Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Stories as Evidence

This is part of one week series of posts on a new journal, Memory, Mind & Media. Today's post is by Kathleen Murphy-Hollies (PhD student at the University of Birmingham) who talks about the role of stories in public debates. She is summarising a paper co-authored with Lisa Bortolotti and recently published in the inaugural issue of Memory, Mind & Media. The paper is available open access here.


Kathleen Murphy-Hollies

We are all drawn to stories in their many forms, and the prevalence of them on digital media may be one reason why we have embraced those media so much. On social media we see lots of stories being told, often in support some general claim. For example, people have been sharing experiences of getting the COVID vaccine and of not getting the vaccine, often in the hopes of supporting general claims about whether people should get vaccinated. However, can personal stories be taken as evidence supporting general claims? 

People’s stories about what kind of things happened to them after having the COVID vaccine might not get at the truth about the potential side effects of the vaccine. They don’t capture the causal relationship between getting the vaccine and experiencing side effects. When we attend to a story, we tend to be drawn to its aesthetic features, we are moved by how it makes us feel, and are motivated to think and act in ways that are consistent with the morale of the story. Often, stories are edited so that they fulfil these purposes, being moving, engaging, and inspiring. This means that they may omit details that would be important to assessing the relevant causal relationships, or include details that would not. 

On digital media especially, stories have the power to reach a very large audience very quickly. Stories shared online can be co-constructed, in that multiple-storytellers engage with the story via liking, commenting, and sharing (Page et al. 2013). This means that people who are geographically and culturally separated can come together and contribute to stories which embody and reflect shared identities. In a way, stories can be very valuable ‘windows into other worlds’. By accessing stories, we learn about other people's first-person experiences and perspectives. For instance, members of disabled and marginalised groups sharing their experiences has been particularly valuable for raising awareness about problems of discrimination and stigma, and starting to tackle them. 





However, there may also be concerns about the reliability of stories. All of us have imperfect memories and tend to ‘fill in gaps’ in ways which support our conceptions of ourselves. Often, we confabulate. This happens when we offer an explanation for why we made a certain choice that doesn’t capture all the relevant causal factors and also misrepresents the circumstances of our choice. So, the explanation isn’t well supported by evidence. We don’t mean to lie or deceive when we do this, but we are motivated to give an answer to a question about why we chose as we did that allows us to share information that matters to us. As has been noticed in the literature, this enables us to interact with others (Stammers 2020) and signal to them that we are rational decision-makers (Ganapini 2020).

Here is an example. Some students start a protest against having to wear masks on campus. They are asked by the local press: “Why are you protesting? Why don’t you want to wear a mask?”. Students respond by saying: “They are our faces, we decide what to do with them”, “We’re fighting for freedom”, “We do not belong to the government or to the college”. They tell a story where the refusal to wear a mask is a point of principle, namely a defence of their individual freedom. They have seen these themes emerging in the speeches of political leaders in the previous weeks and upholding freedom sounds like a good, even noble reason to resist a mandate. However, the factors leading to their behaviour may be broader, and include also considerations about convenience, a desire for non-conformity, or a denial of COVID being a serious health threat, just to mention a few.

So, does the widespread phenomenon of confabulation mean that stories can never be used as evidence? We argue that what is required is a closer examination of what exactly stories can be evidence of. There is no doubt that presenting messages in the form of stories is very powerful; a teenager who got vaccinated against his mother’s wishes described the anti-vax movement as interacting with parents mainly “on an anecdotal level, sharing stories and experiences. That speaks volumes to people because it reaffirms, especially for my mom, that her position is correct” (Helmore 2019). At the same time, this attention-grabbing and persuasive nature of stories can be used to educate the public effectively about the science of vaccinations and provide solutions to issue of disengagement and misinformation (Rogers 2021). 

In considering which stories can be taken as evidence for a particular claim, we need to know what stories give us information about. We suggest that although stories might not tell us about the causal relationships between events, they tell us about how people want to be seen by others, what people value, and how people interpret their experiences. The students on campus wanted to be seen as defenders of freedom, a value which they have come to hold for themselves after consuming messages on social media which provide these compelling narratives for rejecting masks and failing to comply to other health and safety recommendations. These narratives are compelling because they give people a sense of agency over their choices, a sense that they can control what happens to them. 

Stories can be informative whether or not they involve confabulation, as learning about what people value and care about can inform future communication strategies. But, stories are not always by themselves sufficient evidence for the viewpoints they are used to support. Stories as evidence for general claims still need to be critically assessed, especially when they are shared online and can have significant influence on public opinion. This might enable us to enhance the quality of debates among citizens, whilst still valuing what is attractive and valuable about the stories people share.

To learn more, you can also watch a video where we introduce the paper in less than 4 minutes!

Stories as Evidence - an MMM introduction from Lisa Bortolotti and Kathleen Murphy Hollies from CUP Academic on Vimeo.