When you encounter new information, your brain automatically and unconsciously makes connections and associations. These connected ideas, from our personal histories, are stored as neural models in our brain – we instantly seek alignment with the stories we already tell ourselves.

We’re incredibly defensive of the stories we believe. Our brains will intuitively like or dislike an idea depending on how well it fits these stories; quickly finding evidence to support an idea if it fits them well, and instantly dismissing an idea if it challenges them.

But what is it about the stories we choose to believe, that we like?

When people think of ‘stories’ they tend to think of entertaining fiction, but stories have fulfilled three important functions in our social evolution – which reveal what stories we still like to believe today.

1. Stories to explain the physical world around us

Psychologist Professor Timothy Wilson says that one of the main differences between us and other animals is our brain’s ability to construct ‘elaborate theories and explanations about what is happening in the world and why.’

One of the earliest stories we still know of today tells of a bear leaping into the sky to evade hunters, where it became the constellation, Ursa Major. Versions of this story have been found in Ancient Greece, Northern Europe, Siberia, and in the Americas. Because of this pattern of spread, it’s believed it dates from between 13,000 and 28,000 BC when a land bridge still connected Russia and Alaska.

Many ancient religions took this a step further. Our storytelling brains would project human-like minds into the ever-changing physical world around us. Spirits and gods would control the trees, animals, mountains and seas. By attempting to interact with these spirits and gods, through ritual and sacrifice, we believed we could influence the outcome of uncertain events like a hunt, harvest, voyage or battle.

From the ‘Cosmic Hunt Myth’ through to more recent scientific tales like ‘Newton’s Apple’, stories have helped us explain the previously unexplained – ‘understanding’ makes us feel in control of the often uncontrollable physical world around us.

2. Stories that help us learn from the experiences of others

Elders came to perform a vital role in the tribes of our ancestors, passing on stories of heroes who overcame challenges, to help children navigate difficult experiences in their own lives. 

With the help of stories, we can explore different ways to react to challenging situations and gather experience without having to face them in real life. Stories can help us learn through the simulated experience of others.   

Several studies have pointed to this ‘simulated learning’ effect – from brain scans of western viewers revealing they are going through the same emotions as Clint Eastwood on screen, to find that heavy fiction readers have better social skills than nonfiction readers due to practice they get consuming fictional conflict between people.

Fairy tales, psychoanalyst Professor Bruno Bettelheim argues in The Uses of Enchantment, use this simulated learning effect to help children deal with their own emotions. Fairy tales take the sometimes scary emotions children struggles to stay in control and turn them into fictional characters. The story these characters appear in teach children that, if they fight with courage, they can control the evil selves within them and help the good to become dominant.

“When all the child’s wishful thinking gets embodied in the good fairy; all his destructive wishes in an evil witch; all his fears in a voracious wolf; all the demands of his conscience in a wise man encountered on an adventure; all his jealous anger in some animal that pecks out the eyes of arch-rivals – then the child can finally begin to sort out his contradictory tendencies,” says Bettelheim. “Once this starts, the child will be less and less engulfed by unmanageable chaos.”

Today, many entrepreneurs pore over biographies of successful business leaders, in the hope that they will discover the secrets of success – living the rollercoaster ride of growing a business through the eyes of their favourite CEOs.   

When we’re gripped by a story we don’t just perceive it, we live it as if it were actually happening to us. This helps us feel more in control should we ever face a similar challenge in our own lives. Research suggests that when we’re transported in this way, our beliefs, attitudes and intentions are more open to being altered – and that these changes can stick.

3. Stories that make us feel in control of the social world around us

Perhaps the most important function of stories is how they can be used to make us feel in control of other people.

As historian and public thinker, Yuval Noah Harari says in his million-selling book Sapiens:

“The period from about 70,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago witnessed the invention of boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows and needles (essential for sewing warm clothing). The first objects that can reliably be called art date from this era, as does the first clear evidence of religion, commerce and social stratification.”

Most researchers believe these unprecedented innovations were the product of a ‘Cognitive Revolution’. Genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of our brains, enabling Homo Sapiens to think and communicate in new ways – we could tell stories of what we’d seen and share thoughts about what to do about it.

Recent research suggests language evolved mainly to gossip. Today we tend to look down on gossip, but it’s always performed a vital role in our societies. Even today the vast majority of human communication – whether its online, in phone calls or via TV news – is gossip.

Gossip allowed us to gain more reliable information about who could be trusted, allowing small bands of humans to expand into larger tribes with more sophisticated forms of cooperation.    

To cooperate, these bigger tribes also needed to set some ground rules about how to behave (and how not to behave). Storytelling in the form of gossip again provided the answer. It allowed tribes to communicate values by celebrating those who put their interests first, and punishing and even ostracising wrongdoers.

We’ve spent more than ninety-five per cent of our time on earth in tribes like this and the brains we carry around today evolved while we were living this way. As a result, our hyper-social brains try to read and understand the minds of others. When we hear a story we’re constantly and unconsciously trying to ‘read between the lines’ – Who is this person? Can I trust them? Do their ideas fit with my values? 

But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Even with all our modern forms of communication, a critical threshold in human organisations falls somewhere around this magic number. Below this threshold, communities, businesses, and social networks can be maintained by gossip with little formal structure.

For large numbers of strangers to successfully cooperate a different type of story is needed – shared myths. 

Legends, gods and religions first time appear during the Cognitive Revolution. But these are not the only myths we created to make us feel in control when cooperating with strangers. Human rights, corporations and money are all human-made shared myths that have no objective truth to them – they only ‘exist’ because many people believe in them.

  • Human rights are a human invention that can’t be scientifically proven. Like the laws which protect them they gain validity from our collective belief in them. 
  • Corporations are ‘legal fictions’ invented to encourage people to take entrepreneurial risks by limiting their personal liability.
  • All forms of money, from cowry shells to dollars, have value not in the material they are made from but in a shared belief.

Feeling in control is the ultimate mission of the storytelling brain

Stories can perform one or more of these three functions at the same time, but the important thing is understanding what stories we like have in common – they make us feel in control.

Whether you’re looking for funding, investment, customers, collaborators, or new team members, the most successful story you can tell is one that makes your audience feel in control of the journey of change you’re asking them to come on with you.

This means knowing who your story is for and understanding the stories they already tell themselves so that your story can align these beliefs and make them feel in control. If you don’t do this, any information that challenges their existing beliefs is likely to fall foul of the biases our brains use to protect the stories we tell ourselves. In fact, this challenging information can cause them to dismiss everything you’ve said.

You can find out more about how to understand the stories that make your audience feel in control here.

The good news is that everyone tells stories to influence and control other people. This isn’t a new skill for you to acquire – you do it every day. The challenge any entrepreneur faces is grabbing the attention of other people’s brains and getting them to think (and therefore behave) differently. Using story as strategy can help you practice and improve the natural storytelling skills you already have.