The role of stories in reasoning

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 15, 2006
Filed in Business storytelling

If you are unsure of the power of narratives read the restorative justice story in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest New Yorker piece. The article introduces some work by sociologist Charles Tilley who argues that there are 4 types of reasoning:

  • conventions (social formulae—”honey, we need to talk”),
  • stories (common sense narratives—what we deal with at Anecdote),
  • codes (legal formulae—I didn’t quite understand this one) and
  • technical accounts (specialised stories—e.g. business process re-engineering).

Gladwell expands on his article in a short blog post.

The clear message for me is the utmost importance of context and how stories provide relevant context for a reason to make sense.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. ken says:

    There’s a physics theory about neutrino’s flying through the earth and making psychic connections between twins, and I guess that’s one form of a technical story, trying to make sense of reports which make no objective sense. That’s presumably been disproven, it might even be unprovable, but tapping a few keystrokes and posting a blog entry can certainly fire off neurons on the brains of remote readers, stimulating new connections which is pretty exciting – and it sure was fun to read some of the comments on Gladwell’s blog about traditional focus groups generating loads of “data”, most it adding nothing of value (beyond the impressive bulk of the weighty research report). Perhaps one reason why the Cluetrain Manifesto talks of conversations over marketing.
    Gladwell’s story, for me, starts to trigger feelings of a not just a whole brain experience, but a whole body and wider group/social experience. One where language has a role to play, but can also complicate the picture, paradoxically trying to be rational and complicating things, in ways that fail to make sense, individually and collectively. As animals we exist, and experience the world, feelings generate emotions which reinforce memories to give competitive advantage in the natural world, we can signal with body language, but memories and knowledge of the world dies with the body. Beliefs, not raw data, form the stories we tell ourselves, to make sense of the feelings which form new beliefs, and wisdom comes from taking the time to share values through stories with others, to communicate in a way that makes sense to them, across generations, enabling cooperation and transforming conflict into creative energy.
    Joseph Campbell talked of the power of universal myths and Alexander talks of the traditional ways, of building, as a collective intelligence passing the wisdom of our elders down in the spaces we inhabit. That intelligence, memorised before writing, or blogs, existed and was memorisable in story (a cognitive aid, a verbal medium, perhaps enhanced by the atmospheric staging, sitting in a circle round the campfire, where we lean forward and get into the story or express surprise in gasps, in silence or that odd thing we call laughter). Story both enables the next generation to save time (not needing to reinvent wheels or practically, knowing when to plant crops, without needing to know why the gods deemed it wise) and have more time for higher level needs: to use a financial metaphor it could be viewed as a trust fund, deposited in our account to give us a head start in life. The younger generation, confused by hormones, can identify with angsty lyrics, simultaneously rebelling while conforming to a group norm. If we study ethics, we might find German philosophy to be dense, dark and inpenetrable (abstract left brain terminology, lacking characters to identify with or narrative sequence to frame a meaningful whole), but our kids can grasp the moral of Grimm stories, they relate to the characters, and through emotional reinforcement learn quickly to stay out of the dark woods (without needing to risk direct sensory experience of the creatures which live there, or lots of market research data to explain why).
    Story can pass on wisdom from the old to the young (not through knowledge transfer or logical science, but through memorable characters and a narrative spun in the web of a connecting plot). Judith Harris delights in describing the changing cultural myths that can make, even rational scientists, be biased in their findings, destorying the dualistic nature v nurture mindset. Our large brain size may be highly evolved and fit for story (or gossip) and the stomach a more powerful neural sensor than any of the behaviourists believed/knew, but our language may set up opposing views which is fine for simple logic, but not so hot for wickedly complex social problems (or messes 🙂 Kuhn quoted Planck’s cynical comment that it may need the death of a generation before science opens up to new ideas. Citizens (or employees) can find identity in the founder myth. Story can enable economic progress, the printing press accelerated the process (simultaneously allowing the pamphleteers to disrupt the old world power structures) and, in the information age, change continues to accelerate, building on the investments of those before us (or spreading more mal-adapted stories). Could DIKW be framed as a story, inherited from the pioneers of information theory, it’s one way to interpret the world, though it seems a very individual process, trapped by enlightened optimism and rooted in the logical left brain thinking of the engineer and abstract mathematics. Somewhat ironically it was Godel, the mathematician, who threw a spanner in the incomplete works of mathematical logic and Chomsky who used the innate creative ability of a child, through language, to study what behaviourists couldn’t explain.
    In the book Narrative Means to a Theraputic End the authors observe the preferential bias in IndoEuropean languages for visual metaphors, but fMRI scans show that management’s empty rhetoric on “Vision” can still evoke the old logical and linear left brain thinking (what de Bono calls CategoryHabit), failing to paint a bigger, more complete, picture. The book notes how writing letters (or blogging 🙂 gives voice to inner feelings, writing can become a SenseMaking process and that triggers more feelings, the gut feeling (where there are enough neurons that some call it the second brain) and emotional components possibly uniting not just the left/right cortical hemispheres, but the old Cartesian trap of MindBody dualism.
    Gladwell’s report of conventional stories evokes images of Berne’s Games People Play (the rituals, patterned over time, that give us comfort – until they are confusingly interrupted), or using language for Social Grooming. Anecdotes, too, for me, would be a social process, talking about or with others. So, breaking out of the individual subjective experience it’s clear (to use a visual metaphor) that language and telling the story (or blogging) is an inherently social act. The Narrative book calls it authoring, externalising any expressing funny feelings to make sense of them, in their context. Reading about restorative justice, the meeting and conversation of those involved in conflict (giving voice to those who the confrontational legal system labels with the category of perp, victim (argh!) and demands a provable verdict), may be lighting up the front part of the cortex as we identify empathically, it’s social empathy, identifying with characters, not just narrative, which helps us find meaning in the great/archetypical stories.
    Story invites us into a conversation, to take part, to explore the complex situation as seen and expressed by another. The opening up in public (what some call naked blogging) exposes vulnerabilities that, over time, can build trust. Time becomes essential to the sense making process, captured by Bateson’s famous “it’s the difference that makes the difference”: to make sense we need distinction (change, over time, narrative provides the sequence in what others recognise as patterns, and mismatches between expected patterns and actual sensory perception – or the constructed reality of a delusional belief system – can trigger the emotional and gut feelings of unease), our individual self take may create suboptimal stories, but sharing feelings through story can empower the individual to change (rather than be the victim of change), to move forward, the strongly held beliefs we label as knowledge may be sticky, reauthoring (or reframing) may help find new meaning and choices. Or crawl back into our Platonic cave when our perfect ideals aren’t met. Restorative is more evocative than the old zero sum game evoked by distributed theories of justice. The story, or blog, starts to sound like a kind of SwarmWare, unleashing the power of the group (even if distributed over three continents :), to make sense of and adapt to the complexity of the space they operate in, letting us grasp the rules of old games and rewrite the rules. Combine that with a group setting (TGroups, LGAT, Story Circle, political rally etc.) and the effects of story can be very powerful.
    Sorry for rambling, no reason, just trying to make sense, probably badly, of feelings stimulated by great writing. Thanks for writing.

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