We spoke last week with Michael D. Jones, who is applying statistics to narrative here at Harvard during his fellowship at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. Jones, who received his Ph.D. earlier this year from the University of Oklahoma, is part of a small group of researchers trying to explore how stories work, and don’t, in determining public policy. In these excerpts from our conversation, Jones talks about the relative importance of the hero in narrative, how science can be used to evaluate stories, and what he hopes journalists might learn from this kind of research.

What do you say when someone asks you what you do for a living?

I tell them I’m a political scientist, and generally what I do, my focus, is political communication. I normally say that because saying something like “I study narratives” or “I study political narratives” doesn’t fly very well in my discipline.

Why is that?

People, when they think of narrative, they think of it as an art. And when it’s been used in social science, it’s largely been used as something that’s anti-science. It’s thought of as a way to approach understanding phenomena in a very different way than science would approach things.

What are the components of narrative in policy analysis?

When we started looking at narrative – and there’s a couple of us doing this now – the idea was “What are the minimum qualifications that something would need to be a narrative?” Certainly there are degrees of narrativity when you read the literature about these things, especially in the humanities. But we’re looking at it from a perspective as “What’s not a narrative?” “What would clearly not be a narrative?” A list or a chronology, for example – that’s clearly not a narrative.

So what would be the minimum components? In order to get there, we settled on the basic things. You’d need some characters, you’d need a plot, you’d need a setting. For it to be a policy narrative, what you also need is a moral to the story or a solution to the problem.

There are specific characters. You would have a hero, you would have a victim. For it to be a good narrative, you would have a villain.

How do you scientifically examine a narrative?

You basically create stories that are experiments. You try to hold as much of the language constant as possible. In the case of my dissertation, I exposed people to one of three different narratives and then a control group. The control group was a list of facts about climate change.

And then the three different stories were stories advocating a particular solution to climate change. But the actual text was 75 to 80 percent the same in each story, so you just move little bits of the text. Well, when you move a little piece of the text, then you can statistically analyze that movement for an effect.

How do you evaluate their responses?

Statistically – you would look for differences in means. Do people like the hero in this story more as compared to the control where you didn’t give them any narrative information? With all the characters, you get significantly different responses than in the control group. And then you’re able to analyze those affective measures within the stories on other dependent variables. Depending upon how much you like Ecodefense, does that matter as to how much of a risk you think climate change is? The answer is yes, and it matters more in the narratives. Quite a bit more.

Do literary news narratives tend to be policy narratives as well?

I think we do see that. But the better ones, I think, are the more complete narratives. To some extent, you might get news narratives out there that only touch on a point of a broader narrative. I think that in general the discourse will start to take on a form where there is a clear causal scenario: A is causing B. Here are the good guys, here are the bad guys. Here’s is the problem, and here’s how we fix it – or here are the alternatives out there on how to fix it.

I think as these things develop over time, especially in the news, they start to become more coherent narrative-wise, and that’s when they begin to resonate with people. That’s when individual citizens start to embrace a particular policy area or start to think about it critically – when it actually takes on story form.

Do you find some narratives can’t be broken down and organized as having a clear moral, a hero, or a villain? Does the sophistication of the narrative interfere with how it functions as a policy narrative?

I think that’s what I would hypothesize. It seems to me, what we’re finding is the simpler the story, the more it resonates with average people. We all love a great story with flashbacks and intricate plots and all of those things that make a piece of literature wonderful, but they don’t necessarily make for a good policy narrative.

Maybe an example would help. If you think back to the health care reform debate, the Democrats put out this list of facts or policy items they wanted to address. I think [David] Axelrod put out 21 points. They weren’t doing very well in the polls with regard to what they wanted to do with health care reform.

Now the Republicans – I think it was [Frank] Luntz, the Republican strategist – put out this story that they wanted Republicans to adhere to. “There is this bad guy out there, and it’s Obama. He’s trying to socialize the country, and the victim is you and your grandma. They’re going to have these death panels.”

The story was simple. It was direct, and you saw an effect in the polls. Now, I don’t know if it’s causally connected at this point – that’s what we’re trying to figure out. But what you saw is that the Democrats didn’t put out a story at all, and the Republicans did, and you saw something happen in the polls.

Can a more conventional-looking newspaper article, one we wouldn’t necessarily think of as a literary story, contain a complete narrative?

I would say yes, and here’s why. I think that people think and organize narratively, that we’re hardwired to do this. We think linearly, we assign agency to things that probably don’t have agency – things like tornadoes. Even if the narrative is incomplete in a news story, people will fill in the blanks with what they already bring to the table.

Virtually everything is narrative. Scientifically, what does that mean? What you leave out, you’re letting people fill in narratively. Sometimes strategically, it might be beneficial to leave something out.

