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Why a good story goes a lot further than the truth

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Nichola Cooper is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is her second article written for the program. In it, she explores the importance of telling a good story and displaying the right character to engender trust.

Ronald Reagan was renowned for his stories. Arguably more so than his gaining control of rampant inflation and boosting the military, both legacies of the Carter era.

His first story to the American public as 40th President of the United States was of Martin Treptow, a barber, killed in 1918 on the western front carrying a message between battalions. Why did Reagan use his inaugural address to deliver this story? On Treptow’s body was a diary in which he had written, “America must win this war. I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure”. Reagan used this story to reassure Americans they had what it took to survive the problems of the hour. When the New York Times reported the following day that Reagan had made several substantial errors of fact, did Americans care? No. Americans loved Reagan’s stories, they made them feel confident, they made them feel clever in choosing such a charismatic leader. In running against Reagan in 1984, former Vice President Walter Mondale, in his acceptance address as a presidential candidate of the Democratic Party spoke passionately about telling voters the truth: “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did”. Mondale insisted voters wanted a politician who told the truth. It was a terrible political decision. He lost to Reagan in a landslide victory of 49 states. Mondale carried only his home state of Minnesota and Washington DC.

Why does this story matter? 2017 was the year of trust. We had ourselves in a knot about “fake news”. It subsequently became the agenda of all customer-facing organisations to improve their perceived trustworthiness. Crashing trust levels – 2017-2018 representing the largest slide in US trust levels ever recorded, incidentally – means we can no longer discern the difference between what is true and what is not. While we certainly possess the ability to get at the truth, our brain is not biased in favour of the truth; it is biased in favour of efficiency. Despite the techlash in response to technology firms’ concentrations of power, sinister manipulation of algorithms and the absence of a regulator – reasons suggested for fake news creation – it is the multitude of cognitive biases and heuristics that mean we source and assimilate confirmatory information. We preference simplicity over complexity. In so doing, we believe as true that which is untrue.

As long as humans are biologically hardwired for survival and efficiency, cat videos and crypto-kitties are here to stay. Sadly, for this trust researcher, so too are our declining trust levels. Simplicity protects us from a complex future we are unprepared for. As Richard Nixon headed into the election of 1972 he told his story of restoring America by easing tensions with China, Russia, and Vietnam and cracking down on war protestors. The voters ignored Watergate, explaining away incongruent facts with their mind’s own narrative – a much more efficient process than building a new story.



© Nichola Cooper 2018

Tags:  politics  society  technology 

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