Communicating Risk Through Storytelling
This blog post is based on a presentation given by Jonathan Klane at AIHce EXP 2022. An expanded version was published in AIHA's 2022 ebook, The Essentials of OEHS Communication. The mention of any products does not constitute endorsement by AIHA.
Jonathan Klane is the senior safety editor for Lab Manager magazine and a PhD candidate studying the intertwined nature of risk and storytelling at Arizona State University. He kicked off his 2022 AIHce EXP session by introducing the audience to the work of Paul Zak, PhD, a neuroscientist who has done research on the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin mediates trusting behaviors. For instance, it allows mothers to bond with their babies and helps them protect, nurture, feed, love, and raise their infants.
Zak conducted a study in which two groups watched a video about a father and his son, who had cancer. In the video shown to the control group, the father and son simply spent the day together at the zoo. Cancer was not explicitly mentioned in this video, although the boy was visibly bald from chemotherapy. In the video shown to the study group, the father told an emotionally laden story about his efforts to connect with his son, who had only a few months left to live, while the little boy played in the background. Blood samples taken from both groups before and after viewing the video showed that participants of the study group experienced a spike in oxytocin levels, while the control group experienced no change. The study group participants also reported that they felt more empathy toward the father and son and were more motivated to donate money to charity compared to the control group.
According to Klane, this is the power of a story. His educational session, “Science and the Power of Stories to Affect Our Risk Perception,” aimed to teach attendees how to use this power when communicating ideas about safety and risk.
Stories as Communication Tools
According to Klane, stories are powerful persuasive tools that can be used for many purposes, such as communicating and contextualizing information, helping people make sense or create meaning, and building trust and relationships. Stories are “a wonderful way to entirely control the context of your message,” he said. Often, as people try to understand data or information, they filter the message through the context of their own experiences and mental models. But Klane added that stories “provide so much more detail, a plot, and characters we can identify with. We get so caught up in it that the context is all there for us.”
The addition of context means that listeners or readers need to do less filtering, “but we do try to figure out how it makes sense,” he continued. “Stories are sense-making or meaning-making tools.”
Klane has tested the communicative power of stories through an experiment of his own. At Arizona State, he used to deliver up to 21 safety courses every semester to biomedical engineering students. Curious as to whether the training was effective, Klane and the program head collaborated on planning a study. The students were divided into groups that received the same safety information delivered through humor or through storytelling. They were pretested to establish a baseline and tested again three weeks after the training course—which showed no difference between the methods. But when tested again at the end of the semester, the students who had received their information via narrative were found to have retained it better.
Narrative was a more effective tool for communicating safety information, Klane concluded, because stories engage readers and listeners’ episodic memory—the memory of everyday events and personal experiences that occurred at particular times and places. Meanwhile, data is stored in semantic memory—our internal library of general, culturally-dependent knowledge accumulated through our lives. People often have more difficulty retaining information stored as semantic memory compared to episodic memory. OEHS professionals can use their knowledge of this attribute of human neuroscience to improve their communication tools by blending data with narrative.
Creative nonfiction is a literary genre particularly adept at interweaving fact and narrative. Klane discussed a pattern for writing creative nonfiction taught by Lee Gutkind, professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University, founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction literary magazine, and “the godfather of creative nonfiction,” in the words of Vanity Fair. The pattern developed by Gutkind starts with narrative and then alternates between revealing data and continuing the narrative before ultimately ending with narrative.
Starting with narrative is important “because you want to lure the reader into your writing,” Klane explained. He warned that starting with scientific background runs the risk of losing—and boring—readers. “You’ve got to get to what’s at stake right away,” he said. “Do that via narrative. Then get to your data.”
Likewise, ending with narrative is best practice because, if the story is effective (and affective), readers are primed to resonate with your message, Klane continued. Successful marketing and advertising materials follow this model as well.
Klane urged attendees to present no data without narrative and no narrative without data. This approach was originally put forward by Michael Quinn Patton, PhD, a sociologist specializing in evaluation and qualitative research. “My message is not to throw away all your wonderful data,” said Klane. “It’s how to take all your data and information and weave it into the fabric of the story.”
Risk and Decision-Making
Risk is centered on people. If human beings are not involved in a given situation, no one is concerned whether risk is present or not. However, people often have difficulty being objective about risks, even experts. It is mostly our perception of risk that influences our decision-making.
In turn, risk perception is informed by cognitive biases, including confirmation bias and attribution fallacy. Confirmation bias is, essentially, believing that things are what you expect them to be; it’s interpreting reality to fit your existing mental models. Attribution fallacy arises when humans ascribe good intentions to themselves but are more critical of others behaving in similar ways.
