Can storytelling influence values?

We know that stories can promote any values: war or peace; the vilification of the “other” or the dignity of all.

But does storytelling—the process, apart from particular stories—have an underlying tendency to promote some values over others?

To understand this, let’s look at an unlikely event: rubber duck races.

The Rubber Duck Derby

My former town, Marshfield, Massachusetts, had an annual “Rubber Duck Derby” to raise money for local charities. Each contestant paid to sponsor a numbered, floating rubber duck. The race happened on a local body of flowing water; the top three winners got cash prizes.

What captured my attention, besides the sense of good-natured playfulness, are the rules:

Rubber Duck Rule 1: You can’t pick up or even touch a duck;
Rubber Duck Rule 2:  You can make waves in the water to help your duck.
Rubber Duck Rule 3: You can even blow on your duck, in the hope of changing its speed or direction.

Influencing Values Through Storytelling

As it happens, the “rules” of influencing people’s values through storytelling are similar to those of the Duck Derby.

Values Rule 1: It’s impossible to externally redirect someone’s values.

You can influence someone else’s values, but nothing you do can force someone’s values to change. In other words, you can never just “pick up someone’s values” and move them from one place to another.

Values Rule 2: You can create a “wave” that may powerfully influence someone’s values.

Our values can be influenced by our experiences. And stories can convey “virtual experiences” that affect values in much the same way that actual experiences do.

Some years ago, for example, I had the honor of coaching a dozen or more death row exonerees: people who were unjustly convicted of a capital crime, served time on death row, and were then found innocent and released.

These people, organized into a speaker’s bureau by a group called Witness to Innocence, tell their trial and incarceration stories as part of an attempt to abolish the death penalty in the United States.

How can their stories influence those who firmly support the death penalty? 

As it happens, most people who support the death penalty see it as fair: you take a life, you should give your life in return. But hearing, face to face, the story of someone who was nearly killed unjustly, can cause people to doubt the justice of our death penalty laws. 

This causes them to experience a conflict between their value of fairness, on the one hand, and their value of "an eye for an eye," on the other. Many of them adjust their weighting of "an eye for an eye," in response. As a result, they modify or even abandon their support of the death penalty.

So stories about a value, although they can never force anyone to change a value, can sometimes nudge listeners' values—in the same way a wave can alter the course of a rubber duck.

Value Rule 3: You can “blow on” people’s values

Still less directly, the acts of listening to, learning and telling stories can subtly reinforce certain values—and increase the likelihood that your listener’s and storytelling-student's values will move in a particular direction.

In other words, some of the very processes of storytelling—such as imagining and listening, among several others—can exert a very gentle, yet steady, force on the values of those who tell or listen to stories.

Further, these processes can be presented in ways that increase these effects. For example, by helping people explicitly notice the importance of the listener in a storytelling event, you not only give people an experience of the power of listening, you also raise their awareness of that power.

The “Blow On the Duck” Values

Interestingly, the values supported by the actual processes of storytelling—values like compassion, the importance of relationships, and belief in the innate intelligence and creativity of humans, are some of the very values that many of us believe are most needed to make a brighter future.

These “process values” blow in predictable directions, which are determined less by the storyteller or story-teacher, and more by the nature of storytelling itself. The effects may be barely perceptible at any one moment, but over time they can change the course of a whole fleet of ducks.

Stories can support any values, but storytelling cannot!

In terms of stories, then, storytelling is value-neutral. But storytelling itself subtly promotes at least eight specific values—all of which move us in the direction, I believe, of interactions based on empathy, respect, and tapping into the wisdom available only in sufficiently diverse groups.

We have more choices than we thought, for using storytelling to influence the values—and therefore the behavior—of our listeners and students!