Visual storytelling lessons from Citizen Kane, one of Roger Ebert's favorite films
TED Talk: A story of survival, resilience, and hope

Should we be suspicious of stories?

StorycampfireWe are wired for stories. “Evolutionary biologists confirm that 100,000 years of reliance on stories have evolutionarily hardwired a predisposition into human brains to think in story terms,” says research scientist and engineer Kendall Haven in his book Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story. “We are programmed to prefer stories and to think in story structures.” Stories are ubiquitous in our lives. Jean-Paul Sartre said, "A man is always a teller of stories. He lives surrounded by his own stories and those of other people. He sees everything that happens to him in terms of stories, and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it." Most people agree that stories—for better or worse—have a special ability to engage an audience, to hold their attention, and impart a message. Sometimes stories merely entertain us in the moment and then quickly fade from memory. Other stories inform and persuade and educate the listener. Many stories inspire the listener to make a change and to take an action. Stories have great power to communicate and to influence, and because story has this great power, it is reasonable to ask whether or not we should be suspicious of story.

Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the economics blog Marginal Revolution. In his TEDxtalk he says that we should be suspicious of stories. Watch it on the TED site or watch the YouTube version below.

I point to this talk above because it's just provocative enough to get people thinking and questioning. That's a good thing. But what would have made the talk better would have been a clear definition of what story is, or at least what definition he was using. We have to assume he was using the term story rather generally for things which may be factual, based on facts, or completely imagined. But even things which are completely made up (many of the ancient myths, for example) while not serving as reliable historical accounts, nonetheless are instructional, illuminating or inspiring for the listener.

I think of the meaning of "story" not in terms of content but rather in terms of a shape or structure. Story, then, in and of itself is neither good nor bad. Elements of story structure, such as Syd Field's version of the classic three-act structure, can be applied to many (but by no means all) of the narratives we wish to create. In the talk above, Cowen seems to be suggesting, at least in part, that stories include anecdotes and personal testimony regarding events and ideas, etc. If so, then he is certainly correct that we need to be very suspicious indeed of this kind of "storytelling." Story structure backed by honest research and supported with evidence and concrete examples can be clear and transparent and relatively trustworthy. But personal testimony alone, while often engaging depending on the speaker, is the least reliable form of evidence (assuming evidence is what we require).

Rather than offering a convincing critique on storytelling per se, Cowen seems to be offering a critique on the reliance we place on anecdotal evidence today. And this kind of "story" is indeed something of which we should be very suspicious. We should always maintain a healthy does of skepticism and suspicion. Surely an important aspect of being an educated person, whether we went to school or not, is having a critical mind and a reasonable approach to obtaining information and to inquiry.


Marc Anthony

Cowen should have focused more on what he knows - Economics - rather than what he really doesn't understand - Narratology.

Oliver Ihloff

He basically sums up the talk after the 13 minutes mark. You gotta know where he came from (Economics) to understand his worries about storytelling.
He specifically states that he doesn't think it's bad, but it's abused and it's up to us to be wary and critical when it comes to story, cause the 'real' story might be in the untold details.

Allison Shapira

Interesting TEDx talk, especially for someone like myself who teaches public speaking (including storytelling).

It sounds like Cowen's warning is about the danger of inaccurate and incomplete information - which can apply to stories or to any kind of information we provide or receive.

Given this warning, I'd want to hear how he defends his assertion that, "Every time you're telling yourself a good vs. evil story, you're basically lowering your IQ by 10 points or more."


That's why I love Hayao Miyazaki. He always sets you up in the beginning with the good-guy bad-guy conflict, then he begins revealing motivations behind each character. In the end you realize that all sides are equal and that the morals are all subjective.

Anil Dilawri

If nothing more, the talk by Tyler Cowen is excellent proof as to why academics should not be presentation coaches.


It is only a fool that accepts every utterance without verification. shows how to verify information

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