How Daniel Kahneman learned the value of stories

Jul 24, 2017

We look at lots of ads, sales decks and brochures in our line of work. Often, companies only list the details of their products and services.

Unfortunately, ample research shows facts alone aren’t convincing. Stories are far more compelling.

That was the epiphany Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman had back in 1974.

At the time, Kahneman was advising Israeli leaders. They had failed to anticipate the attack that ignited the Yom Kippur War, because they believed Egypt would never strike first while Israel had air superiority. Now, they wanted to understand the potential of a future conflict with Syria.

Kahneman thought the best way to inform decision-makers was to give them an actual probability. A clear percentage chance would be most valuable, right?

But the Israeli Foreign Ministry balked. They simply didn’t trust the numbers. They preferred their own intuition.

Clearly, they were convinced by the narrative of jets deterring attacks, but not statistics.

“No one ever made a decision because of a number,” Kahneman said afterward. “They need a story.”

He went on to demonstrate this phenomenon in multiple experiments. In case after case, he showed that people disregard even obvious facts and figures in favor of more vivid descriptions.

In essence, the easier people can picture something in their heads, the more they believe it.

“The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little,” Kahneman later wrote in his best-selling book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

Long story short: stories drive decisions. Data is difficult to decipher when it’s isolated, but it becomes meaningful if packaged with familiar or evocative concepts.

Anyone that ignores this reality is fighting against human nature. That’s a war you can’t win.

Further reading on the value of stories


Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling
Want to better understand exactly why our brains gravitate toward stories? This Harvard Business Review article both explains the science, and offers some practical suggestions for using stories in business settings, from presentations to internal communications.

The Two Friends Who Changed How We Think About How We Think
We originally found the above story in Michael Lewis’s book “The Undoing Project,” which profiles Kahneman and fellow researcher Amos Tversky. This New Yorker review of the book calls them the “Lennon and McCartney of social science.”

Why ‘The Story Factor’ is one of our favorite books
We have a series of articles on our site called “B On The Books,” in which our team members explain our favorite ideas from different business books. Here are our thoughts on a classic of business storytelling, “The Story Factor” by Annette Simmons.

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