Infecting An Audience: Why Great Stories Spread

In the second of a two-part series, Jonathan Gottschall discusses the unique power stories have to change minds, and the key to their effectiveness.

Infecting An Audience: Why Great Stories Spread
[Image: Flickr user R. Halfpaap]

In his 1897 book What is Art? the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy defined art as “an infection.” Good art, Tolstoy wrote, infects the audience with the storyteller’s emotion and ideas. The better the art, the stronger the infection–the more stealthily it works around whatever immunities we possess and plants the virus. Tolstoy reached this conclusion through artistic intuition, not science, but more than a century after Tolstoy’s death this is exactly what psychologists are finding in the lab. When we enter into a story, we enter into an altered mental state–a state of high suggestibility.


Note that this goes against our culture’s dominant idea about stories. When I ask my students why people like stories, most cite escapism. Life is hard. Storyland is easy. Stories give us a short vacation from the troubles of our real lives. We enter the pretend worlds of stories and have a nice time, and then walk away unscathed and unchanged. But if we think this we are wrong. Studies show that our fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by our stories.

Image: Flickr user Martin Cathrae

For instance, if psychologists get a bunch of people in the lab and just tell them all the reasons it is wrong to discriminate against homosexuals, they don’t make much progress. People who feel differently dig in their heels. They get critical and skeptical. They don’t walk out of the lab with more tolerant views. But if they watch a TV show like Will and Grace, which treats homosexuality in non-judgmental ways, their own views are likely to move in the same non-judgmental direction. And if a lot of us start empathizing with gay characters on shows like Ellen, Modern Family, Six Feet Under, and Glee, you can get a driver of massive social change. American attitudes toward homosexuality have liberalized with dizzying speed over the last 15 years or so, and social scientists give TV some of the credit.

So stories have a unique ability to infect minds with ideas and attitudes that spread contagiously. The next question is obvious: How do we get a piece of that power? It isn’t easy because the story has to be good or it doesn’t work. Here’s what I mean by “good”: psychological studies show that we don’t get infected by a story unless we are emotionally transported–unless we lose ourselves in the story.

And how do we make an audience lose themselves? This is a hard task that countless books and courses on film and creative writing try to answer. But we can make a good start by learning to use story’s basic master formula. Stories–from great epic poems to office scuttlebutt–are almost uniformly about humans facing problems and trying to overcome them. Stories have a problem-solution structure. Stories are always about trouble. Stories aren’t often about people having good days. They are usually about people having bad days–the very worst days of their lives–and struggling to get through.

Image: Flickr user Tyler Nienhouse

But stories are not usually about meaningless problem solving. Unless a story is communicating some message or moral, some set of values or ideas, it seems empty. Moby Dick wouldn’t be a great story if it were just about a deranged whale smashing boats and chomping sailors. Moby Dick is a great novel because all that action communicates a deeper message about good and evil.

In a business setting, this makes story a natural vehicle for conveying our ideas, our values, our vision. At bottom, that’s what all the action in a story is for: a story is a delivery vehicle for the teller’s message. Story is the thing that sneaks the infection past our immunities, past our resistance. And the story then turns us into hosts who spread the infection through our social networks and help create epidemics.


The neuroeconomist Paul Zak studies how this works at a brain level. He paid research subjects $20 and then had them read a sad and compelling story about a father and his terminally ill son, taking blood samples before and after. At the end of the study, subjects were given the chance to donate money to a charity serving sick kids. After the story, the blood samples showed spikes of oxcytocin in the blood. Oxytocin has been called the empathy chemical. And the more oxcytocin there was in the blood, the more these cash-strapped, empathy-drunk, students donated to charity (on average they donated half of their pay). The study suggests that stories change our behaviors by actually changing our brain chemistry.

Image: Flickr user Nathal

But Zak stresses, as I do, that the information about the sick child has to be presented in a classic story structure. Lacking that structure, you don’t get emotional transportation, you don’t get chemical changes in the brain, and you don’t get the behavior change–which in this case consists, take note, of people deciding to cough up money.

For an example of a brand that understands story structure, look at this commercial for Jack Links beef jerky. Jack Links expertly compresses a classic story arc into a sleek 30-second spot. We have our protagonist–an innocent sasquatch who is so gentle and hopeless that he can’t even catch a bunny for his supper. And we have our cocky, beer-guzzling antagonists who torment our sasquatch for no reason at all. And then we have the poetic justice that people thirst for in stories: the hero gives the villains what they deserve.

Notice that these ads say nothing about the qualities of the product. No smiling pitchman strolls out to say, “Try our beef jerky–it’s wholesome and delicious!” Jack Link’s strategy was simply to tell the coolest and funniest stories it could, with the jerky appearing in the stories only as product placement–in exactly the same way that a Coke can might show up in an episode of CSI. This attempt to create a positive emotional connection with consumers worked big time. People liked the commercials so much that they went out of their way to watch them millions of times on YouTube and to spread them around through their social networks. As a result of the “Messin with Sasquatch” campaign, Jack Link’s is now a brand that most of us know and think about positively.

This all raises another question. Should marketers feel bad about using stories as a tool to shape values and earn a buck? Sure. But maybe not too much. After all, guys like Melville and Tolstoy and Shakespeare were playing the same game. They hoped to infect us with particular ideas about life, while earning as much money and fame as possible. This article isn’t a set of instructions for turning story into a prostitute. It’s an explanation for why story has always been a prostitute.

But let’s back up for a moment. Is storytelling really locked into a master formula? Hasn’t the digital revolution paved the way for a new kind of storytelling? That’s the subject of my next post. Is it time for story 2.0?


Jonathan Gottschall is the author The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. His work has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others.
Read his previous Co.Create post: The Science Of Storytelling: How Narrative Cuts Through Distraction Like Nothing Else.