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.

 

Image of aftermath from Yom Kippur War.

 

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.”

 

Daniel Kahneman, pictured in 2010.

 

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.

 

This article was written by Lee Procida, our Lead Content Strategist. It first appeared in our weekly newsletter, Long Story Short. To get stories like this automatically every Monday morning, sign up here.

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