Homo fabulans

I recently read a review of Google Home in which the writer suggested that this and similar devices, such as Amazon’s Echo, or Apple’s Siri, are our reality now because generations grew up watching Star Trek. The argument was that people got used to the idea that in the future there will be AI systems responding to our commands. (Computer, give me tomato soup, plain hot tomato soup). In fact, they got so used to this idea, that they designed such AI systems. They created future, our present, that complied with the image of future they got used to.

It’s a fascinating thought, isn’t it, that stories have such a power, that they can impact the future, change the world.

There are of course many examples of similarly influential stories. Alexander the Great supposedly slept with a copy of The Iliad under his pillow and conquered the bigger part of the known world because he wanted to come down in history as the new Achilles*. Dickens is often credited with inventing Christmas as we know it, with the charitable spirit, the turkey, and the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ itself. Uncle Tom’s Cabin famously laid the groundwork for the Civil War. And so on and so forth.

So I guess it’s no surprise that this potential of stories as tools of persuasion is being more and more appreciated, researched, and made use of. I’m told that story is all the rage in business nowadays. Story replaces powerpoint presentations, sells the product, motivates coworkers. Story gets the votes.

Psychologists agree that stories are more capable of convincing us than factual arguments. We are bored with data dumps, whereas stories entertain. We turn on our critical sense when presented with arguments, but we turn it off when we get absorbed in fictional worlds. We are hardwired for consistency, so we tend to agree with things that fit with our already existing beliefs, rather than what is supported by better arguments. Stories, however, operating on emotional level, bypass this cognitive barrier.

Some suggest that homo sapiens is not the most apt name for our species, that we might be more accurately described as homo fabulans — the story-telling man.

Fascinating topic. I’ve got some new books on my reading list now, among them Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal. If you have any other reading suggestions, on homo fabulans and the world-changing power of stories, please share.

  • OK, so we don’t know if that’s exactly true, and maybe The Iliad had nothing to do with Alexanders conquests, but it’s a great story anyway. Both The Iliad and Alexander sleeping with its copy.

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