These biases are described in groundbreaking work by psychologists Daniel Kahneman, MA, PhD, and Amos Tversky, PhD. Kahneman is also well known for winning the Nobel Prize in economics and writing the book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Drawing on his decades of research conducted with Tversky, who passed away in 1996, Kahneman contrasts slow, ponderous, but more analytical modes of thinking with faster, more intuitive modes that use heuristics, or mental shortcuts, to cut down on our brains’ energy use. “Fast” thinking helps keep us alive but can sometimes lead us astray.
Klane stated that human risk systems include analytical or cognitive risk, which corresponds with “slow” thinking, and experiential or affective risk, which corresponds to “fast” thinking. Humans use their experiential risk system more often. It is best engaged through narrative because, in this system, humans don’t conclude that something is risky through analytical deliberation but through events that have happened to them.
Perception of a “threat to value” is another factor in humans’ risk-related decision-making. Klane illustrated this with another story about his colleague Kim. She injured her foot at a concert when she and a friend sprinted to her car to collect forgotten tickets and raced back to the venue in time to watch the opening act. The next day, Kim was in pain. A visit to the doctor found a hairline fracture caused by running in improper footwear. Before running to her car, Kim hadn’t thoroughly assessed the risks involved because that isn’t how people tend to make decisions in the moment. Instead, she made this decision based on a perceived threat to value, which is a natural human response. The essence of this anecdote is that OEHS professionals should expect themselves and others to make decisions about risk based in emotion at least as often as they make decisions analytically.
Moreover, front-line workers and company executives alike are more likely to respond to information that centers on human beings, their experiences, and their perceptions of risk based on threats to things they value than they are to retain bare data and statistics. This phenomenon plays to yet another mental shortcut—the availability bias. Humans tend to believe that examples that come quickly to mind are more representative than they really are. That is, people will assign more weight to a story or experience they have related to a given topic than to data covering the same topic.
“Stories are sticky,” said Klane, quoting Kahneman. “You want people to remember stuff? Use stories. You want people to forget stuff? Tell them data.”
Tips for Effective Storytelling
According to Klane, it’s acceptable for OEHS professionals to use stories that are pure fiction, creative nonfiction, or fictionalized nonfiction in their origins, as long as they’re used purposefully. “Tell stories that make your point solidly,” he said.
When creating memorable stories, OEHS professionals may find it helpful to incorporate the following:
The identifiable victim effect. People don’t often remember statistics, but they do remember specific people. People relate to an identifiable victim and believe they can save them.
Plot twists. In her book Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot, cognitive scientist Vera Tobin, PhD, wrote that humans enjoy being surprised more than they enjoy figuring things out. People appreciate when random elements are drawn together to make sense, and they like drawing connections—even those that aren’t really there.
Narrative transportation. The feeling of being transported into the story itself is one of the most studied elements of storytelling. People are more likely to feel “transported” when the story centers on someone they can relate to.
Constraints. In Klane’s words, “constraint builds creativity.” For example, Ted Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, used only 50 unique words to write Green Eggs and Ham.
Frame narratives. Take one narrative and embed another into it. Klane exemplified this through the multiple narratives embedded in his session.
Plot structure. Of course, every good story has a plot—a clear sequence of connected events. There are several different ways to develop a plot:
- German novelist Gustav Freytag’s model breaks stories down into five parts: exposition or setting, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution or denouement. Paul Zak’s research found that study participants secreted the stress hormone cortisol during the rising action, oxytocin during the climax, and dopamine when the denouement takes the form of a happy ending.
- “Tusitala’s model” proposes that there are three ways of writing a story: fitting characters to a plot, choosing situations and incidents to develop a character, or creating an atmosphere and finding actions and characters to express and realize it. (Tusitala, which means “storyteller” in the Samoan language, was a nickname of author Robert Louis Stevenson.)
- The hero’s journey, developed by Joseph Campbell, is another common story model, famously used in Star Wars.
Risk. “There’s only one thread that connects and binds all great stories together,” Klane said. In literary terms, it’s often called conflict—all stories feature a character who encounters a problem of some kind. OEHS professionals know this as risk. Telling affective stories may be an outstanding way for you to leverage your knowledge of risk while driving your message home.
AEON: “Philosophy Tool Kit” (April 3, 2017).
Cerebrum: “Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative” (Feb. 2, 2015).
Creative Nonfiction: “Lee Gutkind.”
Harvard UP: Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfaction of Plot (2018).
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: Thinking, Fast and Slow (2013).
The Harvard Gazette: “Exorcising the Curse of Knowledge” (Nov. 8, 2012).
Klane, Jonathan. “Science and the Power of Stories to Affect Our Risk Perception.” AIHce EXP, AIHA, 24 May 2022, virtual. Conference Presentation.
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