The science of stories

Advertising is really about telling a story.  The way we tell the story depends on the length of time we have to tell the story and the method by which we are telling the story (TV, radio, etc.). but the simple fact is that we are all captivated by a good story.  Jessica Marshall recently investigated what makes some narratives so compelling, and what she found could impact the way we create advertising.

We tell stories to make sense of the world, to communicate, to teach, to train, to influence and to manipulate.  In fact, much of our conscious thought takes the form of an internal narrative in which we try to understand ourselves and our actions.  We also seem to use storytelling to reconcile our conscious and subconscious thoughts – as, for example, when we make choices based on subconscious reasoning and then invent fictions to justify and rationalize them.

Given the central role of internal narratives in human psychology, it is hardly surprising that stories told by other people also have a hold on us.  In fact, the two modes of storytelling have a great deal in common, as Daniel Morrow discovered more than two decades ago when he studied how people handle information when they read a story.  Morrow found that readers could more quickly answer questions about objects in the room where a fictional character was currently located than in other rooms in the story, and that the speed of answering was proportional to the physical distance of the room from the current setting.  Likewise, research has shown that readers responded more quickly to questions about events in a fictional character’s recent past than to questions about the character’s more distant experiences.  It would appear that we don’t just tell stories to make sense of ourselves, we actually adopt the stories of others as though we were the protagonist.

Brain-scanning research published in 2009 seems to confirm this.  Researchers using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on people reading a story or watching a movie found that the same brain regions that are active in real-life situations fire up when a fictitious character encounters an equivalent situation.  What’s more, the brain responds in the same way whether the story is in the form of words on a page or a realistic action video.

Stories can also manipulate how you feel.  Researchers surmise that the reason people emphasize so strongly with fictional characters is oxytocin, a hormone produced during fee-good encounters such as sex.  Paul Zak from Claremont Graduate University, California, has conducted research including orchestrating situations where the subject of his experiment is trusted by a stranger, but the most potent so far is an emotionally charged story.  Getting volunteers to watch a 5-minute video telling the story of a 4-year-old boy with terminal brain cancer increased oxytocin levels by an average of 47% compared with others who saw an emotionally neutral film about the same boy going to the zoo.

Understanding the mechanisms by which stories affect us can be put to practical use.  Understanding that the change in oxytocin correlates with a degree of empathy can help us develop more successful campaigns – especially in categories that don’t ordinarily lend themselves to engagement.  When advertising makes people empathetically engaged, it makes them feel good to achieve intended results, because oxytocin facilitates the release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which are associated with reward, pleasure and feelings of well-being.

Frankly, one of the best digital signage campaigns I ever saw was a video of a crying baby.  People could text $0.99 to a short-code on the screen and the baby would stop crying and start laughing.  It was brilliant and effective and I wish I had thought of it.  Every element of that campaign combined to make people empathetically engaged.  It seems that the right story can make all the difference.

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