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"Excuse me, sir, are you okay?"

Posted by Jonathan Klane on Apr 13, 2021 11:38:58 AM

Previous: When did we start telling stories … and why?

Imagine you're on a plane, and you're next to a gentleman who's watching something on his device. This fellow – who you don't know – is experiencing what he will describe as "body racking sobs." You ask him, "Excuse me, sir, are you all right?" He replies, "Oh yes, it's a very sad movie, Million Dollar Baby."

Now what you don't know is he's not just an average movie-watching passenger. He's Dr. Paul Zak, a well-known researcher of the human bonding chemical oxytocin. And like any good researcher, he wonders, "What is going on? I understand the 'willful suspension of disbelief, but really? Why was I so affected that I was reduced to a blubbering mess? Hmm, I wonder what we can figure out?"

So, he designs a study. He divides subjects into two groups. They both get the same information via a video. It's a father telling the viewer that his son has cancer. He describes it as straight information and data in the control group – no drama, no story. In the study group, he tells it as a narrative, a highly emotional tale.

For comparison and to help you, think of the PSA for shelter animals that have been abused. You know the one. All of the dogs have puppy dog eyes that look out at you, imploring that you adopt them while that sad, sad song by Sarah McLachlan plays in the background. You know which one I mean – where we all grab at the remote to change the channel before we turn into blubbering messes. Yeah, it's like that. The same information – just formatted differently.

And what does he find out? He draws pre- and post-video blood samples. In the control group, there are no differences between the pre-and post-video blood samples. In the study group, guess what? As Dr. Zak hypothesized, there is a significant increase in oxytocin, the human bonding chemical. Imagine that. A story, mind you, a highly emotional story, causes humans to secrete oxytocin.

This is the hormone we secrete in response to love, social bonding, and during and after childbirth. It helps with "milk letdown" in a new mom and with male reproduction, too. It's a pretty potent chemical, and a highly emotional story causes us to secrete it. Is it any wonder that stories work so well to convince us as well as to facilitate social bonding? Beat that with just info and data!

As they say in ads, "But wait – there's more!" Dr. Zak does follow-up studies. He also discovers that during the rising action (or tension-building parts – see micro-blog "A 5-part story structure?!") of affective stories, we secrete cortisol – the stress hormone. We are literally under stress when we read, hear, or watch an emotional account. It's quite common to at least identify with one or more characters. With a really well-done story, we might even experience a feeling of being transported into a character such as Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter.

And then at the end (after the cortisol during the rising/building action/tension and the oxytocin release during the emotional peak), when it's a great Disney-like, feel-good ending, we get a nice shot of dopamine, a feel-good neuro-transmitter. Wow! So, imagine this – during a truly affective or emotional story, we get three different chemical shots that induce three related feelings – stress, bonding, and pleasure. Wow is right!

That's the power of compelling and effective narratives. Empirically measured. You can't beat it for engagement, sense-making, and relatability. And some great feel-good doses. Use stories more – they have the power to work wonders (just don't abuse it).

What kinds of stories are you telling? Make them highly effective to make them highly effective.


Next: Which works better in safety training – humor or narrative? A study in an academic lab setting

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