Why story matters

This week Scotland will vote on independence. Whatever the outcome, the campaign is a reminder that identity, culture and the power of story can trump rational argument and economic self-interest.

Story matters. For centuries Scots have told a story of the English as dominating neighbors and oppressors who have looked on Scots as inferior. There is truth in this. But this version of history persists despite Scots’ prominent role in every aspect of British life including in its rise as an industrial power and its imperial ventures around the globe. Indeed there can be few cases where a minority has exerted such a deep influence on a majority population. 

According to Margaret Smith, in Reckoning with the Past, history and memory “provide material for group myths that are the source of social cohesion because they supply operational codes and a system of ethics…. History becomes narrative when it turns into a frame of reference for individuals and groups in their daily lives.” The group “story” provides psychological security. “Regardless of the material benefits a person derives from group membership, the person will have a strong psychological proclivity to support certain narratives that keep her own psyche intact.”

The power of historical narrative is seen clearly in Northern Ireland which was the subject of Smith’s research. Even after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which ended decades of violent conflict, provocative sectarian marches continue to keep alive partisan historical narratives that have been handed down from generation to generation.

In Russia, President Putin builds popular domestic support for his policies in Ukraine, despite US and EU sanctions, by playing on his compatriots’ resentment at loss of prestige since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and an emotional desire to relive the glory days of Catherine the Great. The memory of China’s thousand-year history as the world’s wealthiest nation and its humiliation by colonial powers is a motivating force for its leaders and for its people who demand respect in the world. Every Iranian knows that the US participated in the overthrow of a democratically elected government in order to preserve its oil interests. And anyone who has visited the ruins of Persepolis, founded in the 6th century BC by Darius the Great at the height of the Persian empire, will understand better the immense pride of Iranians and their insistence on a right to nuclear power.

Steven Ward, who teaches government at Cornell University, wrote in the Washington Post earlier this year about Russia’s escalation of the crisis in Ukraine: “Defending honor, responding to insults, avoiding humiliation and building prestige are intangible values that are difficult to incorporate in a cost-benefit analysis. And history (and recent scholarship) shows that states have sometimes pursued these values at the expense of economic and security interests.”

The same dynamics can be seen at work in social and political debates in the US where rational argument does not always prevail. For instance, in a recent Pew poll, 46 percent of Republicans said there is not solid evidence of global warming, compared with 11 percent of Democrats. Since the 46 percent includes a large number of highly educated individuals who are aware of the overwhelming scientific evidence, other factors must be influencing the survey.

A column in the New York Times by Brendan Nyhan entitled “When beliefs and facts collide,” offers important insights on the question of cognitive dissonance.  He highlights surprising findings by Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan: 

The divide over belief in evolution between more and less religious people is wider among people who otherwise show familiarity with math and science, which suggests that the problem isn’t a lack of information. When he instead tested whether respondents knew the theory of evolution, omitting mention of belief, there was virtually no difference between more and less religious people with high scientific familiarity. In other words, religious people knew the science; they just weren’t willing to say that they believed in it.

This finding supports what those of us who conduct community dialogues have often found to be true. Facts are vital but constructive dialogue is more likely if they are presented in ways that do not involve the humiliation, or threaten the security and deeply held values, of key stakeholders. Facts may be received better and understood if they connect with the belief systems and values of all participants. And if individuals and groups feel their stories are being heard and respected, they are much more likely to be open to accepting challenging facts. 

In Richmond, Virginia, my Hope in the Cities colleagues and partners ran a regional project on race, class and political jurisdiction using census data to illustrate how poverty is entrenched in certain inner city areas and how it is rapidly increasing in the surrounding suburbs. The three-part presentation included a segment showing the historical events that had led to the current reality. Some groups were exposed to both the data and the history. Other groups saw only the data. While both groups reported increased understanding, the group that was exposed to the history saw a far greater impact.

Our report stated: While attendees began with similar perspectives and backgrounds in working to address poverty in the community, those attending the sessions in which local history and current systemic challenges were discussed were more strongly impacted. Results suggest that the information and facilitated discussions challenged assumptions about the root causes of poverty, including that the cause is primarily situated in individuals and current barriers. These discussions also provided a new perspective on actions needed to produce community change. While data about current trends is important and needed, understanding how we got where we are today gives that data meaning that impacts understanding and motivation to act.

On national issues that are polarized by race, politics and culture we would do well to note Brendan Nyhan’s advice: “We need to try to break the association between identity and factual beliefs on high-profile issues – for instance, by making clear that you can believe in human-induced climate change and still be a conservative Republican.” 

As people connect with each other’s individual and community stories and are able to have open and respectful conversation about their sense of identity, their values and their beliefs, they may be better able to deal with facts.