What makes us believe in stories? Walter Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm
I’ve recently come to see the world more as a set of stories rather than a collection of truths. People are storytellers by nature — sharing moments, online and offline. Naturally, some stories are more appealing than others. Some tweets grab our attention while others don’t. Consequently, some people grab our interest online, while other people don’t. We are in meticulous control of the stories we put out — and herein lies the exiting opportunity to shape our own narrative. Using social media, shaping one’s narrative has become an unconscious process for many. But what exactly are the implications of this online narrative? How do we as humans decide whether a story even makes sense at all? Walter Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm is just one of the theories that could offer an answer.
#1: What is a story?
Looking up the definition of the word ‘story’ in a dictionary doesn’t really clear things up. That’s because the word ‘story’ itself isn’t clearly defined. It can consist of several different elements that depend entirely on the context. Some of the elements include gossip, a lie, a fictions tale, a plot, a description, an event, a report, … So what is a story, then? It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s a translation of an experience into something that we can think about, or pass on to others. For example: the act of going out to a party is not a story. But once you think about it, or post a picture on Instagram, it becomes one. This means that every single act of sharing something (online) is a form of storytelling or narrative. Consequently, we has humans consist of stories, we live and breathe them. It is our only means of understanding and telling about past and even present experiences.
Knowing how to construct stories is a skill that we develop from a very young age. In fact, it is something that we do once we develop a conscious mind, which is part of our survival instinct. In our very early lives, a person is not able to think in terms of past, present or future. All there is, and all that is interesting is the ‘now’. But once the brain starts to develop, and once we begin to develop a sense of ‘I’, we need stories to communicatie about the most essential things in life: hunger, pain, love. Mastering and understanding the principle of storytelling will then help us to get what we want or need. Once our book of stories fills up, we become better and better at creating or categorisering new stories. But how exactly do we determine whether or not to internalize or believe a story?
#2: Storytelling in the pre-modern world
Plenty of philosophers have written about the importance of a story — and many have a different point of view. When Aristotle elaborated the principles of Ethos (the authority of the communicator), Logos (logical arguments and consistency) and Pathos (the emotional value and relatability of the message) it began to become more clear which elements a story contained, or had to contain, in order to be believable. Just as Plato and Socrates, Aristotle continued to believe that stories communicate myths, some of which contained truth. But eventually, logos always dictated the truthfulness of the story, and it was a philosopher’s job to come as close to that truth as possible.
This is called the rational world paradigm. A world that can be resolved by analysis and application of reason. It does not take into account the value system of the speaker nor the sender, as it is not a part of the field of science. This means that true knowledge of whether a story is true or not can only be obtained by studying universal laws or truths.
#3: Walter Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm
Contrary to the logos-centered approach of many philosophers, Walter Fisher, who is an American professor born in 1931, states that stories are more persuasive than logical arguments. He says that people are storytellers, or storytelling animals, and that we perceive our lives as one long narrative. This means that we evaluate stories as being true or believable using good reasons. These good reasons depend entirely on the context in which the argument was made and received. And yes, that context is within ourselves. Everyone has built some sort of narrative during his or her own life. And each story that we see or hear will be weighed against a copious amount of other stories collected in the past. There is a gigantic series of stories available to us among we can choose — resulting in not one but billions of ways in which a story can be interpreted.
This way of thinking discards the existence of what earlier philosophers would call ‘a law of thought’. It puts the freedom of deciding whether or not a story is true or not back into the thinker’s shoes. It acknowledges that everyone has a unique value system and good reasons that can be used to analyse. But it doesn’t make things easier, at least not necessarily. If the sender of a message has to take into account so many unknown stories, how can it ever be effective? Luckily Fisher provided a few elements within a story that help us determine whether we are going to believe it or not. There are two elements to be precise: coherence and fidelity.
First of all, a story has to be coherent. One can only know if a story is coherent by comparing it to his own stories or narrative. If we feel like some elements do not belong in a story, such as a character that does not behave in a way that is consistent, it destroys the acceptance of the argument even if the argument is factually true. The story would then not make sense because according to our own narrative, it is highly unlikely that the event would occur in real life.
Even though a given message might be factually true — it does not mean that everyone will accept it as the truth. If the story somehow fits in our own narrative, chances are that we will embrace it more so than a collection of facts. It doesn’t mean that facts should be omitted, in contrary, if the provided facts resonate with with our own narrative it would only make us believe in it even more. But it aren’t the facts itself that dictate the outcome. Take a look at Donald Trump: even though many of his tweets do not contain any form of logical reasoning at all, he is a widely popular figure with many people believing in his statements.
Fidelity is next to coherence the second element a story requires in order to be believable. The narrative fidelity is the degree in which the story matches the receiver’s previous experiences, narratives, beliefs and values. And when it does that, it is most likely to have the ability to put someone to action. Some questions that help determine the fidelity of a story are: “Can I relate to this?”, “Is the story embedded with values I can relate with?” but most importantly: “Does the given story provide good reasons to hold a particular belief or take action?”.
#4: Real-life application
Most of what Walter Fisher has written might be perceived as stating the obvious, at least wen applied to the real world. But every now and then it’s useful to deconstruct some basic concepts and see if we can learn anything from them. It’s valuable to know that stories make up our world, that we use them every single day not only to communicate about experiences, but also to carefully construct our own identity. Whether it’s by managing social media profiles online, posting pictures on Instagram or writing a review of a play, it all contributes to how people perceive us as a person, and how we think about ourselves. These are the stories that we will carefully weigh against new ones in the future. And so they have the power to shape it, too.
The campaign slogan of Donald trump is “make America great again”. Depending on one person’s definition of ‘great’, the slogan offers a good narrative reasoning scheme in which future arguments can be justified. If the argument fits within that scheme, it could be a good reason to believe, whether it is factually true or not. It means that if you manage to give some kind of context (in this case: the idea of making America great again), it is a powerful tool to influence the stories that your audience will consult when deciding whether or not to believe you. The audience has many folders containing many stories. You’re not in control of those stories, but you might be able to influence which folders they are going to consult to determine its fidelity.
Whether you’re building a personal brand or just trying to let your friends know what you’ve been up to, just keep in mind that your story is most likely to be accepted by others when you manage to tap into their personal narrative. According to Fisher, we are storytelling animals after all.
Hanan, J. S. , 2008-11-21 “The Continued Importance of Walter Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm: An Analysis of Fisher’s Extant Work” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the NCA 94th Annual Convention, TBA, San Diego, CA Online <PDF>. 2014-11-30 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p237435_index.html
Fisher, Walter R (1985). “The Narrative Paradigm: In the Beginning”. Journal of Communication. 35: 74–89. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.1985.tb02974.x.