The restriction of meaning in stories

Mike Innes responds to our interview with Will Storr on storytelling.

The interview with Will Storr and the subsequent commentary (The Psychologist, February 2022) make for interesting and provocative reading. There are many examples of the importance that humans place upon storytelling, beyond Storr (2019) himself. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prizewinner, proposes that no one makes a decision on the basis of a statistic; they do so on the basis of a story (Kahneman, 2011). Michael Lewis, in his 2017 account of the lives impact of Kahneman and Tversky, tells a great story and brings to life the details of behavioural economics. Shiller (2019) makes an equally good case for storytelling in enabling economists to argue publicly for the implementation of social change. Scientific writing relies on the ability of the author to capture the essence of the theory and experiment in a story that can be assimilated by a reader with little scientific training (e.g. Gutkind, 1997). 

But there are downsides. The act of telling a story can prevent an understanding of the essence of the events. These problems are evident in two aspects of psychological science and practice.

The social psychology of telling and remembering stories

Zajonc’s (1960) concept of ‘cognitive tuning’ explored the effects of expectations that participants would receive further information about a topic or would provide an exposition of the text to another person. Transmitters make more structured messages compared with receivers, that are easier to comprehend by the recipient. There is a loss of information in the process of transmission. This effect is replicated in many different communication situations (Guerin & Innes, 1989).

Sir Frederick Bartlett (1932), demonstrated, in his seminal work on remembering, the effect of continued retelling of a story on the information contained in the story of ‘The War of the Ghosts’ and the increasing reduction in the information value and the accuracy of the rendition with repeated telling. The social nature of the transmission of knowledge has continued to be studied over the years (cf. Gauld & Stephenson, 1967; Kashima, 2000). Continued retelling can result in the distortion of the information. At the same time, however, the reproduction of information is a process central to the creation of culture. Details are left out, the core meaning becomes increasingly dominant and the context and the provisos are minimised. A similar effect can be traced in the study of the psychology of rumour (e.g. Allport & Postman, 1946) and is associated with the production of stereotypes. 

The deterioration of quality of information with repeated storytelling is demonstrated within the science of psychology itself. Seminal studies are reproduced in textbooks, used to educate newcomers students and storytelling can interfere with scientific understanding. Treadway & McCloskey (1987) demonstrated this in the field of eye-witness identification and Berkowitz (1971) showed similar effects in the misleading reproductions of the work of Schachter (1951) in textbooks in social psychology. These examples of distortion in the ‘stories’ of social psychology are not a model for the development of a scientific culture concerned with the validity of knowledge and explanation. 

The growth of scientific knowledge relies on the ability to perceive and react to anomalies and discrepancies. The power of science comes from the ability to avoid the debasing of information following the diffusion of the information across a group.

The nature of much psychological theorising may play a role in its dependence on verbal theories and explanations of behaviour and its causes. There is a lack of the formal explication of relationships that characterizes the physical sciences. This informal, verbal nature of explanation in psychology has been pointed out many times (e.g. Broers, 2021; Meehl, 1978). The adoption of formal, quantitively based theories which enable predictions that enable risky predictions, rather than what Meehl states are ‘soft’ predictions, has been proposed (e.g. Smeldino, 2020; Townsend, 2008) that can be empirically tested and accepted/rejected. However, the adoption of a narrative approach to the science of psychology, the acceptance of storytelling as valid formulation and data, cannot provide the data that can match the precision of the formal hypothesis. The science of psychology in the future cannot be improved by repeating stories to fit the data that is provided.

Education and Training in Psychology 

The idea of narrative to provide insight and enthusiasm about phenomena is important in the process of education. In the act of teaching undergraduate students the basic features of a discipline and the reasons for its existence (and for those undergraduates to study it for serious reasons), the teacher needs to stimulate excitement and enthusiasm and provide a story, with a beginning, a middle and, perhaps, a triumphant end. But in the subsequent training of the research worker and in the articulation of data and its relevance to the theories which are being tested, precision of the data being considered is essential and the distillation of discrepancies and differences vital. What sets science, and the science of psychology, aside from other studies of humanity, is the essential nature of data (whether it be quantitative and numerical in form, or finely detailed and defined qualitative data) in the formulation of an argument and the decision processes to test the validity of a theory. In the field of psychological measurement, Paul Meehl (1954; Grove & Meehl, 1996) was able to send the message to others about anomalies in the data on decision making and formulation and were also able to do the mathematics and experimental designs to gather the relevant and precise data. 

To emphasise the difference between education and training we may borrow a distinction from the work of a sociologist of science, Harry Collins (2019). Collins proposes that the scientist is required to possess contributory tacit knowledge, the implicit but highly trained knowledge to be able to create conditions to test theories and their predictions and to derive information from those situations which can be examined and deeply understood. This is separate from a capacity to possess interactional tacit knowledge, with which a person can communicate with the contributory scientists and understand the meaning of the data, to be able to communicate the meaning and excitement on to others (the public). Collins (2017) himself acknowledges his ability as an interactional expert to communicate the work of scientists in gravity wave science to the general public without his being able to construct an actual experiment. The teacher has to be at least partially an interactive tacit knower but as a scientist she has to be a contributor.

Foundations and misinformation

Storytelling is vital to educate the public and the student about the excitement of becoming a psychologist and doing psychology, whether as a scientist or a practitioner. But science needs precision, to gather data, to remember the details of theory and method and correlate those data with the predictions of the theory and remember the limitations of the data in the method. Science need data and it needs precision. Stories can get in the way if offered at the wrong time. And the education of the student needs stimulating and exciting stories of discovery and insight.

Bartlett (1958) offers a highly significant and old quotation, from the writing of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral. ‘Mathematical demonstrations, being built upon the impregnable foundations of geometry and arithmetic, are the only truths that can sink into the mind of man, void of all uncertainty’ (p.195). Modern psychology may wish to embrace the science of storytelling, but it should also continue to aspire to the formulation of precise and formal theory and the production of data. It may not go unnoticed that current concerns with ‘misinformation’ and the inability of psychological science to counter such perceptions (Davies, 2021; Omand, 2020) may be attributed to the imprecision of much psychological knowledge and theory. 

-       Mike Innes is Adjunct Research Professor, Justice and Society, University of South Australia


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