How Stories Affect Decision Making

I, like many other Canadians, have been mildly amused and entertained by the US Presidential Nomination race between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump.  This electoral process has garnered a lot of international attention, probably more so than in any other time in history.

This kind of attention is good and bad.  Good in that it is capturing so many who would normally sit on the sidelines of politics and bad because it is playing out like a reality TV show and not necessarily focused on important issues.

Since we have really no influence over the outcome on this side of the border, it is fascinating to see so many caught up in discussions about who should not be President.  Is the Trump style presidential material?  Or is the Clinton style more valuable?

It matters not where your personal opinion lies – we can’t vote on it anyway, but it is interesting that we can’t look away.  Like a weekly broadcast of reality programming, we seem unable to refrain from checking in to see how the conflicts have progressed.

Why is that?

bully-bossPerhaps it is a distraction from the chaos that may be playing out in our own personal lives, for others it is just great entertainment.  Whatever the reason, we certainly can appreciate that stories grab our  attention.

They take us in, transport us, and allow us to live vicariously and visually through another’s experience.  People are attracted to stories.  “We are social creatures and this is how we relate to other people.”  It is also how we influence and/or are influenced by others.  It’s no surprise. We humans have been communicating through stories for centuries as a means of influencing behaviours and politics.  Centuries ago, people passed information from one person to another via storytelling long before they could read or write. As a result, today our brains are hardwired to listen to and respond to stories.

Stories form the very fabric of what we think and how we think and if you are not telling the story, then you are likely the audience of someone else’s well crafted tale – perhaps even accidentally. This means that the person who mesmerizes with the best stories just might control the direction of your future decision making.  Often these stories are internal as well as external.

Think about how many times you have walked away from a conflict with someone at work (or home), or read an email that ticked you off and then made up an entire story about what’s happening.  We need to get honest about our stories and start owning them – they are affecting the decisions we make and how we behave.

If we want to avoid being part of an accidental audience, we need to understand how we are getting sucked in!

Neuroscientists tell us that we have 3 levels of brain activity that affect our overall decision making.

  1. The Lizard brain is all about fight/flight/freeze.  It cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy. In an emotional upset, our bodies often respond before our conscious minds.  This is the hardwiring of safety and protection.   According to the research by Dr Brene Brown, even with small, everyday conflicts and disappointments, physical and emotional intolerance for discomfort is the primary reason we linger on the outskirts of our stories – never truly facing them or integrating them into our lives.  We disengage to self-protect.
  2. The Mammal brain is the home of our emotions, memories and habits. It warehouses our “know how” and our beliefs about our own capacity.  This part of the brain actually makes our decisions before we fully realize that one has been made.
  3. Finally, the logic brain where we find the facts that rationalizes the feelings for us. The reality is that we buy into ideas through emotion and we justify with facts.

So if you are watching the US campaign trail, pay attention to how each leader is attempting to sway public opinion through feelings first and then seeks to justify invoked emotion with stories of “fact”.

Then take a look closer at home to see where this strategy might be playing out there as well.