Narrative Psychology: How Stories Shape Your Personality

Narrative psychology is the view that human nature is fundamentally tied to stories.

Stories drive everything we do—from how we think about our past, regulate our conduct, and even define our personalities.

Narrative Psychology: Storytelling Structure and Self-Esteem

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated with the latest research and information.

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.

― Muriel Rukeyser, American poet and political activist

Imagine you’re trolling eBay one day, looking for a random knickknack to use as a gag gift for your favorite aunt.

(This might not describe your behavior pattern in any way, shape, or form. Just go with it.)

Narrative Psychology Explains Chili Cat's Unique Value

Photo credit: Significant Objects


Hat-tip: ConversionXL

After some cursory searching, you stumble across this bizarro artifact—a ceramic cat with chili’s for whiskers—and decide to investigate further.

Instead of a typical (AKA dry) item description, you begin to read a well-written and involving story about a friend’s estate sale for her aunt:

I’d never met the great aunt but as the sun sank low outside, G and R’s laughter floated in to me, and shadows crept over the bare living room floor, I started to feel bad for all those abandoned barnyard animals. I picked through the pigs and roosters with a kind of sadness until finally I found Chili Cat. Ugly as sin, there was no getting around that. No reason at all for the cat to be festooned with red chilis. There was a Mexican motif, I guessed. Maybe Tex-Mex. Chili Cat was supposed to be festive.

Something in your brain clicks and you start bidding. First at 50 cents, then to $3, then $5. Other people start getting involved and the price climbs to $9.50.

It’s moments before auction close; will your winning bid hold? Nope, it’s time for the snipe bidders to join the fray. The price climbs. And climbs. Suddenly a 50 cent trinket sells for $22.72 (you couldn’t help yourself—Chili Cat is yours, dammit).

What happened?

Significant Objects was a literary and anthropological experiment started by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn. Their goal was to demonstrate that narrative increased any given object’s perceived value. They purchased random objects at $1.25 apiece on average and had a team of 200 writers craft short stories to go with each item.

The result: The “significant objects” sold for nearly $8,000 combined.

How’s that for a markup?

The Apples and the Harley-Davidsons of the world do this on a massive scale—using the “storied” nature of human psychology to their business advantage.

But why is human nature so susceptible to stories?

The Evolution of Human Stories

Human beings evolved on a planet that’s desperately tried to kill us for millions of years.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, mudslides, tsunamis, droughts, floods, famine, disease, and predators have been hacking away at the human population for a hundred millennia. Add to that the modern problems of age, heart disease, and cancer and you’ve got a picture of life on planet Earth that is tough.

Except that we have survived. And thrived.

We are a species that finds its greatest strength in living and working together.

Collective survival has made a lasting imprint on our psychology.

One survival strategy we’ve used that’s impacted our evolutionary psychology is storytelling.

Human beings are the only animal on the planet that tells stories. Some stories relay facts or information. Some signal values and traditions. Still others are totally made up.

Narrative psychology is the view that the stories you tell yourself have a profound impact on how you live your life.

The Storytelling Animal: Narrative Psychology Explained

Maria Popova, the amazing curator of psychology blog Brain Pickings, has a great article about why humans are so attracted to storytelling.

Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can’t resist the gravity of alternate worlds.

— Jonathan Gottschall, science writer and author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.

It’s likely our brains are wired to tell stories.

When those stories are inspirational, we strive to do better.

When those stories are self-critical, we can become trapped in negative loops and get down on ourselves.

John Hopkins researcher Keith Quesenberry has studied over one hundred Super Bowl ads, looking for the magic that makes them memorable.

Did talking baby ads rule? Sexy beer commercial girls? What about pure, perplexing WTF-ery?

None of the above. Quesenberry found that storytelling trumped everything. “People are attracted to stories,” Quesenberry told Harrison Monarth of Harvard Business Review, “because we’re social creatures and we relate to other people.” Quesenberry found that ads with better story structure—specifically Freytag’s Pyramid—performed better with audiences.


