Science behind the human urge to tell stories

Whenever I speak with a psychiatrist or psychologist who is trying to rearrange my brain until I’m sane, they all say the same thing: stop with the stories and get to the point.

They think I’m using stories as a distraction tactic, whereas I’m using stories to enhance the meaning of what is or isn’t going on upstairs.

If you’ve seen the film, Lincoln, you may know what I’m storying about.

And the eggheads don’t get it.

Leo Robson of New Statesman America writes that although it has been more than 60 years since Ernst Gombrich delivered his Mellon lectures on art and illusion – the title of his subsequent bestselling book – the application of empirical thinking to works of culture or creativity is still considered a minority interest, even a kind of novelty. There are academic courses in critical approaches such as “evolutionary literary theory” and “cognitive poetics”, but they are taught by academics with devoted professorships in other fields of study.

With notable exceptions, most of the movement has been from the humanities towards the sciences, as was the case with Gombrich, who used cognitive psychology to illuminate the processes of visual representation; with the film scholar David Bordwell, who has cited Gombrich’s example; and with the Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd, who in his book On the Origin of Stories (2010) mentioned the “revelatory” experience of discovering Bordwell’s work. Now Will Storr, a journalist and writing teacher, has written an account of our story-telling instincts that doubles as a guide to telling better stories.

It would be hard to imagine a case of more wholehearted advocacy. The book is heavy with categories, dichotomies and tags (“identity claims”, “feeling regulators”). Storr begins with the idea that stories emerged to address the fact that life is “meaningless”. This does not explain why a child oblivious to the planet’s looming “heat death”, the “infinite, dead, freezing void”, may still enjoy an episode of Paw Patrol, but it’s true that a desire for order has always prevailed among human beings. Or, in Storr’s rather Tarzan-ish phrasing, “Story is what brain does.” He goes further, arguing with clarity and conviction that it is due to our brains’ desire for control that we are excited by stories of change. Boy meets girl. Stranger dismounts from horse. Complacent youth is humbled. Ancient order shows signs of frailty.

Storr succeeds in bridging evolutionary psychology and narrative theory, or making one the basis for the other. But unlike Gombrich or Bordwell, his aim isn’t to answer a critical question better. He’s probing his own craft in order to teach it to others. So it’s odd that he approaches the subject mainly as a researcher. He doesn’t bring to bear his experience of working on his novel, The Hunger and the Howling of Killian Lone; or of turning research into books, such as The Heretics; or, in his work as a ghostwriter, shaping reams of interview transcripts into a pleasing or plausible account of a life. It would be rather as if David Hockney had neglected to mention his life as “an artist, a mark-maker”, in Secret Knowledge, his remarkable study of optical devices.

Instead, Storr turns to novels and films for examples of storytelling that appeal to our neural processes, but they do little to help his case. He tells us that Raymond Chandler packs “a tonne of meaning” into the image “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts”; and that the lines “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” and “These go to 11” are “so dense with narrative information it’s as if the entire story is packed into just a few words”. His most frequently cited case studies are Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day and Citizen Kane, though neither is very representative, being less stories than meta-stories, respectively a faux-memoir of an unusually ruminative sort and the portrait of a journalist assigned to uncover what made a man tick.

It’s in the writing manual section that the book is at its strongest. In one terrific passage, Storr explains that an audience’s curiosity – resembling the shape of the lower-case “n” – peaks when we know something and fades away when we know everything. Then, in an appendix, Storr elaborates his theory that “more traditional” – ie non-science-based – “attempts at decoding story”, such as Joseph Campbell’s monomyth” or idea of the “hero’s journey”, have emphasised ideas of plot and structure at the expense of what he calls “character work”. Storr’s concept of the “sacred flaw” – an over-compressed phrase referring to the faulty concept that a character holds sacred – is lucid, original, plausibly grounded in the science and proves once again just how much goodwill can be derived from a satisfying ending, even when it depends on a deus ex machina (I don’t speak foreign languages).

Selling food safety within A&P

"Understanding that front line food handlers are oral communication learners and perceive their job as low-risk helps to develop programs to change this perception into positive attitudes."

So says Pat Brown, director of food safety for The Great A&P Tea Company, in Food Safety Tech.

Brown writes that food companies need a multi-tiered approach of selling food safety to ensure that every level from upper management to front-line food handlers are informed, involved, and rewarded for positive outcomes.

How best to do that?

Brown cites studies from FDA’s Oral Communication Project conducted by Clayton, et al., in 2002, which revealed that food handlers are primarily oral communication learners and obtain their knowledge about food safety by observing their supervisors and peers. Importantly, they view their job as very low risk.

It’s something me and Chapman figured out 10 years ago by looking at the learning literature from 50 years ago, and is the basis for our on-going food safety infosheets.

