The Power of Stories: Why We Need More Than Facts to Win

Powerful stories like the Narnia series move us to cheer the triumph of values that contradict our own. (Photo: Manuka / iStock / Getty Images Plus)Powerful stories like the Narnia series move us to cheer the triumph of values that contradict our own. (Photo: Manuka / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

The idea that human nature is inherently competitive and individualistic isn’t just harmful, argues George Monbiot in his new book. It’s also contradicted by psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis provides a compelling argument for how we can reorganize our world for the better from the bottom up. Order it today by donating to Truthout!

In this excerpt from Out of the Wreckage, George Monbiot talks about the power of stories. Stories are the tool we use to make sense of the world: We will only be able to supplant the story of neoliberalism, which has shaped the outlook of so many minds, with a compelling new story.

You cannot take away someone’s story without giving them a new one. It is not enough to challenge an old narrative, however outdated and discredited it may be. Change happens only when you replace it with another. When we develop the right story, and learn how to tell it, it will infect the minds of people across the political spectrum. Those who tell the stories run the world.

The old world, which once looked stable, even immutable, is collapsing. A new era has begun, loaded with hazard if we fail to respond, charged with promise if we seize the moment. Whether the systems that emerge from this rupture are better or worse than the current dispensation depends on our ability to tell a new story, a story that learns from the past, places us in the present and guides the future.

Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. We all possess a narrative instinct: an innate disposition to listen for an account of who we are and where we stand. In his illuminating book Don’t Even Think About It, George Marshall explains that “stories perform a fundamental cognitive function: they are the means by which the Emotional Brain makes sense of the information collected by the Rational Brain. People may hold information in the form of data and figures, but their beliefs about it are held entirely in the form of stories.”

When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts but a consistent and comprehensible story. When we ask ourselves whether something “makes sense,” the “sense” we seek is not rationality, as scientists and philosophers perceive it, but narrative fidelity. Does what we are hearing reflect the way we expect humans and the world to behave? Does it hang together? Does it progress as stories should progress?

Drawing on experimental work, Marshall shows that, even when people have been told something is fictitious, they will cling to it if it makes a good story and they have heard it often enough. Attempts to refute such stories tend only to reinforce them, as the disproof constitutes another iteration of the narrative. When we argue, “It’s not true that a shadowy clique of American politicians orchestrated the attack on the World Trade Centre,” those who believe the false account hear that “a shadowy clique of American politicians orchestrated the attack on the World Trade Centre.” The phrase “It’s not true that” carries less weight than the familiar narrative to which it is attached.

A string of facts, however well attested, has no power to correct or dislodge a powerful story. The only response it is likely to provoke is indignation: people often angrily deny facts that clash with the narrative ‘truth’ established in their minds.

The only thing that can displace a story is a story. Effective stories tend to possess a number of common elements. They are easy to understand. They can be briefly summarised and quickly memorised. They are internally consistent. They concern particular characters or groups. There is a direct connection between cause and effect. They describe progress — from a beginning through a middle to an end. The end resolves the situation encountered at the beginning, with a conclusion that is positive and inspiring.

Certain stories are repeated across history and through different cultures. For example, the story of the hero setting out on a quest, encountering great hazard (often in the form of a monster), conquering it in the face of overwhelming odds, and gaining prestige, power or insight is common to cultures all over the world, some of which had no possible contact with each other. Ulysses, Beowulf, Sinbad, Sigurd, Cú Chulainn, Arjuna, St George, Lạc Long Quân and Glooskap are all variants of this universal hero. Our minds appear to be attuned not only to stories in general, but to particular stories that follow consistent patterns.

In politics, there is a recurring story that captures our attention. It goes like this:

Disorder afflicts the land, caused by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interests of humanity. The hero — who might be one person or a group of people — revolts against this disorder, fights the nefarious forces, overcomes them despite great odds and restores order.

Stories that follow this pattern can be so powerful that they sweep all before them: even our fundamental values. For example, two of the world’s best-loved and most abiding narratives — The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series — invoke values that were familiar in the Middle Ages but are generally considered repulsive today. Disorder in these stories is characterised by the usurpation of rightful kings or their rightful heirs; justice and order rely on their restoration. We find ourselves cheering the resumption of autocracy, the destruction of industry and even, in the case of Narnia, the triumph of divine right over secular power.

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Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis

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If these stories reflected the values most people profess — democracy, independence, industrial ‘progress’ — the rebels would be the heroes and the hereditary rulers the villains. We overlook the conflict with our own priorities because the stories resonate so powerfully with the narrative structure for which our minds are prepared. Facts, evidence, values, beliefs: stories conquer all.

Copyright (2017) by George Monbiot. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Verso Books.