In policy development, what are the biggest hurdles to building successful narratives?

Believing you have to communicate narratively is the biggest hurdle. For example, I just don’t think Democrats do it. Democrats are stuck in this Enlightenment reasoning kind of thing, thinking that if you take the facts to people about a particular policy it will be enough. They think that saying “This is what happens if you spend X amount of dollars on education” will get people to reason themselves to the correct conclusions. It’s this idea that you just present better information and you get better policy outcomes.

You can see this with climate change. You just keep saying over and over that science says climate change is real, that there are the potential consequences we can expect to see if we don’t address it. But when people look at the issue, they see a different story. They see uncertainty, they see a scientific community that doesn’t have consensus. That’s because the anti-climate forces have put together a better narrative, one that focuses on that uncertainty.

The biggest obstacle is believing that you have to communicate narratively to begin with, as opposed to just conveying scientific information to people and letting them fill in the blanks. You have to tell people a story.

What’s important about the story-source or the storyteller in whether or not a narrative is successful?

Well, what we know about that we mostly know outside of narrative. We have a lot of work to do regarding characters and narrators and what function they play, scientifically verifying those things. But what we do know is that sources matter in other areas. The more a source thinks like you, acts like you and looks like you, the more trusting you are, the more willing you are to accept the story you’re told.

But to be honest, as far as looking at it explicitly from a narrative angle, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

What are your hypotheses, or what do you know about the role characters play in an effective narrative?

Villains tend to be important in policy narratives, but I found something else in my dissertation that actually shocked me. The hero really matters. The hero in each of the stories that I put out there, as the respondent grows more affectionate toward them and likes them more, the more they believe everything in the story, the more willing they are to accept policy prescriptions, the more willing they were to believe that climate change is real, the more willing they were to believe that everything they were told was true. Nothing else performed quite as successfully as that variable.

Can you talk about the idea of incongruence?

The idea is that if a story is told to you that affirms what you already believe and you already know, then it will be congruent. It meshes with your belief system. What we know is that people seek out information that affirms what they already know. And they tend to reject – throw away or not even examine – information that threatens what they already know. If you can find a way to package information in a way that fits with what people already believe or already value, then they’re more likely to process the information, to give it the time of day.

What would say to people who think that looking at narrative this way will lead to cynical manipulation of the art form?

I’m not sure what to say, other than that you are probably concerned at least implicitly with getting your readers to like your work. There’s a fine line between manipulation and persuasion.

On another note, I don’t think that studying narrative scientifically poses any threat to its artistic function. What it does is give us better traction on something that we know or what we think we know. There are whole disciplines devoted to studying story, what we think is story—literature, the humanities, and parts of journalism are dedicated to this. A better scientific understanding of stories would just explain how they work.

If you think about what Newton told us, he was obviating the obvious—he just scientifically gave us a way to get traction on gravity. That’s all we’re doing with narrative. We’re just asking, “How do these work?”

When you put pencil to paper, or type on your laptop, every word you select is an act of prejudice. This idea that you’re not manipulating anything, or you’re just putting the facts out there – I don’t know about that. You’re saying this is important enough for me to write about it, so I want to make it important enough for you to read it. Just that act in itself, maybe a journalist would want to call it gentle persuasion, but you’re trying to manipulate people to get them to pay attention to a particular issue or a particular story.

But I don’t think it’s bad that you’re trying to get people to pay attention.

What is the takeaway from your research into narrative in terms of how it might be relevant for journalists?

For journalists, I think it matters a whole bunch. Journalists are the primary conduit that moves policy narratives. When the public becomes aware of particular policies, it’s going to be primarily through the media, whether that’s going to be traditional media or not may be changing. I think that people are relying on the nontraditional elements of the media, like bloggers, more and more. But what the media says is incredibly important to the way the public understands a particular issue.

In a perfect world, what I would like to see would be journalists who are more cognizant of the narratives in their stories, that they would be less focused on game framing. Game framing is the idea that journalists focus on the game of the politics — it’s about McCain winning in this state or invoking this element of the story, so that’s going to give him a plug in the polls, or something along those lines.

If journalists move away from the game frame to focus more on the substance and the types of stories being told to the public, so that the public can digest these things and not just their strategic elements, I think you would see better policy outcomes, because people would have a better idea of what is really going on.

This is all sort of stuff we already know — we all know stories matter, right? But we have to go out and prove it anyway. Myself and [Mark] McBeth and [Elizabeth] Shanahan, who I also work with, we really don’t see what we’re doing as a threat at all to the more artful part of narrative. Quantitative people – people who do math – don’t like what we do. And then people who look at narrative as an art seem to think we’re almost doing harm to narrative by looking at it this way. We don’t see ourselves as a threat to either camp, but it makes for interesting conferences, that’s for sure.

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