Last August, Interpol arrested a 40-year-old Nigerian con artist, known only as “Mike,” who was the alleged mastermind of an email scam cartel that swindled over $60 million from victims around the world. Mike operated various email schemes including the infamous “Nigerian Prince” ruse, which elaborately establishes a heartbreaking and potentially profitable tale before asking for money. Though cunning and downright deceptive, this case demonstrates the power of storytelling.
Before asking for money, the con artists weave intricate tales that appeal to people’s emotions. While these scammers tend to prey on the gullible, like this 63-year-old Nebraskan woman who lost over $40,000, the more elaborate variations call on astronauts or London gallerists to target people who may be more sophisticated. In fact, as Maria Konnikova told Contently in an interview about the dark side of storytelling, intelligent people are the most vulnerable to investment fraud. According to another new book, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us, they’re also more likely to join cults.
Our predisposition to believing good stories comes down to human physiology and psychology. We’re wired for well-told narratives. They can be so alluring, enticing, and transformative that they can cause even the smartest readers to change their minds, relinquish money, and see the world through someone else’s eyes.
Even though credibility counts for a lot, you ultimately must make an audience feel things to compel action. It’s a frustrating reality for scientists and statisticians, who often try to persuade people with authority and numbers. Statistics may seem irrefutable, but they can hurt a cause, priming people to think analytically, which increases skepticism and decreases the likelihood for action.
Unlike statistics, stories trigger emotions—actual physical and chemical changes in our body. In a thoughtful post on Greater Good, a science publication associated with the University of California, Berkeley, Jeremy Adam Smith crystalizes why good stories are so powerful: “Stories are told in the body.”
Holding your attention
Screenwriting legend Robert McKee once said, “Story is about eternal, universal forms.” Storytellers appeal to basic human drives or vulnerabilities to grip your attention from the first moment and make you feel things like fear, curiosity, or both.
Smith uses an example from a very short story, often (incorrectly) attributed to Ernest Hemingway, to look at the role of fear:
“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”
Two seconds into reading, your heart sinks. According to Smith, this line triggers our natural negativity bias and activates the fear and despair we’d feel if our own child died.
When we focus on what might hurt us, our bodies release cortisol, which sharpens attention and boosts strength and speed. Cortisol initially helped humans escape physical threats, but when triggered by stories, it pushes us to imagine how we would deal with the situation we’re reading. In other words, it engages us.
Surprise and curiosity also release cortisol and grab our attention. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath spend an entire chapter on the unexpected because “the most basic way to get someone’s attention” is to “break a pattern.”
Ray Bradbury opens Fahrenheit 451 with the sentence “It was a pleasure to burn.” In Someone Has Been Disarranging These Roses, Gabriel García Márquez starts with “Since it’s Sunday and it’s stopped raining, I think I’ll take a bouquet of roses to my grave.” Gillian Flynn starts off Gone Girl with “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.”
These first lines all break patterns and get your attention. Burn what? How can someone be communicating if they’re dead? Not like a severed head, right? The openers also probably scare you into paying attention. You can experience a more extreme version of the phenomenon of surprise by watching this ad featuring a super fresh minivan:
We’re creatures of habit and we can’t help but involuntarily focus on an event that violates our existing schemas.
Triggering empathy and understanding
Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson wanted to understand more about what the brain really responded to when hearing stories.
When we remember, dream, or have ideas, specific neuronal patterns play out in our brains. Hasson conducted an experiment in which he measured a woman’s brain activity with fMRI while she told a personal story. Her auditory cortex was activated in response to her own voice, and her frontal and parietal cortices—the higher-order areas—responded to the emotion she felt recounting the story.
Then he played the woman’s story to five people while monitoring their brain activity. The similarities indicated the phenomenon of neural coupling, which occurred on two fronts. First, as expected, just hearing the same story triggered the listeners’ auditory cortices. Surprisingly, the emotional regions of the listeners’ brains were also activated at the same time and in similar patterns to the speaker’s brain.
Not surprisingly, the study showed that the stronger the similarity between brain patterns, the deeper the understanding between the teller and the audience.
While Hasson’s experiment implied that empathetic listeners would be more likely to take action, Dr. Paul Zak’s studies proved it.
In an article on Greater Good, Zak wonders if he could “hack” the oxytocin system to motivate people to engage in cooperative behaviors. Oxytocin is a neurochemical that signals safety to the brain. It’s produced when we feel trust or are shown kindness. Crucially, it motivates cooperation by enhancing our ability to experience other people’s emotions. It’s the empathy chemical—what Zak calls “the moral molecule.”
Zak showed test subjects a film about a two-year-old boy named Ben with a deadly brain tumor. Ben’s father narrates the film, explaining how hard it is to be joyful around his son, considering the circumstances. Ultimately, however, he finds the strength to be happy around his son. According to Zak, it’s a typical hero’s journey about an innocent who is treated unfairly and a protector who seeks to right a wrong but can only do so after finding the courage to change.
Nearly all of the people who watched Ben’s story in Zak’s lab were rapt. They released more oxytocin and donated a portion of their earnings from the experiment to a charity for Ben’s cause.
Amazingly, when Zak showed viewers a boring version of the film, the audience tuned out, did not release additional oxytocin, and donated less money.
Empathy and understanding are all well and good, but if you’re interested in persuading someone to donate money, love your brand, or quit smoking, you still need action. You need that behavioral change. And whether you’re a Nigerian prince or an investigative journalist, a skilled storyteller can actually compel others to act by manipulating their emotions.
More on the power of storytelling