Explaining the world around us with stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —August 24, 2009
Filed in Anecdotes, Communication

In 1944 psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel published a paper in The American Journal of Psychology. It was a simple idea. Make a film of geometric shapes moving about and then ask the subjects “… to write down what happened in the picture.” 1

Here’s a slightly cut down version of the original film (the original was 2.5 minutes long and this one seems to be a mirror image or the original).

Watch the video and write down what happened.

Of the 34 undergraduate women who participated in the experiment only one described what they saw in geometric terms. 31 described the objects as people and two as birds. 33 people told a story of what happened.

Humans have a natural tendency to ascribe purpose and meaning to what we see even when there is very little to suggest it. As Brian Boyd says, “it is safer to mistake a twig for a snake than vice versa.” 2

The same is true in the workplace. If the CEO arrives announced on your floor, and she rarely visits your part of the building, you will quickly piece together what you know to tell yourself a story that explains her visit: it’s end of the quarter, she is in with one of the comms managers, she is probably getting her speech ready for the analysts’ meeting. It’s plausible. It puts your mind to rest so you get back to work. Then a colleague scurries over to your desk and says “there has been a major accident at the plant.” You quickly reassess what you thought was happening with the CEO’s visit and reformulate your story. The new story replaces the old.

Stories help us make sense of what’s happening but we do have a tendency to overreact to over-interpret.

Leaders should be always thinking about their actions and what stories will people be telling themselves as a result of their actions.

1. Heider, F. and M. Simmel (1944). “An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior.” The American Journal of Psychology 57(2): 243-259.

2. Boyd, B. (2009). On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p. 137.

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. the implications of that study and your post provoked me to think again of the many times I jump to judgement without seeing the situation as someone else sees it + to remind myself of the power of every action and word – not even by “leaders” but by each of us.
    Thank you for your usual thoughtfulness in this post. it inspired me to write on the topic on my blog – and to cite yours

  2. Jo Jordan says:

    Isn’t this basically projection? Though I agree with you that much of leadership is about story creation.
    What foxes most people is the belief that the must write the story. Rather they need to hear it and tell it?

  3. I agree Jo that there is a belief out there that storytelling is about story writing, when it’s is definitely not. Most people are unaware of the stories we tell every day and therefore my work has been in helping people recognising this fact in a practical way. Very much what you said about needing to hear it and tell it.

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