuable stories can actually increase audience interest39.

Summary 3: How to engage with stories in a healthy way (media literacy)

  • Awareness of the (subtler) themes in the story and one's own response to them is often overlooked or not emphasised in advice on media literacy. However, this kind of mindfulness is crucial because we can only reflect on what we are aware of.
  • Reflection on the story is at the heart of media literacy.
    • Because concepts can be too difficult for children, the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) recommends asking questions about the story40:
      • Why was the media produced?
      • Who produced it?
      • What is missing?
      • How might different people interpret the story?
      • How do I know it is true?
      • Who might benefit from this message?
      • Who could be harmed by this message?
    • Questions can be related to different categories41:
      • Origin/Authorship
      • Story format
      • Target audience
      • Content
      • Purpose
    • We can reflect not only on the story but also on our own reaction to it.
  • Education has multiple benefits for media literacy. It helps people to recognise stories as constructs and to see that they are only models of reality and not reality itself. This may seem banal, but it increases the ability to moderate media effects. Education also helps to make visible structures in stories that would otherwise go undetected. Education therefore interacts with the factor of awareness, as the eye only sees what the mind is prepared to comprehend. If we are aware of the values and ideas conveyed in a story, we can more consciously decide whether to integrate them.41,42 By equipping people with better models of reality, education helps to identify prejudices43 and misinformation44.
  • Clarity about one’s values is also important as it can increase resilience toward bad influence and can motivate one to take other actions supporting media literacy. 
  • The effect of media on us also depends on the reactions of our social contacts to that media. Social acceptance of the behaviour shown in a film moderates its effect on us 45. This is important not only for parents, but for everyone to recognise potentially misleading messages in stories. It is a matter of social responsibility that we speak out and stand up for our values.

Seeing stories as simulators and implications about accurate representations of reality

“ABSTRACT—Fiction literature has largely been ignored by psychology researchers because its only function seems to be entertainment, with no connection to empirical validity. We argue that literary narratives have a more important purpose. They offer models or simulations of the social world via abstraction, simplification, and compression. Narrative fiction also creates a deep and immersive simulative experience of social interactions for readers. This simulation facilitates the communication and understanding of social information and makes it more compelling, achieving a form of learning through experience. Engaging in the simulative experiences of fiction literature can facilitate the understanding of others who are different from ourselves and can augment our capacity for empathy and social inference.” 11

This quote is the abstract of a paper from Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley from 2008 called 'The Function of Fiction is the Abstraction and Simulation of Social Experience'.

The idea that we can see many stories as simulators can give us a new perspective on them, and illuminates the importance of representing reality in a way that the simulative experience helps us to train our own mental models of the world in ways that serve us. 

Keith Oatley draws the analogy of a story to a flight simulator46. While a pilot might practice flying in the save environment of a simulation, we humans practice all kinds of (social) experiences in the save environment of a (fictional) story.

For a flight simulator to be useful, it needs to represent flying in an accurate way. If causal relations between the controls of the plane and its behaviour are misrepresented, the simulation would be useless at best and harmful at worst. 

Other elements of the simulator are less relevant. One can imagine dinosaurs or fantasy creatures flying around the airplane. As long as the relevant objects of the simulation are represented accurately, the simulation serves its purpose. 

This analogy is of course limited. Living a good life, as an ultimate object of leaning from stories, is far more complex than flying a plane and even aspects of that can be complex and leave a lot of room for debate. Social reality is less tangible than flying a plane.

So, while it is easy to judge whether a plane behaves realistically in a simulation it is harder to judge whether what leads to human flourishing in a simulation also leads to human flourishing in real life. 

Despite those difficulties, however, it is possible to differentiate accurate representations and those that are distorted.

One example is the glorification of violence, that can lead to more positive beliefs toward violence, as well as aggressive emotions, thoughts and behaviours47–52.

