Stories Make the World a Better Place

By Nicola Gothard, Founder and Director, Generation 2050

Since the beginning of recorded history, stories have been told by people all over the world to pass down cultural values and practices. Marketing - a field that specialises in influencing human behaviour - has also tapped into the magic of storytelling to sell us products and ideas for better and for worse. Storytelling is a tradition that spans far across time, cultures and civilisations and continues to thrive in this digital age.

So, what is it about stories that is so powerful and does the science back any of the theories up? And if it does, how can we leverage the power of storytelling to our children to make the world a better place?

Science behind storytelling

It is well known that reading improves literacy and is strongly correlated with academic achievement in all areas and reading for pleasure is a bigger factor for success than parental educational achievement[1]. However, now scientists have found what I have long suspected - that reading stories can help make us into more well-rounded, empathic individuals.

Stories broaden our horizons by transporting us into lives different from our own limited experience of the world and this emotional connection with the experiences of fictional characters increases our own ability to empathise with others.

Dr Raymond Mar, a leading psychologist, published a study that showed frequent readers of fiction performed better in empathy tasks than frequent readers of nonfiction[2]. They wanted to rule out the possibility that naturally empathic people read more fiction. Indeed, in a later study they found that reading about a subject in a fictional format directly increased the ability of the study participants to empathise over the group who were given non-fiction regardless of individual preferences for either genre[3]. The researchers theorise that even though fiction is fabricated, it crucially allows us to directly see through the eyes of others and psychologically this makes all the difference when it comes to our ability to empathise.

Several researchers have also demonstrated that exposure to fiction can influence our attitudes toward various issues and that when readers are emotionally engaged in a story their attitudes and beliefs about topics included in stories change to become more story positive[4].

Influence of storytelling on children

Children who regularly have fiction read to them find it easier to understand that other people might have thoughts and feelings different from their own - a process called theory of mind - and as a result, they show more empathy for others[5]. Dr Keith Oatley, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto argues that ‘Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems like flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life,’.

Children are often first introduced to the world through the pages of a book and the research indicates that type of stories they read will impact on their attitudes, opinions and ability to empathise with others. So if we want their future to be a better place, it is important that the fiction they read promotes tolerance, appreciation of diversity, positive behaviours, and empathy for those considered ‘other’ whether those others be people or other animals.

When I reflect on the attitudes and beliefs formed in my own childhood, the memories that stick with me are those of the stories which helped me form an emotional connection to the subtle messages contained within them. I grew up in the early nineties when recycling and becoming more environmentally friendly became a big topic in the UK. I remember a book that I can still picture all these years later about the effect of not cleaning up rubbish from a picnic on the wildlife in the park. When I look back I can still remember the imagined taste of the strawberry yogurt but mostly I remember that because of the emotional response I had to for the wildlife that suffered, and because of that book I can’t bare littering to this day.

Empathy is fast emerging as a hot topic earmarked as one of the top skills needed to both excel personally and as a society in twenty-first century. Barack Obama famously referred to the ‘empathy deficit’ in a culture that discourages empathy and where those in power encourage selfish impulses. He argued that our ‘individual salvation depends on our collective salvation’[6]; that we can only progress as a society when we take everyone with us and empathise with those in situations far removed from our own. Companies like Google and HSBC also rate empathy and value high emotional intelligence as highly as academic achievement in their recruitment processes[7].

Reading stories to children will not only increase their academic potential but also provide them with emotional intelligence that can only make the world a more connected, harmonious and fair place to be – not to mention they are a fun way to spend quality time with your children.

I passionately believe in the power of storytelling to make the world a better place and set up Generation 2050 to provide humane education stories which will inspire and empower children to become responsible world citizens who will act with compassion, respect and take responsibility for the well-being of other people, animals and the planet

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[2] Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J. B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694712

[3] Mar, R., Oatley, K. & Peterson, J. (2009). Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes. Communications, 34(4), pp. 407-428. Retrieved 3 Oct. 2017, from doi:10.1515/COMM.2009.025

[4] Green, M. C. (2004). Transportation into narrative worlds: The role of prior knowledge and perceived realism. Discourse Processes, 38, 247266.

[5] Mar, R, Tackett, J, Moore, C. Exposure to media and theory-of-mind development in pre-schoolers. Cognitive Development Volume 25, Issue 1, January–March 2010, Pages 69-78

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