You’re alone in your car, driving along a major US artery through a scarcely populated state. You’ve been on the road for hours, and it’ll be several more before you reach your destination. It’s late. You’re tired and hungry, but you see nowhere to stop.

 Suddenly, you spot the motel sign displayed below. Quick, what’s your gut reaction? Do you pull off the highway for a look-see? Or do you keep driving?

I bet dollars to doughnuts there’s a story behind whatever decision you just made.

Maybe the sign conjures iconic images of Route 66, the Beat Generation, and the romance of the American road. Or maybe it invokes the world of Breaking Bad, flea-ridden flophouses, and rates by the hour. Or perhaps you came up with a narrative that’s more personal to you. The point is, the sign triggers some sort of story. And when that story meets your inner sense of fatigue, hunger, adventure, and risk-taking, your decision is made.

Let’s say the sign reminds you of the infamous Bates Motel. If you’re a Hitchcock fan or an adventurer, you could be enticed to go check it out. But if you hate scary movies or are nervous about traveling alone, you might keep driving.

Whether you stop at the motel or drive on, this little exercise proves that your story reflex is alive and responsive.

Here’s another illustration. In a 1940s study, psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel created a simple animated film using nothing but abstract shapes and asked test subjects to describe what they saw. Give it a watch and jot down what you see before you read any further:

 

An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel The American Journal of Psychology Vol. 57, No. 2 (Apr., 1944), pp. 243-259

Love triangles, family conflicts, violent crimes: like you, viewers told inventive stories to explain what they were witnessing. In each of these stories, the abstract shapes morphed into heroes, villains, and other characters who displayed emotion and acted with purpose. 

We human beings are natural storytellers. In fact, our reflex for story runs so deep and is so constant that we’re mostly not even aware of it. We swim in story like fish swim in water, leaving our conscious minds free to engage with other things. When it comes to decision-making, however, the unconscious stories we generate hold more sway over us than we realize. A story lies behind every snap judgment we make, every motivation we attribute to behavior, and every gamble we take. Keep this in mind the next time you’re agonizing over a decision. Take a moment to identify and understand the stories you’re telling around it. The insights you gain from a greater awareness of the innate human reflex for story will not only help your decision-making, it will make you a better storyteller. 

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