Relevant for the effects of representations of violence are not only the susceptibility of the audience (like children, aggressive personalities and those with a strong urge for sensation53), but also the context of the violence35. Violence in stories is more harmful, when it is:

  • Performed by likeable perpetrators
  • Rewarded
  • Justified
  • Without consequences
  • Displayed as arousing

Another example of a misrepresentation of reality was found in romantic literature. When love was portrayed as being "swept away by emotion", women who read more romantic literature had more negative attitudes towards contraceptive use. When the stories included safe sex behaviour, or showed the negative consequences of unsafe behaviour, attitudes towards contraceptive use were more positive.31,32

If representatives of different groups are frequently associated with certain attributes in stories, this can contribute to the formation and reinforcement of stereotypes30.

Accurate representation of relevant causal connections ultimately means that risks are represented in stories and that events that (have the potential to) cause suffering (or increase well-being) in the real world do so in the story, too. 

Of course, stories can also contain intended (and recognisable) distortions, for example in satire or comedy. And they can also be exaggerated, like for the purpose of emphasis. Accurate representation does not mean that every story ought to be realistic.

(This view has the prior assumption, that it is best if people have accurate models of reality. However, there are also arguments in favour of distorted views on reality being beneficial. Endorsing that perspective, it might also be good to intentionally distort stories to reinforce wrong beliefs that serve the individual or society. I am critical of this but wanted to share the idea.)

And while the impact of a story is important, stories are not just instrumental. The quality of the experience we have in experiencing them, the entertainment value, still matters. If we just have a good time laughing at a trash film with friends, that is a good thing. The simulative character that stories have is just one aspect of them, and we have to be careful about trying to optimise stories in a mechanical way. It can conflict with what makes them wonderful.

Frequently asked moral questions

There are some important moral questions that arise when thinking about shaping stories for impact. My intention here is not to attempt to settle them, but to share my thoughts and maybe start a dialogue in the comments.

Question 1: Who decides what is right/good?

Some people think it is presumptuous to claim to know what is best. Trying to influence people for good with your story would imply that you know what is good and what is not. And that can be seen as arrogant or paternalistic.

As I will expand on in the section on manipulation and propaganda, I think much of this discussion can be avoided by clarifying the purpose of the storyteller.

As fantasy and sci-fi writer Brandon Sanderson said, the purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon. Or, in other words, to provide useful simulations that accurately represent aspects of reality. So instead of arriving at the ultimate question of what would be best for people to think, storytellers can concentrate on observing reality mindfully and writing about issues that are important to their audience with a compassionate and caring intention.

However, part of the question of what makes a subject relevant still remains, and some judgement has to be made about what is relevant and what contributes to well-being and what doesn't. Here I think education and humility are qualities to be encouraged, and storytellers need to think responsibly about the issues they write about as well as how to do so.

Question 2: Isn’t trying to influence people positive propaganda or manipulation?

Shaping stories to have a more positive impact is also sometimes seen as manipulation or 'positive propaganda'.

In response, I think the question for a storyteller is not whether they influence their audience, but whether they choose to be aware of it. Stories always have some kind of influence and ignoring this can lead to unwanted negative effects or missed opportunities to contribute to people's lives. 

However, there is an important point in this concern as stories can be propaganda and have been used in very destructive ways throughout history. 

Whether stories can be classified as propaganda or manipulative depends, of course, on how one defines these terms. 

In my view, there are three factors that separate manipulative persuasion from positive influence:

The first is whether the storyteller is exploiting the audience or caring about its influence. Most advertising, for example, has an incentive to get people to buy products, so it has a manipulative flavour, especially when it glorifies products that cause harm, such as tobacco or alcohol.

The second is whether the story is distorted or realistic. Telling a more truthful story can still be manipulative, but most manipulation involves distortion, one-sidedness or bias. 

The third, and perhaps most important, is the extent to which people are free to make up their own minds. How well are different positions presented? Is a moral imposed on the reader? Are people being pushed in one direction? Or are questions raised to give them food for thought to chew on for themselves?

I think it is crucial not to make stories 'pushy' or 'propagandistic'. Not only because it raises people's defences and closes them off to influence ;), but mainly because it would be unethical and ugly.

Question 3: What about the freedom of art?

Storytelling for impact can also be seen as censorship or a restriction on artistic freedom. It can be seen as instrumental, mechanistic and taking the authenticity and spirit out of art.

