Why stories matter–and how technology can serve them

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why stories matter storyfitStories are important. They help us create our world. Now, maybe more than ever, it’s critical that we understand our stories. We use stories not only to inform our developing minds, but to make sense of the unexplainable. Whenever something bad happens, we ask “why?” We construct a story around the circumstances –identify the hero, the villain, and the observers, because we understand the world and each other through story.  We look for a reason we can relate to and work backwards from to try and make sure it doesn’t happen again or at least so we can spot it.

Think back to April 20, 1999, when Columbine High School Seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went to school with an arsenal of firearms, killing 12 students and 1 teacher, injuring 21 more before taking their own lives. In the wake of this tragedy, people openly wondered whether Harris and Klebold, both reported to be avid video game players and fans of the movie Natural Born Killers, were influenced by the media they consumed. They wondered if it that meant it would happen again, wondered what kind of effect the stories we all were taking in were having on us.  

With this tragedy, there was a shift in the way we talked about how media influenced us. People openly wondered whether Harris and Klebold, both reported to be avid video game players and fans of the movie Natural Born Killers, were influenced by the media they consumed; whether that meant that it could happen again somewhere else; and, importantly, what toll was the media we consume placing on all of us?

For the better part of the last 20 years since Columbine, tragedies continue to fall on communities and and we continue to ask “why?” Research has found that the stories we are exposed to do have an affect on who we are, especially when they’re repetitive and especially when we are young.

Individually it’s easy to write off media influence maybe because we’re just so overwhelmed with it. Everywhere you turn, there’s some story for you to consume.

But it does matter, and in ways that affect us in subtler ways than maybe Harris and Klebold experienced; but in ways that shape our sense of self, society, and the possibilities of reality.

Stories are important. They transport us, they open our worldview, they tell us what societies value, teach us lessons, and preserve history.  People in Entertainment have amazing powers — you express people’s dreams, hopes, and fears. And give people a way to process their lives. For us as people to have better dreams, we need better stories. Stories that give us ideas of how we can evolve to our full potential.

Because this isn’t just our bottom line we’re talking about, this is our kids. Our families. Our way of life. Our story.

Be it in the news, on a movie screen, or within a game, the narratives we’re exposed to teach our brain how we should expect to be treated, how we should treat others, how we should react to joy, sadness, fear, anger, displeasure, and what kinds of things should elicit such responses. None of us want to be constrained by these stereotypes.

Researchers have been tackling this for years, trying to decipher how our brains consume all of this information and translate it into the people we become.  

They’ve found that media-based experiences actively contribute to the way we build our understanding of the world, from how we should treat people, what kinds of jobs different kinds of people have, the relationships we should expect, the reactions that are appropriate and everything in between.  

We now know that in the short term, exposure to violent, hostile content increases the probability that someone will react to conflict in anger and aggression, even in minor, apparently non-consequential situations. And in the long term, repeated exposure can actually alter viewers’ beliefs, casting their entire world under a shadow of hostility and making it all the more likely that they meet seemingly innocent social interaction with aggression and anger in adulthood.

One Media Effects study  looked at how much on-screen violence several hundred 6-to-9-year olds were exposed to, asked if they thought it seemed realistic and if they identified more with the victim or the aggressor.

They followed up 15 years later, speaking to them, their partners, and gathering any criminal records.  What they found was startling.

That early childhood exposure to TV violence predicted individuals’ physical and non-physical aggression as adults, the strongest link being in those kids that found the violence to be realistic and identified with the aggressive characters.

Study after study have found that the roles and rules we are taught as children–be they gender, race, class, or religiously-based, drastically affect the way we not only relate to those around us, but visualize and self-actualize.

But we shouldn’t only care out of fear of retaliation from someone who watched too much violent TV as a child. We should also care because this affects our workforce, our economy, and our healthcare system.

The Geena Davis Institute has been doing work on this for a long time. Founded in 2004 by producer and academy-award winning actress Geena Davis, their motto really sums it up: “If she can see it, she can be it.”

They release a yearly audit of the state of women and underrepresented populations in media every spring. We’re anxiously awaiting this year’s findings, but the results of last year’s poll had some really powerful points. Of 1,000 women polled, they found that  71% of US and 63% of UK respondents said that seeing more women in corporate leadership roles on TV and in movies would make that role seem more attainable. 67% said the same for female scientists, and 64% for politicians.

Multiple studies have found that when young girls see female characters who are doctors, lawyers, corporate leaders, and working in STEM fields, they report a higher desire to work in a similar field and a higher likelihood of actualization. 

Despite stories like this, the reality of the situation is quite different. While the teenage female population of the United States is around 13%, in movies, they occupy 36% of the population. Meanwhile, middle-aged women are represented by just 15% of characters on screen, while in reality they represent almost 25% of the population.

And while the troubles of the world can feel insurmountable, these stories are our secret weapon. With a story, a life can be changed for the better.

And what is a story without characters?


This editorial was written after working on background research for our SXSW presentation on gender and film and much of the perspective is thanks to the hard work from the following groups and publications:

USC Annenberg Institute – Inclusion or Invisibility: Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment

Geena Davis Institute – “New Study shows women will turn off a film or TV show if too stereotyped or lacking female characters” and “Female characters in film and TV motivate women to be more ambitious, more successful, and have even given them the courage to break out of abusive relationships”

Women’s Media Center

Women in TV and Film

Media EffectsAdvances in Theory and Research (3rd edition) edited by Jennings Bryant, Mary Beth Oliver

“Media Effects on Children’s Social and Moral Development” Elsevier

By: Marie-Louise Mares and Valerie Kretz, Posted on: October 20, 2015

Filed Under: Movies and Television, Publishing, Artificial Intelligence for Business, STEM, we need diverse books