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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 242

Jonathan Gottschall — The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down

The Story Paradox (book cover)

Humans are storytelling animals. Stories are what make our societies possible. Countless books celebrate their virtues. But Jonathan Gottschall, an expert on the science of stories, argues that there is a dark side to storytelling we can no longer ignore. Storytelling, the very tradition that built human civilization, may be the thing that destroys it.

In The Story Paradox, Gottschall explores how a broad consortium of psychologists, communications specialists, neuroscientists, and literary quants are using the scientific method to study how stories affect our brains. The results challenge the idea that storytelling is an obvious force for good in human life. Yes, storytelling can bind groups together, but it is also the main force dragging people apart. And it’s the best method we’ve ever devised for manipulating each other by circumventing rational thought. Behind all civilization’s greatest ills—environmental destruction, runaway demagogues, warfare—you will always find the same master factor: a mind-disordering story.

Gottschall argues that societies succeed or fail depending on how they manage these tensions. And it has only become harder, as new technologies that amplify the effects of disinformation campaigns, conspiracy theories, and fake news make separating fact from fiction nearly impossible.

In this conversation based on his new book, Gottschall reveals why our biggest asset has become our greatest threat, and what, if anything, can be done. It is a call to stop asking, “How we can change the world through stories?” and start asking, “How can we save the world from stories?”

Jonathan Gottschall is a distinguished research fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College. He is the author of The Storytelling Animal, a New York Times Editor’s Choice and finalist for the LA Times Book Prize, and The Professor in the Cage, one of the Boston Globe’s Best Books of the year. He has written for or been covered in the New York Times, Scientific American, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Millions. Gottschall has also appeared on popular podcasts like Star Talk, The Joe Rogan Experience, and Radiolab. He lives in Pennsylvania.

Shermer and Gottschall discuss:

  • How does one study stories scientifically?
  • scientific truths and literary truths,
  • truthiness in literature: lived experiences as personal truths,
  • humans as storytelling animals,
  • stories as a call to adventure and the need for heroes,
  • Christianity as the greatest story ever told?
  • stories that can’t win: the apocalypse, doomsday, negativity bias,
  • but good news doesn’t sell,
  • conflict model of storytelling,
  • How many different types of stories are there?
  • mind reading and storytelling and reading: Heider-Simmel film,
  • sway: the purpose of storytelling?
  • never trust a storyteller?
  • history as storytelling,
  • propaganda as storytelling,
  • Joseph Goebbels story: Aryan knights battling Jewish evil in humanity’s last, great stand,
  • Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928:

    “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

  • Tree of Life killer story: I’m not the monster. I’m the good guy who sacrifices everything to slay the monster.
  • political stories,
  • willing suspension of disbelief,
  • The Great Loquacity: our inner voiceover narration,
  • What are myths and stories, and what role do they play in human life and culture?
  • Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Star Wars?)
  • literature, meaningfulness, and purposefulness,
  • conspiracy theories (QAnon, Rigged Election) as stories to explain and motivate,
  • QAnon YouTubers:

    “Have you ever wondered why we go to war? Or why you never seem to be able to get out of debt? Why there is poverty, division, and crime? What if I told you there was a reason for it all? What if I told you it was done on purpose? I’m excited.

    I’m happy! Once you know the information you are not in fear; you’re, like, empowered! You are excited. You can’t wait for justice to go down, you can’t wait for the kids to be saved, you can’t wait for the bad guys to be put in jail.”

If you enjoy the podcast, please show your support by making a $5 or $10 monthly donation.

This episode is sponsored by Wondrium:

Wondrium (sponsor)

This episode was released on January 18, 2022.

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