The Power of Storytelling

How stories shape our world //

The stories we’re told deeply influence how we perceive the world around us even when they are not true, and, surprisingly, even when we know that they are not true. They also influence our actions and the causes we come to defend, which makes storytelling a powerful tool of social control. Stories ultimately shape our world. For this reason, we should be extremely diligent with the stories we choose to consume and pass along – including when they are told by those who we consider reliable sources.


Stories are accounts of people, places and events. Storytelling is the art of sharing stories, and therefore builds our expectations of how the world around us operates and what it looks like. What we’re not always aware of is that those stories we hear – from the people we know, the newspapers we read and even the social media platforms we use – deeply influence how we perceive the world around us even when they are not true and, surprisingly, also when we know that they are not true. This happens even for things we would consider entirely objective, like what we see, hear or taste (see the myth of perception). More than that, because we benefit from some of those stories, we might be unconsciously interested in passing them along. How we expect the world to be ultimately drives our actions and the causes we come to defend, which makes storytelling a powerful tool of social control.

But if stories can control people and even strip them of their dignity, they can also repair it. By engaging with stories that give us different perspectives and a better and more sophisticated understanding of global affairs, we can also evidence the complexity of people and events – we can use stories to empower and to humanise. Beehive brings to readers reputable newspapers from all corners of the world alongside ratings on the quality of their stories and their political position, so that a more balanced view can be easily accessible to you as a part of your daily routine.

Here’s the key things to know about stories:

1. They don’t really derive from the facts

Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t always some truth behind every lie. In fact, some deeply rooted ideas we have are entirely false stereotypes. Let’s take the country of Brazil as an example. Its official language is Portuguese, its population is circa 80% urban (mostly living thousands of kilometres away from the Amazon), circa 50% white and 50% black or mixed, and circa 70% middle (or upper) class. Still, when depicting the country, many films choose to hire foreign Hispanic actors, add lines in Spanish or depictions of extremely poor cities lost in the jungle. Strikingly, in the movie “The Foreign Eye”, when filmmaker Lúcia Murat asks international colleagues the reasons for such unrealistic representations of the country and its people, they admit being more concerned with preserving what they or their audience expected of Brazil than the truth. And this isn’t limited to the movie industry. In the pandemic, any online search for “Covid Brazil” would lead almost exclusively to pictures published by the most relevant international newspapers displaying very poor cemeteries in the Amazon rainforest and people of very dark skin complexion. The search for “Covid UK”, on its turn, would lead either to statistical charts or people wearing masks in the affluent streets of London (which those who were in London at the time know it was quite a rare sight), completely oblivious to poor communities and ethnical minorities of England. There is absolutely nothing inherently diminishing about regional background, ethnicity or social class, but the content chosen does a terrific job at reinforcing false stereotypes.

2. We want the story that we’re promised

One of the most popular photo destinations in the German city of Frankfurt is the famous Römerberg square, where some of its few half-timbered houses lay. Frankfurt is a modern city full of skyscrapers and looks pretty much like any other big city in the world. Still, many of the tourists visiting the city take and share pictures almost exclusively of a square which, out of context, could make the metropolis look like a little Bavarian village. Just like the movie directors interviewed by Murat, those visitors are not interested in the truth they get to know when they see Frankfurt, but in fulfilling their expectations of Germany. The half-timbered houses in London, Paris, New York and Sao Paulo don’t get nearly as much attention, because they are not part of their official narratives. We want to protect the network of stories on which our world is based – or else the comfortable shelter of apparent knowledge we’ve created might be blown away like a house of cards.

“But if stories can control people and even strip them of their dignity, they can also repair it. By engaging with stories that give us different perspectives and a better and more sophisticated understanding of global affairs, we can also evidence the complexity of people and events – we can use stories to empower and to humanise.”

