Posted by: structureofnews | September 3, 2013

The Power and Perils of Narrative

This is a story.  About two triangles and a circle, and a couple of lines.   Or is it?

Watch the video and decide for yourself. Go ahead – it’s not long.


This was part of a landmark experiment created nearly 70 years ago by psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel to explore the ways people perceive and attribute behavior.

What it shows is our innate need to create story and narrative, sometimes out of thin air.  Because, let’s face it, what we have here is a bunch of geometric shapes moving around.  And yet, if you’re like me, you saw a story.  Perhaps an epic one of love, conflict and the triumph of good over evil.  Perhaps a less-epic one, but at least one imbued with some structure and meaning.

Which speaks, in many ways, to how we as humans are wired to see and tell stories – how, beyond being a very effective way to convey and embed information, it structures the way we look at the world and the lessons we draw from our experiences.  And that has real implications for journalism as well – both good and bad.

I came across the Heider-Simmel experiment while reading The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, by Jonathan Gottschall, an interesting book that’s mostly about fiction, but whose conclusions about narrative apply to journalism as well.

When I first watched the film, I didn’t see crude animated shapes moving randomly on a screen; I saw a weirdly powerful geometric allegory.  The small triangle was the hero. The big triangle was the villain.  And the small circle was the heroine.

… the rest of Heider and Simmel’s subjects were like me; they didn’t see fleshless and bloodless shapes sliding around.  They saw soap operas: doors slamming, courtship dances, the foiling of a predator.

Why? Gottschall doesn’t give a definitive answer – probably because there isn’t one – but the evidence and research points to a human desire to bring meaning to information.  And for many of us, that means creating some kind of narrative – even where none might exist.

It’s a powerful thing, both for storytellers and readers alike.  A great story, as we all know, can hold readers rapt, effectively impart – and make memorable – information, and change behaviors and thinking.  Just consider works of fiction like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or The Birth of A Nation, and the impact they had on society.

In fact, fiction seems more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence.

Gottschall speculates that non-fiction may be less effective in changing minds because readers have their guard up when they know they’re reading a fact-based story; nonetheless, all of this makes a strong argument for the value of good narrative journalism.

And that doesn’t just hold for text stories, of course.  There are multiple forms of narrative – not just video and other forms of visual storytelling, but immersive games and experiences as well.  After all, a well-designed game is in many ways a story that casts the player as the protagonist in a heroic quest.

(As an aside, this desire for narrative also explains why memory is so fallible – at least at remembering facts accurately; its real purpose may be to help us construct and inhabit a carefully edited life story that makes sense to us.  Therapy, too, it could be argued, helps us form a narrative that brings order to what might otherwise seem like a chaotic existence.)

A life story is not, however, an objective account.  A life story is a carefully shaped narrative that is replete with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings.

So shouldn’t we be focusing more on story in journalism, then?  Well, yes and no.  We should absolutely focus on creating more great stories.  But most journalism isn’t great; and to be fair, most of anything isn’t great. (Science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon once memorialized this in the statement that “ninety percent of everything is crap.”)  Not all coverage of all events needs to be in the form of 1,000-word narratives; and even when they should be, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t also be extracting data and information from them to power other information products, ala structured journalism.

But just as importantly, we should also be wary of embracing narrative too easily; or at least be wary of embracing easy narratives too easily. It’s tempting, when faced with a complex story, to decide that it’s “about” something, and weave a tale – not unlike our memories – that reinforces that theme, whether it’s about, say, the banality of evil, redemption, struggle against long odds, or whatever.

That’s great for imparting an idea – but what if it’s the wrong one?  What if the issue or event you’re covering is messy and nuanced and perhaps carries no deeper meaning?

That’s not to say that we should abandon framing of stories; indeed, that’s a critical – perhaps one of the most critical – functions that journalism plays in trying to give readers a better understanding of the world.

But it means we should be careful about the power that the form offers; that we should embrace nuance and complexity – perhaps even, by harnessing data and interactivity, allow readers to explore multiple narratives and interpretations of an event.  Because we all want a great story; but even more than that, we want a true story.


  1. […] and other individual pieces of content.  And of course they matter – they remain one of the most powerful ways to impart information to people.  But we need to get past the notion of story (and other individual pieces of content) […]

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