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  • Writer's pictureTeam Nolmë Labs

The stories we tell: The power of narratives

- Sanjana Nair

Stories are remarkable. They can incorporate everything without exception that can be remembered from our experience- connections, individuals, time, thoughts, emotions, - and so on - all spread out in the manner in which we experience them. It is this reverberation among stories and our experience that makes them so enduring. They comprise a significant method of knowing, thinking and feeling that is past brilliant. They have a special capacity to contain and shape the accomplished truth of cognizant creatures like us.

Fischer regards narratives as a “cognitive scheme” that imposes “coherent interpretation on the whirl of events and actions that surrounds us”. A narrative is essentially a story that creates a worldview. Narratives surround us, in the discussions we have online and face to face, the journals and articles we read, the films and news feeds we watch and the brands we follow. Narrative plays a central role in cognition and in organizing our perceptions of reality into a coherent and meaningful pattern. Bruner argued that narratives are critical in the meaning-making of everyday life.

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explicitly says that individuals are not rational processors. We are story processors. He implies that we comprehend the world through a story. We make decisions about what's going on, depending on what we think will occur, and the systems we fit that data into are story structures.

By recommending both what is a standard and what is a take-off from the standard, all narratives propose an interpretation of what the state of the world should be.

The stories we tell about ourselves— as individuals from countries, religions and work environments—are fundamental to interpretive social and political theory. Individuals recount stories for an assortment of reasons - it might be to legitimize themselves, to convince, to engage, or even to misdirect. In like manner, they can structure individuals' perception of society or fill in as models for cultural and individual conduct. But what happens when these stories take a life of their own?

The political bandwagon: We’re in this sway together

Narratives are fundamental to political candidates. Politicians use the power of rhetoric to support a particular worldview.

Politicians have narratives carved out in a way that appeals to the mass public.These are often stories of a politician’s childhood of humble beginnings with hard working parents to make ends meet. They give a larger meaning to a politician’s life and smooth out the rougher edges of their personality, while being useful in inspiring voters and pushing sound public policy. Political narratives are hawked on social media and politicians market themselves with immediacy and intimacy. The possibility to use this tool to manipulate the public is greater than ever.

Political campaigns are powerful spring points for narratives. A noteworthy and straightforward story helps manufacture the politician and gets her/him known. A story which reverberates with what citizens feel is genuine, helps create positive feelings . Maly et al. refer to what they call ''nostalgia stories'' which use a selective version of one’s past to build collective identity. Narratives in politics are always allusive, and what makes them an enduring feature in politics is the politician’s capacity to use it to build a collective identity among its citizens.

Donald Trump won the political election because he recounted a solitary story that weaved together Americans' feelings of dread, expectations, and fears in a convincing way. Instead, the narratives he shared along with contentions he made and the realities he guaranteed, all drew on owed a lot to what particular individuals found out about on TV and radio, recollected from adolescence, and saw their group as having encountered, as it owed to what they legitimately experienced themselves. By sharing, enjoying, and remarking on stories and by not scrutinizing their authenticity– individuals flagged that they were plainly on one side of the sectarian partition.

The use of narratives played a crucial role in the 2014 landmark elections in India and alluded to Narendra Modi’s advantage. The election was about competing narratives which some called ‘Ideas of India’. The BJP built a complex narrative around Modi who sought to destroy the old ‘Ideas of India’ with the new, gleaming ‘Ideas of Modi, even if the BJP was simply singing the strength of our tropes and symbols as a tribute to those who laid the foundations of our country. Indians lapped up this story eagerly, because it appealed to their ‘who we are’ sense of collective identity (i.e. uncorrupted, a deep respect for our foundations and the fact that anyone with humble beginnings has a chance to success – from being a chai seller to a prime political authority) as represented in the narrative framework of BJP, and felt this idea was represented through Modi.

Unmistakably, a political story can redirect the attention of people from critical issues confronting the nation. Modi has figured out how to do that by creating a narrative on strong patriotism. Lately, the central questions of youth unemployment, the farmer crisis and segregation of minorities have been deflected. These dominant narratives limit policy change from the outset by not providing room for the opposition to bring in change because they just don’t get the manoeuvring space which is captured by these narratives.

On social media narratives: Picture ‘perfect’?

Online media makes it easier to recount our stories through Twitter, Facebook etc. It permits individuals to share stories more swiftly and widely from more diverse sources and multiple perspectives.

