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A long, long time ago, in an electorate far away …

By Don Arthur - posted Thursday, 11 January 2007

Nothing’s easier to understand than a story. It’s as if human beings were hardwired for narrative - stories with beginnings, middles and ends populated by people doing things. According to cognitive scientists Roger Schank and Robert Abelson that’s not far from the truth.

Back in 1995 Schank and Abelson hypothesised that virtually all human knowledge is based on stories constructed around past experiences. Whenever we come across something new we try to fit into the framework provided by an old story. So it’s no surprise to find, as Andrew Norton does, that most of Australia’s top public intellectuals are storytellers and moralists rather than social scientists.

As Schank and Abelson say, most of us aren’t like Star Trek’s Mr Spock - we struggle with abstract theories and logic:


The understanding problem is simply that humans are not really set up to hear logic. People tell stories because they know that others like to hear stories. The reason that people like to hear stories, however, is not transparent to them. People need a context to help them relate what they have heard to what they already know. We understand events in terms of other events we have already understood. When a decision-making heuristic, or rule of thumb, is presented to us without a context, we cannot decide the validity of the rule we have heard, nor do we know where to store this rule in our memories. Thus, what we are presented is both difficult to evaluate and difficult to remember, making it virtually useless. People who fail to couch what they have to say in memorable stories will have their rules fall on deaf ears despite their best intentions and despite the best intentions of their listeners. A good teacher is not one who explains things correctly but one who couches his explanations in a memorable (i.e., an interesting) format.

And it’s not just teachers who need to learn how to tell good stories. As Ronald Reagan knew, stories are a powerful political tool. Schank and Abelson say that at the core of any political ideology you’ll find a morality play:

There are good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys, using illegitimate methods, are trying to bring about an evil state of affairs. This can only be averted if the good guys mobilize their forces, recruit people from the sidelines (who are in danger of being seduced by the bad guys), and press forward to glorious victory.

It surprising how many influential political books have the same basic structure as a story like Star Wars. For example, Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose begins with the settlement of America and the growth of a prosperous free market society.

Immigrants flood in and through hard work and peaceful co-operation the nation thrives. But then the intellectuals arrive with their evil European plans for big government. The founding fathers had warned the people of the dangers of big government but prosperity had made them soft.

Gradually a new class of intellectuals and bureaucrats began to take over, their Bismarckian plans for domination casting a dark shadow across the land. Will our once prosperous American society fall to the dark side? Or will our free market heroes save the day?


Books like Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Charles Murray’s Losing Ground share a similar form. The narrative begins in an “ordinary world” where markets are free and welfare states minimal.

But after the evil intellectuals arrive on the scene the trouble starts. And of course there’s Ayn Rand who made no effort at all to cloak her stirring narratives in facts. Like Orwell and Bellamy she used fiction to get her message across. Adding rough sex probably helped.

Often our fondness for stories makes us overestimate the influence of the individuals we cast as heroes and villains. Some people act as if we could end the threat of terrorism by launching a well-aimed missile at Osama bin Laden’s underground lair - as if he were a monster in a B-grade sci-fi movie. Never mind that those boring experts who tell us that the real world doesn’t work that way.

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First published on Club Troppo on October 6th, 2006. It is republished as part of "Best Blogs of 2006" a feature in collaboration with Club Troppo, and edited by Ken Parish, Nicholas Gruen et al.

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About the Author

Don Arthur lives Canberra where he is employed as a researcher with a non-profit social services agency. He has written for Policy magazine and the Evatt Foundation. He currently writes for the group blog Club Troppo. The views expressed here are his own and are not necessarily shared by his employers - past or present.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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