Of course, choosing to have a positive impact (or not to have a detrimental one) places some limits on performing arts. But if you choose to live an ethical life, there are also limits to what you can do. Besides, I think there are still huge possibilities for creativity.

I also believe that it is very possible to write authentic stories with the intention of doing good. The risk of creating stories mechanically is still there, but it can be avoided by creating space for creativity. Systematic evaluation of the value of a story could be done, for example, during the construction of the central plot or during the review and revision of the work. In the creative writing process itself, it might be best to put these rational tools aside. 

Another argument is that it wouldn't make any sense at all to try to write more useful stories (and to avoid those that might be harmful), because all influence could be moderated by the response to the stories. 

But while the response and public debate and criticism of stories is certainly very important, I don't think we should neglect to care about the stories themselves. Can we really detect all the distortions and harmful effects in stories and mitigate their effects? To me, this argument sounds like we don't need prevention anymore because we have teams to clean up the mess after the damage has been done. The fire brigade is vital, but fire prevention is also important. 

For the same reasons, I am also very sceptical about the argument that it might be good to have harmful stories because we can learn from them by criticising them. 

Finally, I would like to say a word of caution about possible ideas for influencing the market for stories from the outside. Actual censorship, or any regulation or restriction of what stories are publicly available, is dangerous, autocratic and can quickly lead down a slippery slope. While there are some bans on dangerous stories, such as Hitler's book in Germany because it glorifies violence and incites hatred, such extreme measures to limit artistic freedom are real risks for societies. Any desire to shape stories for good should therefore come from individuals themselves, not from some higher authority.

Knowledge gaps

While there is already a lot of research on narrative impact, there is also a lot that is unknown.

One aspect of this issue that I think is very difficult is quantifying the (potential) impact of well-designed stories. Because they can have subtle, downstream effects, and because it is hard to measure long-term counterfactuals, it is a challenge to assess the potential of writing stories to do good. I would love to hear your thoughts on this and how some quantification might be done.

References

Picture from Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:24 PM

This is great stuff, thank you for writing this up and sharing! Your extrapolations align with what I've learned/discovered over the past few years (but I don't have any scientific evidence to prove them either). It's sad to see such a small amount of upvotes on this post, but I hope you know that this write up is greatly appreciated and valuable for us writers in EA!

Wow, nice to hear this, thank you Jeroen :)

Whoa, thank you so much for this post - the topic of outreach and aligning people's moral intuitions seems incredibly important, as so many of the problems we are facing could be solved quite easily if everyone agreed to genuinely cooperate!

We do feel that two particular topics might have gotten a bit more attention (or maybe they are in there and we just didn't notice?)

  1. Maybe you could go a bit more in detail about how we can actually get people to enjoy the stories we write, and what is necessary to make them palatable / reach a wider audience?
  2. Especially regarding the propaganda accusation (FAQ part, question 2) - maybe also talk about counterfactuals, and how any story that does not transport positive moral values is taking up space from other stories that would do so? (After thinking about this for a bit we feel it is actually quite a harmful action to write a story that gets read a lot, takes up a lot of space, but does not teach valuable lessons...)

Thank you Moya,

I think you raise two important questions here.

1. That seems to be the million-dollar question, doesn't it? How do you write a bestseller, how do you make a blockbuster film? I didn't focus on this aspect in my research, so I could just give you some conventional wisdom here, which I don't think would be very useful. There are a lot of books out there on the subject. You might want to check out books like Stephen King's memoir 'On Writing', which I really enjoyed. An excellent TED talk I recommend is this one: https://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_stanton_the_clues_to_a_great_story?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare 

2. I also think that bad stories can (if not be harmful) waste people's time and that this can be a missed potential. Some popular stories, in my opinion, are quite superficial and not really valuable. They just seem to push the right buttons and get people hooked, as if they're scrolling through their social media feed. In the end, it's a waste of time and you don't really feel good about it. So there is certainly a lot of room for improvement. But I think it's also important not to go too far in that direction. Trying to optimise everything, including stories, seems unhealthy to me. Stories are more than simulations, they are art and we should keep them free.