3. The story is often more important than the experience

The famous Pepsi Challenge isn’t the only experiment to demonstrate that how we expect something to be actually drives how we perceive it. Take an experiment done in 2007 with Joshua Bell, for example. Joshua is one of the most famous violinists in the world – people pay hundreds of pounds to see him play in crowded venues. In this experiment, Joshua played for nearly an hour at a train station in the middle of rush hour. Excluding the one person who recognised him, he made just US$32.17 from a mere 26 other commuters. Just like people perceive Pepsi and Coca-Cola entirely differently when they don’t know the brand they are tasting, they perceive the very same music entirely differently depending on whether they believe the author is a renowned artist or a struggling amateur. Stories tell us when or where to focus – if I believe that Coke is sweeter than Pepsi, I will focus more on the sweetness when drink the first than the latter. If I believe that an artist is good, I will be more open to appreciating their art. How most people perceive something to be depends, for the most part, on how they are told it is.

4. We are influenced by the story, even when we don’t believe it

Sadly, our views get corrupted by misinformation even when we know stories are wrong or biased. It seems like, to quickly feel gaps in our knowledge, our brains are pre-wired to consider other people’s references, or anchors (what we call the anchoring effect). A study by psychologists F. Strack and T. Mussweiler published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found out that, when asked, people that had been told Mahatma Gandhi died at age 140 thought he actually lived longer than those who had been told he died at age 9, even if both groups could easily guess that the information given to them was fake. Strikingly, yet another study published by Journal of Experimental Psychology, called “Knowledge Does Not Protect Against Illusory Truth”, found people demonstrate knowledge neglect, or the failure to rely on their very own knowledge, if the false information is repeated often enough. This means that even if we know something not to be true, and have experienced it first-hand, we slowly give in to the prevailing narrative.

5. The story slowly creates the character

It’s believed that the Nazi Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels once said: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.” The saying was probably originated in an 1869 novel by Isabella Blagden, where she wrote: “If a lie is only printed often enough, it becomes a quasi-truth, and if such a truth is repeated often enough, it becomes an article of belief.” Well, Goebbels and Blagden weren’t entirely wrong. Because we believe the stories told, even when we know they are not true, those stories eventually influence our actions and shape our world. It has been demonstrated, for example, that the stereotype that women are not mathematically inclined negatively impacts women’s motivation to pursue math-intensive fields of study – specially for the most talented and eager to succeed. This limits the representation of women in certain industries, which reinforces the notion that their absence is due to a lack of innate skill or interest, as opposed to lack of access or encouragement. Harvard professor Rosenthal did a similar experiment with children, first coining the now well-known Pygmalion Effect – children were split into two classrooms randomly, but teachers were told one of them had the children with higher IQs. Because teachers believed it and treated those students differently, the performance of that class and its students bloomed.

6. There’s limited space for alternative writers

We are so influenced by stories told by those who we trust that we easily dismiss other perspectives. And because the victims of false stories know they don’t have power over the narrative (and could in some cases even be punished by trying to change it – see cancel culture), most end up either escaping or embracing the stories about them. Historically in the United States, for example, African Americans of mixed lineage with light complexion have chosen to pass as white to escape the reality of racism and oppression (see “Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man”). Similarly, many people who identify as homosexual may choose to remain “closeted” to avoid the stories sadly still associated with homosexuality – and which would ultimately change the way people perceive them – instead of trying to fight the narrative.

7. The audience might be interested in protecting the story

So far, we’ve talked mostly about the impact that stories have on us. However, we also often have a proactive role in telling those stories and passing ideas forward. We might protect the story, as we’ve seen, because it keeps our sense of control and stability, but also because it helps us belong to our to our social groups (see how our opinions are formed) or because we benefit directly from the narrative – even if unconsciously.

We may even protect a story because it makes us look more virtuous – what the Nigerian writer Ngozi Adichie describes in her TED talk as “patronising well-meaning pity”. The mechanics are simple: our perceptions are highly based on comparisons. This goes for anything. A day is only cold in comparison to warmer days. A car is only expensive in comparison to cheaper cars. I can only say that Coca-Cola is a sweet cola drink in comparison to other cola drinks. The same goes to people and social groups. When someone from a social label that is not mine is ignorant or weak, I am automatically more intelligent and stronger in comparison (even if I feel sorry for them!). When a foreign nationality is poor and limited, I am wealthier and more developed. Hence stories that diminish others inherently enhance our own stories, and can potentially make us feel better about ourselves. So before agreeing with or passing a story along, stop and reflect whether it benefits you in any way.

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