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How the human brain thinks in stories

Behavioral psychology tells us that if we want to influence people, we shouldn’t let rationality get in the way of a good story


Most marketing departments are focused on making rational arguments for their products based on features, advantages, benefits, and logical outcomes. The problem? Nobody actually thinks that way.

If you have ever watched any of the movies in the Terminator franchise, you may have thought at some point that the entire premise of the story is based on a fundamental paradox, amplified by a series of gaping plot holes. As more movies have been added to the franchise, this premise has become increasingly untenable, as the dudes over at Auralnuts illustrate:

What plots holes teach us about how our brain works

Many movies have plot holes, some more than others, yet we hardly consider them. They are rarely so obnoxious that they actually effect our enjoyment of a movie.  Their existence isn’t often born from laziness; plot holes allow writers to make movies more exciting. 

Writers rarely sacrifice the punch of an otherwise amazing story in order to close a plot hole. Over time, they’ve developed techniques to obfuscate plot holes, without actually closing them. The most common example of this is having the characters address the awareness of a plot hole without addressing the hole itself. The audience implicitly accepts this recognition as sufficient explanation and continues on with the story.

Our ambivalence to plot holes, and the relative ease to which storytellers can conceal them, give us insight into just how partial and irrational our minds are. In Nudge, behavioral psychologists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein differentiate two types of decision-makers: econs and humans. Econs are perfectly rational actors, capable of weighing multiple options, and forecasting the impact of each to make a sound choice. Humans are emotional creatures, bound by rules and stories of how the world works, prone to generalization and bias, who are better at rationalizing choices than they are at making them. Econs would not tolerate plot holes, as they lack the intellectual hardware needed to ignore the logical shortcomings of the story. 

The fact that humans can, and do so automatically and unconsciously, indicates to me that any individual wanting to influence others should focus far greater attention on telling an incredible, provocative story, even if it leaves out seemingly essential details and information needed to make a rational decision. 

The most persuasive stories are those that are told best, even if they don't make sense

Most everyone on earth is in the business of persuasion, convincing this person to do that thing you want them to do. Persuasion relies wholeheartedly on confidence. Confidence relies on coherence. As it turns out, coherence is nothing but a story we tell ourselves. It is influenced only by the available information, and the brain is more than willing to leave mountains of important, relevant details untouched in order to build it. 

What I see in the majority of marketing initiatives, especially within smaller, risk-averse companies, is a pre-occupation with eliminating plot holes around their offerings at the expense of telling a compelling story. They are essentially crafting an argument for why an econ, not a human, should use their product or service. It possesses these attributes which produces these results, and these results are superior to those produced by other choices.  

There are numerous reasons for this approach, none greater than it seems to make perfect, rational sense. After all, isn’t your job as a company to architect an airtight argument for why your product is superior? Of course, but one could argue quite successfully the dogged pursuit of such an effort is not only based on an antiquated model of human behavior, but ultimately less effective, despite being intuitive.

Over the last 50 years, the burgeoning field of behavioral psychology has begun to uncover the extent to which individuals behave irrationally. The research around confidence has been particularly compelling. Within the rational model, of which most marketing departments operate, at least partially, humans evaluate the strength of the pitch along a series of criteria: data quality, data quantity, and so on, with confidence being somewhat of a sum total of the relative strength of the argument within each criteria. Within such a model, increasing the quality and quantity of the data increases the appeal of the argument.

Within the new behavioral model, human confidence is simply a measure of a pitch’s coherence. Yet the pitch is only a story. As Nassim Taleb explains in his book The Black Swan, we organize our life into stories, which give us organization and certainty. He writes, “We humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas.” 

The human brain contains incredible machinery for building coherence, even with extremely limited information. If you have ever spoken with someone and felt like you’ve know them forever, or took one look at a restaurant and knew immediately you wouldn’t like the food, you have experienced this machinery at work. 

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explores all the intricate parts of this machinery, which have evolved over thousands of years to rapidly deliver certainty in such a way that feels both natural and complete. One of the more notable characteristics of our judgment involves a long acronym WYSIATI, or what you see is all there is. As a rule, Kahneman writes, “You cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know.”

WYSIATI is one of the reasons why plot holes in movies are so easily disregarded, if not missed entirely. In listening to any kind of narrative, argument, or idea, our mind is busy filling in gaps with available information to build a coherent story. And if the story is coherent, we are confident in its truth. In some cases, whether a story seems coherent can be as simple as whether or not the storyteller spoke confidently or with an English accent.

For marketers, designers, executives, business people, and basically everyone interested in influencing decisions and building confidence, the rational burden of proof is far lower than one might expect. The human mind isn't built to work through complexity and most decisions, especially those in business, are exceedingly complex. Influencers should embrace the fact that that people are willing and able to follow stories on the story's own terms, with little defense against missing information or logical inconsistency. 

The type of questions you ask change the story you write

For anyone attempting to build confidence in their audience, there is always limited time to prepare, a limited budget, and limited human resources. How you build your pitch matters, as does whether you consider it a logical argument or a more emotional narrative. 

When you consider a pitch an argument you may focus on:

  • How reasonable is my premise?
  • How well-supported are my claims?
  • Are my assumptions valid?
  • Have I addressed potential questions about my claims?
  • Do my claims address the right needs?
  • Is my evidence trustworthy?
  • Am I reputable?

I don’t mean to suggest that any of these questions are useless or unwarranted. However, answering these questions completely is an intensive exercise that may fall on deaf ears. You may be heavily preparing for only a portion of what constitutes the exam, leaving an opportunity to be more convincing in other ways on the table. 

When you consider a pitch a narrative, you may focus on:

  • What is my narrative arc?
  • Who are the characters in my story and are they compelling?
  • Is there a beginning, a middle, and end?
  • Is the premise of my story moving, funny, emotional?
  • Is the end of my story satisfying?
  • Is my story relatable?
  • Where is the humanity in my story?
  • Is my story easy to follow and easy for others to repeat?
  • Is my story exciting and engaging?
  • What kind of world does my story live in?
  • Does my story address basic human needs like acceptance, safety, and love?

Apple released an ad in 2014 that, by rational judgment, absolutely misses the mark. It features a series of scenes where people use in the iPad in a context almost no casual consumer could relate to. There are no direct references to the device’s features or price, nor is there any comparison to similar devices. There is little here for the rational mind.

As Robin William’s narrates, “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits, necessary to sustain life. But poetry. Beauty. Romance. Love. These are what we stay alive for.”

Perhaps one of the reasons we prefer to structure pitches as arguments rather than as narratives, is that it’s considerably easier. It’s easier to write. It’s easier to defend the approach. And it’s easier to receive approval on. Spending your time plugging plot holes in a generic story is far more straightforward than writing an engaging story. This is perhaps one of the reasons the world offers us far more successful proposal writers than playwrights.