Humans are storytelling animals. Have you heard about the story of the wild pig and the seacow? You probably think I’m joking, but there really is a story about these two! The wild pig and seacow were best friends who enjoyed racing each other for sport. Unfortunately, one day, the seacow hurt his legs and couldn’t run anymore. What did the wild pig do? He carried his buddy down to the sea, where they could race forever, side by side, one in the water, one on the land.
Short and sweet: You can learn a lot from a tale like that — about friendship, cooperation, empathy and an aversion to inequality. And if you were a child in the Agta community in the Philippines known as a hunter-gatherer population, you’d have grown up on the story, and on many others that teach similar lessons.
The practice of storytelling has become ubiquitous in all cultures over all eras in all parts of the world. Now, a new study in Nature Communications, helps explain why: storytelling is a powerful means of fostering social cooperation and teaching social norms, and it pays valuable dividends to the storytellers themselves, improving their chances of being chosen as social partners, receiving community support and even having healthy offspring.
From the beginnings of language (in whatever form), humans used stories to educate and entertain: myth, poetry, song, art, gossip, even politics. They are all forms of storytelling. Nowadays, social media is a new way of telling stories. Ask anyone who is addicted to Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and more! What is so interesting about it? Everyone on there is telling their story!
As human beings, we are automatically drawn to stories because we see ourselves reflected in them. We share stories for building community through empathy and coherence. It enables people to connect across differences and to generate narratives that hold together groups, organizations and movements.
Stressing unity between divergent interests has often been the basis of effective change. For example, look no further than the genesis of the European Union after the Second World War.
To change systems, we need to change our glasses and see the world from other people’s perspectives. Stories help us with this area.