To Tell or Not To Tell

Reasonable people might say that Shakespeare wrote his Richard II with reference (perhaps allusion) to Elizabeth’s childlessness in her old age. In fact, reasonable historians believe that the play itself was an added inspiration for the revolt of the Earl of Essex, which ended in a rather ugly fashion. The trick, of course, is that reasonable people can disagree most vehemently, and, thereby, keep their heads attached to their necks.

AB is on to something with his corrective post, namely that wisdom bears in telling stories. All stories can be told. All stories are told in context. Contexts change. Contexts can be manipulated. Stories can be manipulated. People can be manipulated.

When you get into the  business of people-manipulating, it helps to have the power to do so with impunity. A wise storyteller uses ambiguity as a defensive weapon, that is, winks and nods encoded in the text, the decoding of which, naturally, becomes the playground for mischievous persons. Shakespeare, as history bears out, endures much foolishness, but as all wise men do, he speaks not, and in not speaking, he asserts power, much power, over the reader, over history, over society, informing our hearts with virtue.

Likewise Homer, and a few others.

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The Storyteller’s Obligation

In my previous post I linked to a study on how children were inspired to virtuous action by the role model of George Washington, who told his own father he cut down the cherry tree and was rewarded for honesty.

This is a useful thing to know, both as a parent and also more generally as someone who would like to inspire virtue in a broad range of people. However, it makes me think about a particular consequence of storytelling, and how aspirational stories can lead to tragedies.

Garret Jones recently stated that “There are few horrors of the last century that can’t be blamed on an excessive concern for justice.”, and I believe that’s entirely right. The 20th century’s communist revolutions that led the greatest string of tragedies the human race has yet seen were based on a story about justice and fair distribution of wealth. They told a story about how human society could pass through a socialist phase and into a communist phase where material wealth and prosperity was available to everyone and no one would enjoy power and status over another. It would be Utopia.

Of course it turned out these stories were wrong. Marx was wrong. Communism doesn’t work. The entire exercise was doomed to failure from before it started. 

This is the danger of stories. They can inspire people, but they can also lead them to folly. If we only tell people the good half of stories, or (worse) tell people stories about the way we wish the world were, we lead them astray. 

And this isn’t limited to grand tragedies like the Great Leap Forward, but also in small ways and individual lives. A young person may spend money on a degree whose prospects are not what they were told, or engage in relationships with unrealistic expectations of how love and friendship actually works. This causes heartache, lost money and effort, and also comes back to bite the storyteller as a teller of lies (however well meaning they were at the time).

Don’t do this. Only tell stories that are true. Inspire, but also be wise. Be like Shakespeare, and Homer. 

The one way ratchet of responding to children (and cats).

Adam found a great study that might indicate that kids’ “stories of punishment do not inspire changes in behavior, while stories about a virtuous role model (who is rewarded for his virtue) has a strongly positive impact on behavior.”

There’s a cynical way to look at this. First, three things about my perspective: 1) The mode of thinking I’m about describe came from my time as a preschool teacher, 2) I don’t have kids, 3) The technique does, however, seem to work on my cat.

It’s possible that kids (and perhaps cats) merely crave attention and feedback. The stories of punishment are stories of a behavior that received attention (fame as being the boy/girl that got eaten by wild animals or the boy/girl that had a freakish nose-talent and was made of wood!?). The lesson a kid could take from those stories of punishment might be merely that lying makes you the object of attention. The Washington story on the other hand teaches the same lesson but with a virtuous trigger behavior, x behavior—being a sap that hates trees but can’t bark a fib—earns you attention (even, gasp, the presidency!).

So what we end up with is a one way ratchet. Give child attention, behavior at time of attention will be amplified. Reward negative behavior with punishment-attention and you get more negative behavior; reward positive behavior with praise-attention and you get more positive behavior.

But wait, you are saying dear reader, Peter, your cynicism and cat manipulation have blinded you to the actual results of the study! The punishment stories did not encourage lying… punishment stories simply had no effect on behavior. I submit further cynicism in my defense. Perhaps the baseline (the control of no stories) that most kids operate on is that lying will gain you attention. And perhaps they’ve already been so saturated with this world-view that a couple of punishment stories won’t change much. The virtue story on the other hand is something new for these kids, and it momentarily spurs a change in the child’s understanding of what behavior will lead to the researcher rewarding them with attention.

My conclusion would be the same as Adam’s, we need more stories about virtue. But the reasons for that conclusion are a bit more Pavlovian. Now I’m going back to my cat-training (she “prays” like this on command):

IMG_20140616_182348-MOTION

 

And now for something completely different

I hope this isn’t a gauche error on my part, but I’m just going to take a break from our stand-up-philosopher act and draw our attention to some recent science reporting. It’s not often I see actual science on rhetoric and virtue.

A clever experiment by researchers at the University of Toronto and Brock University (which sounds like an excellent school) read four different stories to children, and then tested them for honesty. Here’s what they found-

The surprising finding was that only about a third of the peekers who heard the “The Tortoise and the Hare” story, the Pinocchio story and the “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” story confessed that they had cheated. Apparently, hearing about the dire consequences of lying such as having a wolf feast on a lying boy did not increase the likelihood of telling the truth. However, the kids who had heard the George Washington story had a significantly higher rate of truth-telling: Roughly half of the kids admitted to peeking at the toy while the experimenter had left the room!

A follow-up experiment with multiple versions of the George Washington story seems to confirm the finding that stories of punishment do not inspire changes in behavior, while stories about a virtuous role model (who is rewarded for his virtue) has a strongly positive impact on behavior. 

This seems to be useful and heartening. It’s heartening to know that rhetoric isn’t wasted effort, and that people can be inspired to improve. And it’s useful to know which types of rhetoric are more likely to produce an effect.