Story & Certainty

By BILL BRITTEN 24th June 2021 Communication

The neurologist Robert Burton argues persuasively that the feeling of being certain is just that – a feeling or sensation – and is produced by unconscious brain mechanisms, similar to the way the feeling of thirst is produced by unconscious physiological mechanisms. This partly explains the a-ha moment, when we suddenly realise something and move from a state of uncertainty to certainty. As such, it is less to do with logical deduction than we like to believe. But because it feels like a thought, we think we are in charge of it.

This chimes with much of the work of people like Daniel Kahneman and provides further evidence that much of our decision-making is outside our conscious control.

If Burton is right, it explains why it’s so incredibly difficult to argue someone out of certainty. How many times have you tried to change someone’s mind by showing them evidence – facts and data – and heard these words: “oh, you’re right. I thought you were wrong. But now I see now that it was me who was wrong – thank you for enlightening me”? Just doesn’t happen, does it?

We tend to approach persuasion with what is known as the information deficit model: I have a killer piece of information that you don’t have. Once I share it with you, you will come over to my way of thinking. Of course the other person thinks the same and you engage in a battle of “my evidence is better than your evidence”. This is the adversarial debate culture that we have in the West and it simply does not work most of the time. (In a court room, of course, the lawyers are not trying to convince each other, they’re trying to convince the third-party – the judge and/or the jury)

Even when we all have access to the same evidence, we interpret it differently according to our individual, personal experience of life and if you really hope to change someone’s mind you have to engage with theirs. This is why stories can be such a powerful persuasion technique.

Story is how we make sense of the world and learn. Like most creatures we are fundamentally prediction-machines. We try to spot patterns that enable us to predict what will happen, so we can make good decisions and prosper. The most available guide is our personal experience: I was in this situation, I did this and this was the result. Conclusion: do the same thing again next time or don’t do the same thing again next time.

So we process what has happened to us in this basic story format, learning, little by little, how to get what we want. When your friend asks how your day was, you respond by telling him or her a story: “I was on the bus this morning and this woman got on with a dog…” “I was just getting a coffee when my boss came up to me…” etc. This is you processing what has happened and what you learn from it, so you can respond better next time.

But why is your friend interested? And why do stories – films, plays, books, TV series etc. give us so much pleasure? It’s because we piggyback on the learning of others. When you listen to your friend’s story, you benefit from their experience and add to your repository of knowledge. Occasionally this surfaces as conscious knowledge “ah, I’m tempted to do x, but I heard about someone who did that in a similar situation and bad things happened”. But most of the time, this information sits in the massive unconscious reservoir of experience that guides us when we make decisions.

Back to the question of how do you change someone’s mind. By telling them a story you trigger connections with their own experience or engage their imagination and desire to learn from you. What’s more, because of their hardwired hunger for story, you are more likely to engage them positively in discussion, rather than provoking resistance by parading your evidence and implying that they are wrong/stupid/ignorant.

I should make it clear that when I advocate using story, I’m not suggesting it’s necessary to concoct an elaborately structured, three act epic, with twists and turns and numerous subplots. The most basic story is the one I referenced earlier “I was in this situation, I did this and this was the result”.

If you look at the ten most-watched TED talks, nine of them contain story. To me the only mystery is why one of them doesn’t.

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