05/19/2014 10:10 am ET | Updated Jul 18, 2014

The 'Why' of Stories, Part I

Pick up any how-to book for the aspiring author, and somewhere around page three it'll tell you what stories are all about: They're all about conflict. They're all about character. They're all about characters in conflict, or maybe conflict in characters.

Point is: depending on who's doing the talking, stories can be all about a lot of things.

On the other hand, if you ask what it is that stories do, exactly -- what purpose they serve -- well, that's a different, uh, story.

Yet even posing that question, even hinting at the possibility that stories might conceivably be drafted into performing some menial, quotidian service, that literature itself might bare an unseemly utilitarian underbelly, is sure to raise the hackles of the art-for-art's-sake crowd.

So let me put it a bit differently: If you were to observe that there is a certain kind of behavior, a particular form of activity, which humans in every culture, all over the world, have engaged in since time immemorial, wouldn't you begin to suspect that said activity had some inherent survival value? If not survival in an ultimate, of-the-fittest Darwinian sense (though maybe that, too), then at least in the sense of carving out one's own ecological niche in an environment whose principal dangers and principal opportunities, are -- other human beings?

Well, making up stories is such an activity. It's been practiced in every corner of the globe, by every culture on Earth, for as far back as The Epic of Gilgamesh and doubtless beyond. So I don't think it's totally out of line to ask what function the art of story-making might fulfill from an evolutionary perspective.

As to what I think the answer might be, rather than attacking the subject head on, let me try sneaking up on it, by telling you...

Some Stories About Stories
This first story harks back to the era of the Iran-Iraq war. As recounted by sociologist Gary Klein in his Decision Making in Complex Military Environments, it goes like this:

In an incident in which Iranian F-4s had taken off and were circling near an AEGIS cruiser, the CO [commanding officer] of the cruiser used their flight paths, radar activities, and so forth to build a plausible story of how they were just harassing him. The different observations fit this story well. Another possible story was that they were preparing to attack him, which was also plausible since they had turned on their fire control radar to lock on to his ship. However, the CO did not believe this second story, since the behavior of the F-4s was so brazen, so attention-gathering, that he could not imagine a serious pilot preparing an attack in this way. The CO needed to prepare for an attack, and did so, but he held his fire, despite provocation, since he did not believe that the attack story was plausible.

So, here we've got a seasoned naval officer, in command of several hundred million dollars worth of missile cruiser, and responsible for Lord knows how many lives, steaming straight into a powder-keg confrontation, and what does he do? He makes up stories!

So ...

What's Going On Here?
An exception, perhaps? After all, John Wayne didn't tell no stories. But no, in a similar study on Rapid Capturing of Battlefield Mental Models, Marvin Cohen and his associates "identified numerous examples of stories of this kind in interviews with command and G-3 staff." U.S. Army General Fred Franks, in his introduction to Adela Frame and James W. Lussier's 66 Stories of Battle Command, goes so far as to say that "stories are a primary means of transmitting the tribal wisdom of the profession of arms."

Nor is it only the military that resorts to stories in life-and-death situations. In a series of experiments conducted in the 1980s and 1990s and reported in their The Story Model for Juror Decision Making, Nancy Pennington and Reid Hastie showed that jurors in criminal cases, even those involving capital crimes, tended to rule in favor of whichever side presented the best story -- the one that knit all the evidence and eyewitness testimony into a single, credible, coherent account. The effect was noted even in controlled experiments, where nothing was changed save the manner in which the evidence was presented -- on the one hand, in a chronological sequence matching that of the original events (story order), on the other, in the order which the individual witnesses were called to testify, irrespective of chronology (witness order).

And that effect was nothing short of dramatic:

Mock jurors were likeliest to convict the defendant when the prosecution evidence was presented in story order and the defense evidence was presented in witness order (78 percent chose guilty) and they were least likely to convict when the prosecution evidence was in witness order and defense was in story order (31 percent chose guilty).

What's more interesting is when and why even the best-laid story can fail -- as it did to disastrous effect in the Mike Tyson rape trial (a story retold in Gary Klein's Sources of Power). Based on some casual comments the victim made about that night's date with Tyson being her chance to get rich (Tyson had recently paid out a multi-million dollar divorce settlement), and the fact that she had waited several days before reporting the crime to the police.

The defense lawyers felt that they had the makings of a good story, in which a woman tried to use her time with Mike Tyson to her advantage; when the relationship did not extend past the first evening, she tried to extort the money by claiming rape. ... [The fact that she hadn't immediately gone to the police] fit in with the idea that she claimed rape only when her original scheme (perhaps to marry Tyson, divorce him, and become rich) did not work out.

The only problem with this "good story" was -- the jury didn't buy it:

The physical injuries the woman suffered were predominantly those found in rape victims. Moreover, the woman's behavior for the days after the rape, before going to the police, showed shock and depression, typical of rape, rather than anger, revenge, and plotting. Her testimony in front of the jury showed her to be well brought up, innocent, and trusting, not scheming as the story claimed. ... The jury had to figure out why a nice-looking young woman would subject herself to the ordeal of a rape trial simply to punish Tyson, if her goal was riches and fame. The criminal trial would not make her rich, and she had refused to reveal her identity. ... The story failed to explain too many facts and observations. The jury rejected it, and found Tyson guilty.

We've now reached a point where we can take a stab at what the purpose, the "real work," of stories might be. But first, let me ask you a question: I've just given you a bunch of facts and citations and experimental protocols, and I've also told you two stories. So, which mode of information delivery did you personally find more congenial and memorable?

You liked all that sociologist-speak and statistics, did ya? I thought not. In fact, you probably found the information presented in story form far easier to assimilate. And this, despite the fact the stories are twice to three times as long as the factual expositions: There are 301 words in the Mike Tyson story vs. 145 for the Pennington and Hastie passage, and 145 words in the Aegis cruiser story vs. 51 for the quotes from Marvin Cohen and General Franks.

Again, what's going on here?

Next time, I'll try to tell you.