We are social creatures, and as such we depend on others for our survival and happiness. Our body relies on a number of signals to help us survive and navigate a really complicated social environment, usually undetected by our conscious mind. It turns out those signals can also be triggered by a really good story.
One of these chemical signals is Oxytocin, which among other things plays a key role in the “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain. What we think of as an “instinct” in many cases is actually a shift in our brain chemistry, and in this case a release of this hormone evokes feelings of contentment, a reduction in anxiety, and feelings of calmness and security. It also motivates us to cooperate with others.
It becomes interesting, then, when we think about how we might be able to influence the release of a hormone like Oxytocin. If the presence of someone we know and care about can be a trigger, can we (re)create experiences to that same end?
Paul Zak has studied the connection between character-driven stories and biology, and found some interesting connections through a series of innovative experiments that provide insight into this relationship. They used video to present a character-driven story to participants and measured several markers in the blood before and after their session, including the amount of Oxytocin released. What they found was a predictable and measurable relationship between a character-driven story and the release of hormones that evoke a range positive social emotions, including empathy and trust.
“The brain responds to video stimuli in many of the same ways it responds to real world interactions— including connecting with characters in a story.”
So at this point we understand how a good story influences how we feel, but can it actually inspire us to do something? Without the ability to drive action, our impact as storytellers and marketers would be conveniently measurable but of limited practical use.
In the study described above, the researchers were actually using a story to build empathy with the characters— through the release of Oxytocin. The story was a powerful testimony about a father and his son with a terminal disease, and it was executed simply but effectively via video. What they found was that the group who viewed this video were much more likely to respond by donating to an organization working to cure the boy’s condition. And the volume of oxytocin released by the brain predicted the level of altruism, in this case the amount of money given to the charity.
The impact of this study on how we should approach fundraising is hard to overstate. Anecdotal evidence of a great video inspiring a massive response is commonplace (we have a few stories of our own), but with a better understanding of the physiological pathways and relationships we can structure our messages to maximize our influence. And we can assume that the concepts apply beyond video— a good story-driven marketing campaign can broaden the narrative to other channels and reach a much wider audience.
This truth should keep us humble as we better understand and use the power of the medium in which we communicate. Unfortunately history reminds us that story can be used to cause great harm as well, whether that be the Nazi use of narrative propaganda to brainwash an entire people group or the North Korean efforts to fabricate a story of the rest of the world to earn loyalty. Although our reach may be much more modest, we need to mind the words of the great storyteller Stan Lee, who reminds us that “with great power comes great responsibility.”