The auditorium darkens as the light and attention are directed towards the solitary figure on stage. After offering a few introductory words, they are succeeded by the main event – a story, unfolded and engaging our emotions, trying to induce greater understanding. The modern Chautauqua has begun. The telling of stories is one of humanity’s great commonalities. Beginning around campfires, growing into coliseums, lit by the limelight, digitized and globalized – stories have helped us to understand the complexity around us since our cultural beginnings as tribes. Why? What makes these tales of individuals so much stickier than the fate of 10,000?
I’ve been working the last few weeks on a project that introduced me to new insights about those questions that I wanted to share. In Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow an intuitive, fast system – System 1; and a more contemplative, slower, analytic system – System 2 form a cognitive system helping with our thoughts and decisions. System 2 concerns itself with facts, data, verbatim records; while system 1 summarizes those points along with your feelings about them, creating an entirely new thought, a gist.
Gist – the main or essential part of a matter
Gists are the fuzzy traces of our verbatim understanding and frequently we have several gists for each verbatim record. Some people are more System 2 dominant others more intuitive. But in making decisions, we tend to use gists, because they encapsulate not only the idea but our thoughts and feelings about them. Fuzzy-trace theory tries to explain that “dance of affect” between System 1 and System 2.
Narratives’ and stories’ power results from opening portals both of these cognitive pathways at once. Stories convey information while cultivating and nurturing gists. Peter Provonost found it difficult to change the approach to central line infections until weaving it within the story of the tragic death of a child. The verbatim facts were always clear – significant infections from central lines were not being addressed. But the story associated that truth with a tragedy, evoking our human instinct to help and comfort in the face of such loss. For people hearing about central line infections from a handout – it was all System 2. Just the facts. But for those of us hearing Dr. Provonost’s story, there was a gist. Gist drove change.
“Statistics are human beings with the tears dried off,” facts and data while important, only appeal to our analytic side. Stories, by accessing System 1 as well as System 2 allow us to “put the tears back.” We all tell stories, with the purpose of enabling change or assisting making decisions. Knowing that our feelings about facts, the gists we form, are powerful drivers of change, gives us guidance in fashioning more engaging and purposeful reasoning.