Of course, there are all kinds of storytelling structures you can play with:

  • And/But/Therefore (ABT). Scientist and filmmaker Randy Olson wrote Science magazine with his advice for tackling the challenge of giving presentations with complex information: “So if you start with your information (And) but only pile on information, you lose momentum and a sense of destination. So you have to move on to your challenges (But) and then imagine a resolution (Therefore).” Hat-tip: Inc.
  • The Pixar Formula. Pixar is the animation studio that brought us beloved favorites like Toy Story and Finding Nemo. Storyboard artist Emma Coats spilled the beans on Pixar’s classic storytelling formula: “Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.” It’s surprising how many great stories follow this format, regardless of subject matter. Try it out.
  • AIDA. The AIDA pattern (Awareness-Interest-Desire-Action) is a classic sequence that marketers use to guide a potential customer to a purchasing decision. AIDA is an exploit that marketers use to appeal to the storytelling engine in your brain’s operating system. It tells you that the correct “ending” to the story is to take Action (i.e. ‘Add to Cart’).
AIDA Strategy: Stories Affect Human Conduct

Image credit: You the Entrepreneur


Monarth wraps up his article thus (emphasis mine):

Storytelling may seem like an old-fashioned tool, today — and it is. That’s exactly what makes it so powerful. Life happens in the narratives we tell one another. A story can go where quantitative analysis is denied admission: our hearts. Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.

The Self Illusion: How Narrative Constructs Who You Are

When you look in the mirror, who exactly is looking back at you?

Cognitive neuroscientist Bruce Hood wrote about how neuroscience is demolishing traditional ideas about self in The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity. He describes the sensations of consciousness the first time we wake up every morning:

For the briefest of moments we are not sure who we are and then suddenly ‘I,’ the one that is awake, awakens. We gather our thoughts so that the ‘I’ who is conscious becomes the ‘me’ — the person with a past. The memories of the previous day return. The plans for the immediate future reformulate. The realization that we have things to get on with remind us that it is a workday. We become a person whom we recognize.

The call of nature tells us it is time to visit the bathroom and en route we glance at the mirror. We take a moment to reflect. We look a little older, but we are still the same person who has looked in that same mirror every day since we moved in. We see our self in that mirror. This is who we are.

The daily experience of the self is so familiar, and yet the brain science shows that this sense of the self is an illusion. Psychologist Susan Blackmore makes the point that the word ‘illusion’ does not mean that it does not exist — rather, an illusion is not what it seems. We all certainly experience some form of self, but what we experience is a powerful depiction generated by our brains for our own benefit.

Hat-tip: Brain Pickings

Self is not a single thing. It’s not a little driver in your brain piloting the ship of your body. Instead, it’s a collection of things—memories, experiences, perceptions, beliefs—that all together comprise you.

Narrative is the force that binds these separately firing neurons together. It’s how the self coheres and creates the proper illusion of a single, cohesive self to you. If storytelling seems intrinsic to our functioning, it’s because narrative is wired so deep into our programming that we would lose all sense of identity without it.

The Funny Thing About Self-Esteem

People with high self-esteem seem to ooze confidence. People with high self-esteem seem so self-assured that we think they must be impervious to outside criticism.

There’s a bit of truth to this view, but low self-esteem often isn’t an internal problem. Research is finding that low self-esteem is powerfully related to the opinions of others.

When self-esteem sinks to the danger zone, the appropriate response is not to fix some inner sense of self, but to repair your standing in the eyes of others, to behave in ways that maintain connections with other people.

Your perception of what others think of you isn’t objective. It might be that everyone else’s opinion of you hasn’t changed.

But the stories we tell ourselves about what others think of us have a big effect on our self-esteem.

If you are feeling negative about yourself, the solution is often to reconnect with the people who love and support you.

You Are Not Alone

We have to temper some of our interconnectedness by encouraging autonomy. It’s not always healthy to buy into the Herd mentality. The dangers of groupthink are well-documented.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge how powerful our connections are to one another.

No one is an island, to update a famous saying.

Agile demands continuous improvement, embracing change, and thinking for yourself. But no one says you have to do it alone.

Cultivating communities that share your values and maintaining connections with people you admire and trust is a fundamentally human activity and critical to your well-being.

Our narrative psychology demands that we tell stories. The most important story you have to share is the story of yourself.

So who will you share your story with?

A version of this article first appeared on June 4, 2012.

Photo Credit: UNE Photos via Compfight cc

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