Can Stories Make Us Better?

In writing this column, I often put ideas on the shelf for a while. Sometimes, world events conspire to make one of these shelved ideas suddenly relevant. This happened this past weekend.

The idea that caught my eye some months ago was an article that explored whether robots could learn morality by reading stories. On the face of it, it was mildly intriguing. But early Sunday morning as the heartbreaking news filtered to me from Orlando, a deeper connection emerged.

When we speak of unintended consequence, which we have before, the media amplification of acts of terror are one of them. The staggeringly sad fact is that shocking casualty numbers have their own media value. And that, said one analyst who was commenting on ways to deal with terrorism, is a new reality we have to come to terms with. When we in the media business make stories news worthy we assign worth not just for news consumers but also to newsmakers – those troubled individuals who have the motivation and the means to blow apart the daily news cycle.

This same analyst, when asked how we deal with terrorism, made the point you can’t prevent lone acts of terrorism. The only answer is to use that same network of cultural connections we use to amplify catastrophic events to create an environment that dampens rather than intensifies violent impulse. We in the media and advertising industries have to use our considerable skills in setting cultural contexts to create an environment that reduces the odds of a violent outcome. And sadly, this is a game of odds. There are no absolute answers here – there is just a statistical lowering of the curve. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, the unimaginable still happens.

But how do you use the tools at our disposal to amplify morality? Here, perhaps the story I shelved some months ago can provide some clues.

In the study from Georgia Tech, Mark Riedl and Brent Harrison used stories as models of acceptable morality. For most of human history, popular culture included at least an element of moral code. We encoded the values we held most dear into our stories. It provided a base for acceptable behavior, either through positive reinforcement of commonly understood virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope and charity) or warnings about universal vices (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride). Sometimes these stories had religious foundations, sometimes they were secular morality fables but they all served the same purpose. They taught us what was acceptable behavior.

Stories were never originally intended to entertain. They were created to pass along knowledge and cultural wisdom. Entertainment came after when we discovered the more entertaining the story, the more effective it was at its primary purpose: education. And this is how the researchers used stories. Robots can’t be entertained, but they can be educated.

At some point in the last century, we focused on the entertainment value of stories over education and, in doing so, rotated our moral compass 180 degrees. If you look at what is most likely to titillate, sin almost always trumps sainthood. Review that list of virtues and vices and you’ll see that the stories of our current popular culture focus on vice – that list could be the programming handbook for any Hollywood producer. I don’t intend this a sermon – I enjoy Game of Thrones as much as the next person. I simply state it as a fact. Our popular culture – and the amplification that comes from it – is focused almost exclusively on the worst aspects of human nature. If robots were receiving their behavioral instruction through these stories, they would be programmed to be psychopathic moral degenerates.

For most of us, we can absorb this continual stream of anti-social programming and not be affected by it. We still know what is right and what is wrong. But in a world where it’s the “black swan” outliers that grab the news headlines, we have to think about the consequences that reach beyond the mainstream. When we abandon the moral purpose of stories and focus on their entertainment aspect, are we also abandoning a commonly understood value landscape?

If you’re looking for absolute answers here, you won’t find them. That’s just not the world we live in. And am I naïve when I say the stories we chose to tell may have an influence on isolated violent events such as happened in Orlando? Perhaps. Despite all our best intentions, Omar Mateen might still have gone horribly offside.

But all things and all people are, to some extent, products of their environment. And because we in media and advertising are storytellers, we set that cultural environment. That’s our job. Because of this, I belief we have a moral obligation. We have to start paying more attention to the stories we tell.





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