Last time, we heard Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller promote the use of narratives in economic policy-making, on the theory that it would produce more humane outcomes than mathematical modeling — for example, reversing trends such as soaring economic inequality, loss of upward mobility, stagnant purchasing power, and declining cultural wellbeing.
Narratives are up to the challenge, proponents say, because:
- Humans are natural storytellers.
“Our storytelling ability, a uniquely human trait, has been with us nearly as long as we’ve been able to speak. Whether it evolved for a particular purpose or was simply an outgrowth of our explosion in cognitive development, story is an inextricable part of our DNA.”
The Power Of Story, Aeon Magazine (Jan. 12, 2015)
- There’s nothing like a good story to make you rethink your life.
“The careers of many great novelists and filmmakers are built on the assumption, conscious or not, that stories can motivate us to re-evaluate the world and our place in it.
“New research is lending texture and credence to what generations of storytellers have known in their bones – that books, poems, movies, and real-life stories can affect the way we think and even, by extension, the way we act.
“Across time and across cultures, stories have proved their worth not just as works of art or entertaining asides, but as agents of personal transformation.”
- Narratives supply a welcome sense of meaning:
“Each of us has a story we tell about our own life, a way of structuring the past and fitting events into a coherent narrative. Real life is chaotic; life narratives give it meaning and structure.”
- Stories are catchy: brain scans show that listeners’ and readers’ brains mirror the storyteller’s — another reason why they make good change agents.
“fMRI data [shows] that emotion-driven responses to stories… [starts] in the brain stem, which governs basic physical functions, such as digestion and heartbeat. So when we read about a character facing a heart-wrenching situation, it’s perfectly natural for our own hearts to pound.
“Just when the speaker’s brain lit up in the area of the insula – a region that governs empathy and moral sensibilities – the listeners’ insulae lit up, too. Listeners and speakers also showed parallel activation of the temporoparietal junction, which helps us imagine other people’s thoughts and emotions. In certain essential ways, then, stories help our brains map that of the storyteller.”
- American capitalism already has an established story genre — the “redemption narrative” — that it can rely upon to good effect.
“For Americans, the redemption narrative is one of the most common and compelling life stories. In the arc of this life story, adversity is not meaningless suffering to be avoided or endured; it is transformative, a necessary step along the road to personal growth and fulfilment.
“For the past 15 years, Daniel McAdams, professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Illinois, has explored this story and its five life stages: (1) an early life sense of being somehow different or special, along with (2) a strong feeling of moral steadfastness and determination, ultimately (3) tested by terrible ordeals that are (4) redeemed by a transformation into positive experiences and (5) zeal to improve society.
“This sequence doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual events of the storyteller’s life, of course. It’s about how people interpret what happened – their spin, what they emphasise in the telling and what they discard.”
- Redemption narratives make good citizens, and never mind if there’s some ego involved:
“In his most recent study, the outcome of years of intensive interviews with 157 adults, McAdams has found that those who adopt [redemption narratives] tend to be generative – that is, to be a certain kind of big-hearted, responsible, constructive adult.
“Generative people are deeply concerned about the future; they’re serious mentors, teachers and parents; they might be involved in public service. They think about their legacy, and want to fix the world’s problems.
“But generative people aren’t necessarily mild-mannered do-gooders. Believing that you have a mandate to fix social problems – and that you have the moral authority and the ability to do so – also requires a sense of self-importance, even a touch of arrogance.”
- Stories are good for the American capitalist ideal.
“From a more sociological perspective, the American self-creation myth is, inherently, a capitalist one…. The sociologist Paul du Gay [believed that most people] craft outward-looking ‘enterprising selves’ by which they set out to acquire cultural capital in order to move upwards in the world, gain access to certain social circles, certain jobs, and so on. We decorate ourselves and cultivate interests that reflect our social aspirations. In this way, the self becomes the ultimate capitalist machine.”
But of course, not everyone shares these rosy opinions of narrative economics, or of the current practice of American capitalism. We’ll hear from the naysayers next time.