Of facts, stories and persuation

During the peak of World War 2, the US army financed an excellent documentary series for inspiring their new army recruits titled Why We Fight.

This series, made with the best technology and the most accomplished director of his day, Frank Capra, highlighted how evil the Nazi regime in Germany was. It portrayed how the Nazis undermined all values that the Americans and the democratic world considered dear. It asserted that the future of humanity was at stake, and that it was up to those young recruits in the United States to stand up and fight this scourge. Franklin Roosevelt, the American president, loved it so much that he ordered that every new army recruit watch it.

Once the videos were made, they hired Carl Hovland from Yale, one of the most illustrious psychologists of the time, to measure their effectiveness. The scientist quantified their effect on the morale of fresh recruits, while using experimental controls.

The result was shocking and disappointing. The series had had no effect on soldier morale or their entrenched beliefs about the war. All those incredible visuals were dollars flushed down the drain pipe.

This study was the first high profile documentation of the ineffectual nature of facts in changing our minds and ingrained beliefs about a particular issue. Since then, facts have been studied to persuade people in a range of issues such as immigration, vaccination and climate change. We tell ourselves that we live in the post truth era. Dan Kahan, another psychology professor from Yale states, “But as far as whether we’re in the post truth era, I’d like to know when we were in the the truth era.”

So how do we change peoples’ minds?

The legend of a baby born of a virgin, who performed miracles, died on a cross and returned from his grave is arguably the world’s all time bestselling story. Human beings are build to live in that are not larger than about 200 members. And yet, across the centuries, this story inspired several generations of human beings to organize themselves into massive armies and fight alongside strangers under the banner of the cross – a symbol in that fictitious story that they all knew. The same is true of the story of the foundation temple of a Ram temple in the city of Ayodhya, which inspired a group of hooligans to bring down a medieval mosque in 1992 and unleash communal hatred that continue to simmer across India today.

Stories are how we change other peoples’ minds. Stories are effective because of their ability to immerse us in an experience. Facts aren’t immersive. That 1 million Soviet women fought alongside men in the Second World War is merely a statistic. However, once we read about Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the young Ukrainian sniper who joined the war after her university was bombed, lost her husband to it and killed 309 German soldiers along the way, we remember it for a long time. It ends up bending our perspective.

In that case, what are facts for?

Stories can clearly stand on their own in the absence of any facts. On the other hand, facts are useful to check if we are telling the right story or not. If we choose to tell the truth, facts show us the right direction. Facts alone cannot effect the change we wish to see. They can merely be used to verify if we are fooling others and most importantly, our own selves.

“The first principle is to not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman

Therefore, the cornerstone of the art persuasion is the craft of storytelling. The reason we purchase a product is not because we are sold on its facts, but rather because we buy the story being told about it. Mastering the art of story telling is how Coca-cola, the unchanging unhealthy, sugary concoction continues to sell for centuries with the story of how it is central to our happiness.

Rather than merely being the change we wish to see, we would do well to narrate it – to our audience, as well as to our own selves.

Inspiration: You Are Not So Smart podcast – The Backfire Effect – Part 4, Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari and Seth Godin’s blogpost

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