Stories, posts and our feed on Instagram enable us to share our day through photographs and videos and likewise keep track of the things that interest us. Despite the fact that looking through these photographs is engaging, it is likewise frequently misdirecting. A video on YouTube similarly, portrays 11 individuals endeavouring to make the "perfect" Instagram picture by faking a satisfyingly stylish attempt by modifying reality to something that is "Instagram commendable". The video down bar shows the meaning of an "Insta lie". They express that an Insta lie signifies "an intentionally false representation of life on Instagram”. Individuals via online media, particularly Instagram, distribute only their best moments, giving the crowd a view of a "great" life that is fulfilled and happy.

These narratives are particularly damaging to children, adolescents and young adults who just observe the best of the lives of their peers and celebrities, whom they are greatly influenced by and look up to. As indicated by a survey in a BBC article, where individuals were required to score well known apps in the light of issues that affect psychological wellness, like anxiety, depression, loneliness, bullying and body image, it was found out that Instagram occupied the topmost position among all the apps . A Yahoo News article likewise addresses this survey and explains that this positioning is well on the way to do with Instagram's effect on absence of sleep, fear of missing out (FOMO), self-image, and depression.

We create false physical narratives of ourselves – depending on what we want the world to see us as based on personal insecurities, so we choose to distort reality in order to make ourselves feel better. Because of Instagram's false portrayal of life narratives, children, adolescents, and young adults are deluded to feel that the big names that they admire and their friends' lives are more satisfying, happy and aesthetically pleasing than they are in all actuality, which can damage and harm their emotional well-being.

Information shapes the promotions that command our news sources which creates a narrative for us that we surround ourselves with. Trump used his tweets to turn himself into a politician. His jabs on politics were covered by traditional media outlets and provided a discussion point. By the time he actually ran for election, he didn’t have to spend money on advertising. Instead he just kept tweeting. His tweets got quoted and captured attention allowing him to pick many topics the presidential primary was about. Everyone was talking about what he wanted them to talk about so he rarely needed to do press conferences to address controversies that he didn’t want to address. The political narratives created on social media just give us a sliver of the truth. Politicians will be politicians – they can still be deceitful and disingenuous even if the internet makes them seem better, genuine and real. Noam Chomsky in his book Manufacturing Consent, discusses the importance of context in media, and the requirement for more space to clarify thoughts that contradict the status quo. Twitter additionally has a context issue: when you arrive behind a conversation, for instance, you just observe a few previous tweets and this partial information is what creates a false narrative sometimes.

On mental health, gender and advertising narratives

One of the most enjoyable mediums to transfer stories has always been movies. Anecdotes about or references to individuals with mental health issues are frequently in features in reports or plotlines in film and TV, yet research demonstrates that media depictions of psychological instability are both false and negative.

Wilson et al. found in their investigation of TV dramatizations that 55% of characters with psychological instability were depicted as vulnerable, unfit to control their lives, and directed by the desire of others. These are also accompanied by false depictions and stereotypical images of psychologists, psychiatrists and mental health facilities as unprofessional and vile.

In any case, media delineations of people with dysfunctional behaviours shape public opinion. Examinations from around the globe have discovered that the manner by which news media spreads a story and the manner by which the media tells a story essentially become the story. As it were, the real events take a backseat to the underlying fundamental messages about psychological disturbances.

Media portrayals often show that the individual with a mental illness is responsible for their condition. Let's take the case for depression. Depression may not be what we stereotypically think it looks or sounds like, and reportage that uses smiling photos of people as evidence of them not being mentally ill contributes to a damaging narrative where we expect a person with depression to look glum and sad all the time. There are no experts in these headlines to point out that with the right care and treatment, people can recover.

Why do these narratives become a matter of concern? A 1996 U.K. Department of Health study inferred that a connection exists between negative media portrayals of dysfunctional behaviour and related social policies. In the event that general society accepts that those with a mental illness are either savage or violent or as incapable to think about themselves—government policies will mirror this demeanour. Thus, policy makers will look more toward regulation and control than towards recovery and community living. The impression of psychological illness depends on false narratives propagated by the media and governments will respond to these false portrayals as opposed to the genuine needs of individuals with dysfunctional behaviours. What's more, a world view that maintains false and antagonistic generalizations of individuals with mental ailments prompts an expanded degree of fear in the community, which thus means less help for community care and for individual human rights. This can bring about legislation for forced treatment and hospitalization.

Stories are also a part of who we are and what we have been brought up with right from reading fables and folktales in infancy. Sometimes it is these stories we read in our childhood which promote gender stereotypes, and partially shape gendered perspectives. Researchers Xu et al. call the narrative structure found in children’s stories the "Cinderella complex", which assumes that women must depend on men in the pursuit of a happy, fulfilling life. Narratives presenting the emotional dependency and vulnerability of females are perceived as “good stories”, but movies highlighting the emotional vulnerability of males are welcomed so. Observably, this creates a self fulfilling prophecy wherein we fit information and ideas consistent with our gendered story structures and reject those that fall outside it.

