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Tell Me A Story: What Narratives Reveal About The Mind

Angela Hsieh

Writers and filmmakers hoping to hoodwink their fans with plot twists have long known what cognitive scientists know: All of us have blind spots in the way we assess the world. We get distracted. We forget how we know things. We see patterns that aren't there. Because these blind spots are wired into the brain, they act in ways that are predictable — so predictable that storytellers from Sophocles to M. Night Shyamalan have used them to lead us astray.

In recent years, some scientists have begun to ask, can stories serve as a kind of brain scan? If a plot twist works by exploiting our biases and mental shortcuts, can observing the mechanics of a good story reveal something important about the contours of the mind?"

"Stories are a kind of magic trick," says Case Western Reserve University's professor Vera Tobin. "When we dissect them, we can discover very, very reliable aspects of those tricks that turn out to be important clues about the way that people think."

But stories aren't just found in books or plays or clever plot twists in movies. They can also be found in the stuff we buy.

In the second half of the episode, we talk to professor of marketing Americus Reed. Today, he teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. But when he was 17, he was the new kid — one of a handful of black students bused to a predominantly white school. He wanted to be accepted. So he came up with a plan: He would become a social chameleon.

"I sort of settled on this idea that I would try to be...a boundary-spanner," he says. "So I hung out with the nerds, I hung out with the jocks, I hung out with the musicians."

As he spent time with these different cliques, he noticed that each had its own set of badges, its own language. And he realized that if he could speak that language, adopt those badges, he would start to blend in. So he started wearing the things the other kids wore. With the athletes it was Nikes. With the musicians, Chuck Taylors. With the hip hop kids, Adidas – but without the shoelaces. It was like a costume, but deeper.

"A brand is so much more than a tagline or a logo," he says. "It is more of a meaning system."

This week on Hidden Brain, the stories we tell — and how they connect to our identities.

A few of the storyteller's favorite biases:

  • The Curse of Knowledge: The mother of all blind spots, this is the tendency to assume that others know what you know.
  • Confirmation Bias: The tendency to seek information that confirms what you already believe.
  • Anchoring: The tendency to lean too heavily on the first piece of information you hear, failing to correct it as you learn new data.
  • Availability Bias: The tendency to believe that things that spring readily to mind are more plausible than things that spring less readily to mind.
  • Hindsight Bias: The tendency to see an event as predictable, once it has already unfolded. We experience hindsight bias when we look back and say, "I knew it all along."
  • Additional resources:

    "Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot," by Vera Tobin

    "Cognitive bias and the poetics of surprise," by Vera Tobin in Language and Literature

    "The Curse of Knowledge in Reasoning About False Beliefs," by Susan A.J. Birch and Paul Bloom in Psychological Science

    "Attention and awareness in stage magic: turning tricks into research," by Stephen L. Macknik, Mac King, James Randi, Apollo Robbins, Teller, John Thompson, and Susana Martinez-Conde in Nature Reviews Neuroscience

    "Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger: How Moral Decoupling Enables Consumers to Admire and Admonish," by Amit Bhattacharjee, Jonathan Z. Berman, and Americus Reed, II in Journal of Consumer Research, 2013.

    "Identity-based consumer behavior," by Americus Reed, II, Mark R. Forehand, Stefano Puntoni, and Luk Warlop in International Journal of Research in Marketing, 2012.

    "Performance Brand Placebos: How Brands Improve Performance and Consumers Take the Credit," by Aaron Garvey, Frank Germann, and Lisa Bolton in Advances in Consumer Research, 2015.

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    Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
    Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.
    Laura Kwerel
    [Copyright 2024 NPR]
    Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
    Angus Chen
    Thomas Lu (he/him) is a producer for NPR's science podcast, Short Wave. The podcast is a perfect equation of curiosity, nerdiness and everyday discoveries.