Behavioural science Trends


We ran a small quantitative survey recently which found that 100 percent of large forest creatures leave their breakfast to cool and take a walk. However on their return, 66 percent of our ursine panel were satisfied with their breakfast but a third found that their breakfast was 97 percent smaller than it had been prior to their perambulation.

Obviously, the research proved that something had taken place – but it only gave a skeleton and as a result, we lost some of the audience at our presentation, who preferred to hear a different version of this story, featuring a character called “Goldilocks”.

What this overly simplistic example attempts to demonstrate is the importance of stories to human beings. Our brains love patterns, visually, it’s why we find snowflakes, faces and flowers beautiful, sonically, the patterns of melodies attract our ears. And it’s the same for information, we seek out patterns.

Way back in 1944, in a study at Smith College, Massachusetts, psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel showed a film to 34 subjects featuring two triangles and a circle moving around next to a stationary rectangle.

Only one of the 34 people who watched it saw it for what it was – some geometrical shapes moving at random. All the rest ascribed characters to the triangles – for example the big one was a “bully” and the small one the “hero” and claimed there was a romance or a fight happening. The study has been replicated with larger audiences – and the same thing has always happened. We are genetically predisposed to create stories.

What does this mean for research? It means that we must always remain aware of narratives. Consistently aware of them – at the start of a project, we must understand what story the client wants to tell even if it’s not possible.

When we’re collecting data, we have to be able to step back and look at the wide picture. Spot the overall narrative of any questions, check for counter-intuitive thrusts and see if there are small B-plots among the breakdowns.

And so, to return to our initial survey, our stats about the temperature of porridge, amount left in bowls and beds slept in start to transform into a more coherent pattern for the reader to take on.

Qualitative interviews are each individual tales, which give depth to the narrative bones from our qualitative structure. If the interviews are carried out well, each conversation forms a complete story. The accounts add depth and information, certainly but they also add character and an arc. It allows us to hear that Baby Bear is upset about her lack of porridge.

And when the research is done, of course there’s the telling of the story, which could be the most vital element of the process. Entrusted with all that information, it’s our job to make it accessible, interesting and relatable.

Anthropologists believe that storytelling evolved because villages with good story cultures communicated better, were closer knit and worked better as a unit. Storytellers were valued and likely to find partners. And we believe, similarly, the research agency which delivers the best-presented data will also perform better.

Get it right, and you have added value far beyond delivering dry statistics, agencies can help all clients government, third-sector, SME or FTSE100 connect to the wider public. And that is no fairy tale.

Perspectus Global – a division of GingerComms, a news generation consultancy run by ex news editors and journalists – puts storytelling at the heart of our research projects.

By Harriet Scott, founder and MD of Perspectus Global