A prominent literary scholar argues that storytelling, a tradition that built human civilization, may soon destroy it.
In 2012, Jonathan Gottschall received a strange letter from DARPA, the research and development arm of the United States Department of Defense. What could a military research program possibly want with a literary critic? The letter was an invitation to a conference for a new program called STORYNET, a plan to map how stories affect our brains and use that knowledge to craft narratives that could more effectively drive compliance with military initiatives. DARPA was trying to turn stories into weapons.
Stories are fundamental to how we think, and how we change our minds. Our brains value them so highly that we often seem them even when they aren’t there: when scientists showed subjects a video of simple shapes moving randomly around a screen, they interpreted the scene as a love story between two triangles. Countless books celebrate the ability of storytelling to help us think and communicate more effectively, including Gottschall’s own bestselling The Storytelling Animal. But in The Story Paradox, he argues that there is a dark side to storytelling, and we ignore it at our peril.
At base, stories are tools. They help us create a shared reality. But stories are also inherently manipulative and divisive: they split the world into heroes who represent something good, and villains who do not. For most of human history, this was a manageable problem. But we now find ourselves in what Gottschall calls a “story explosion,” an era in which new storytelling technologies allow people to tell stories of unprecedented scale and sophistication. Virtual reality, personalized newsfeeds, stories that viewers can tailor in real time, deepfakes: these make it harder for us to deal with the ways that stories can confuse and divide us. If we’re not careful, they could cause the shared reality we all depend on to collapse.
The Story Paradox reckons with the ways that storytelling lies at the heart of some of humanity’s greatest threats. Gottschall explains why authoritarians like Trump rise and fall and how the media helps them, why radical ideologies are so effective at stamping out other belief systems, and how good stories compel us to accept conspiracy theories about which we should know better.
Plato argued that a perfect state was on in which storytellers were banned. They were simply too dangerous. The Story Paradox is a crucial counterpoint to books like Made to Stick or The Story Factor, arguing that the most urgent question we can ask ourselves now, is not: “how we can change the world through stories?” Rather, it’s “how can we save the world from stories?”
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