Advertisements create false life narratives by preying on our insecurities of an incomplete life without a product. These narratives create what Cushman calls the ‘empty self that makes us vulnerable to the “make you happy” messages.

Let’s talk psychology

Anthropologists reveal to us that narration is integral to human existence - that it includes a cooperative trade among teller and audience – a trade we figure out how to haggle in infancy. Similarly, the mind identifies patterns in information. Stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns, we discover meaning.

Why do stories become powerful? It comes down to how individuals decide. As is currently extensively acknowledged, individuals are not decision makers who always cautiously weigh up alternatives. Rather, they choose quickly, utilizing decision making shortcuts or heuristics. Narratives on news probably distort individuals' perspective on the world due to a psychological bug that Nobel laureates Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called the availability heuristic: individuals gauge the likelihood of an occasion or the recurrence of an event by the ease with which instances come to mind – i.e. dramatic and erratic ones come easily more than normative ones.This is often the reason why dominant narratives that are bombarded by the media take a precedence in our mind, while other crucially important and common narratives on the margins often take a setback, become forgotten and are not addressed or challenged (from farmer suicides to the recent recession in our country) - an implication that politicians know too well.

Green and Brock demonstrate when audiences become occupied with a story, they are bound to embrace the story-predictable convictions. At the point that they become both emotionally and cognitively involved with a story, they are less inclined to create counter arguments against the convincing message.

The stories we can create and the part we can play

As society groups and developments try to shape progressive narratives, the goal is to outline them as 'counter' or 'alternative' stories, so as to validate the dominance of those we need to change. Our stories must connect with the general public regarding why they should think about municipal interest and activism, social developments and basic liberties in an overall way. Jerome Bruner takes note of the basic psychological function by which narratives inside a culture exclude a few people by only focusing on predominant methods of envisioning lives and progress. This shows the significance of having culturally inclusive narratives, which clarifies the insistence of marginalized groups (i.e. LGBTQIA, caste groups, poor) that their stories likewise be spoken and promulgated through the traditional press.

False narratives are a version of events that, while partly true, have been moulded to evoke solid negative feelings. These can be profoundly compelling approaches to drive eyeballs to sites, consumers to items, or voters to the polls. Advocates on any side of an inquiry can be enticed to overstate, twist or disregard vital realities. We are inclined to acknowledge stories that we agree with, rather than those we don’t. Observably, the online media is soaked with such stories which obstruct contemplated examination, productive exchanges between contrasting perspectives and the quest for a common ground on the most testing issues confronting our worldwide global societies.

We have a new responsibility in this age. We need to resist the temptation to simply replay the tweets, air political campaign videos without fact checking, contextualizing and questioning and must be wary of false political narratives that stifle productive civic conversations. We can’t afford to know what’s going on in our locality simply by reading Facebook updates from professional communication staffers. As the public, we must help journalists move past these narratives to discover what politicians are really doing and plotting . That means trusting authentic sources beyond some of the factually deficient elements on television and refusing to patronize sites online that have a partisan agenda.

For change to happen, precise and positive messages and tales about individuals living with mental illness must be made more ordinary. Thornton and Wahl found that the impact of newspaper articles on individuals' perspectives toward psychological illness was more positive when study members had gotten precise, valuable data, demonstrating that mass media's portrayals can create change in public perceptions. The myth with respect to the inalienable link among violence and psychological maladjustment must be uncovered, and precise data must be scattered to the general society through the media. It is fundamental to feature narratives of successful recovery. Such stories of resilience and hope, whenever introduced appropriately, can both instruct and engage crowds.

The truth is we need new stories. Stories that reconnect us to the flows of life, so that our future strides might be stronger. Stories that churn the soils of our reality, so that we may start to plant seeds for upcoming dreams and to grow a universe of positive self-expression. Narratives are essentially therapeutic and it is this fundamental assumption on which narrative psychology emerged, because we need narratives where people all over the world are not the victims but the heroes of their own stories. This why there is an imperative need to create shared positive mental health narratives whether through the distribution of written autobiographies and media portrayals of suicide and depression survivors, so that the people currently battling these issues have a similar positive story with which to identify themselves with, which convey messages of finding meaning and hope and give a medium for growth experiences. Narratives can be a source of ideas and values that are liberating, compassionate and transformative.

I would like to conclude with this quote by Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones that I’m always reminded of - “What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing more powerful than a good story”.


Sanjana Nair is a research assistant at Nolmë Labs. She is interested in pursuing clinical psychology as a professional psychologist in the future.


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