Brown writes, "In 2003, Green and Selman noted in their study of oral communication learners that there is a discrepancy between knowledge and behavior. Even when food handlers possess knowledge of safe food handling practices, they don’t always handle food safely. The food service and retail food industry have an extremely high turnover rate. For example, in my company the turnover rates run as high as 54 percent in deli, 52 percent in produce, 49 percent in seafood, 42 percent in meat and 41 percent in bakery. This aspect makes any realistic formalized training of part time associates difficult and ineffective.

"A study in 2004 by Dr. Donna Beegle noted methods that work and don’t work with oral communication workers. She observed that information presented in books or articles was less effective than providing workers with real time vivid examples that they can relate to with empathy. For example, a manager talking to a fruit salad preparer about the importance of scrubbing melons before cutting them and maintaining the cold chain could use current events as an effective learning tool. The manager could discuss the Listeria outbreak with cantaloupes and how many people have become ill or died. That same manager may use basic language and avoid using big words like Listeria and rather describe the importance of removing the mud from the rind to eliminate any “germs” that may contact the interior fruit.

"Dr. Beegle noted that sometimes oral communication learners are intimidated by management and may listen more to their peers. Therefore, assigning more experienced food handlers to mentor new hires is also an effective tool.

"Information presented, but not practiced, sends negative messages to the oral communication learner. Therefore it’s essential that active managerial controls include “walking the walk” by having managers carry thermometers to take temperatures, wash their hands as soon as they enters prep rooms and wear hair restraints and appropriate garments when inside prep areas."

Brown lists three examples used at A&P, but no stories, which seems sorta weird after citing the oral communication folks.

Formal training of all upper management operational teams to become food safety professionals through one of the CFP ANSI certification programs is essential to obtain the support required to sustain a culture of food safety.

But more training doesn’t correlate with improved food safety; it’s hit and miss, and other factors are involved. Even the experts learn from stories.

Developing metrics to quantify the success of internal food safety programs and reporting them to upper management are also key factors in maintaining the food safety momentum. The use of internal auditors, rather than third party audit companies, provides a more accurate evaluation of an operation due to a vested ownership since the inspector’s perspective is that of a customer first, then a regulator and finally an internal auditor. These metrics are shared with all of the operations and merchandising teams in order for them to understand any opportunities and develop ways to improve compliance.

Measuring food safety culture within an organization is a developing concept. The UK Food Standards Agency is apparently working on comprehensive metrics for food safety culture; hopefully it’s better than “cook food until it’s piping hot.”

Food safety stories can improve safety of restaurant meals

Contact: Dr. Doug Powell,

Posting graphical, concise food safety stories in the back kitchens of restaurants can help reduce dangerous food safety practices and create a workplace culture that values safe food.

It’s the first time that a communication intervention such as food safety information sheets have been validated to work using direct video observation in eight commercial restaurant kitchens.

“The food safety messages we’ve looked at are as effective as those ‘Employees must wash hands’ signs in bathrooms.,” said Dr. Douglas Powell, an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University and one of the co-authors on a new paper in the Journal of Food Protection. “They just don’t work.”

Powell and then graduate student, Ben Chapman, now an assistant professor of food safety at North Carolina State University, came up with the idea for food safety infosheets to promote discussion and improve food safety behaviors while playing hockey at the University of Guelph in 2003.

“Chapman and I were playing hockey a lot,” says Powell, “and there was a bar and restaurant that overlooked the one ice surface where we often engaged in after-hockey food safety meetings with our industry, provincial and federal government colleagues. We had all this food safety information, and the manager of the bar around 2003 was into food safety, so we thought, if daily sports pages are posted above urinals and on the doors of washroom stalls, why not engaging food safety information?”

As part of his PhD research, Chapman partnered with a food service company in Canada and placed small video cameras in unobtrusive spots around eight food-service kitchens that volunteered to participate in the study. There were as many as eight cameras in each kitchen, which recorded directly to computer files and later reviewed by Chapman and others.

The work built on other direct food safety observational studies conducted at Kansas State University and published in the British Food Journal in 2009.

Food safety inforsheets, highlighting the importance of handwashing or preventing cross-contamination, for example, were then introduced into the kitchens, and video was again collected. The researchers found that cross-contamination events decreased by 20 per cent, and handwashing attempts increased by 7 per cent.

Since September 2006 over 150 food safety infosheets have been produced and are available to anyone at The website has had a recent redesign, adding a search function, automatic email alerts and RSS feeds.

Katie Filion, who coded much of the video as an undergraduate student researcher, has moved from Canada and is now completing a Master’s degree with Powell at Kansas State University. She has just returned from a year of research with the New Zealand Food Safety Authority helping to design a national restaurant inspection disclosure system.

Dr. Tanya MacLurin, who collaborated on the research, was born on a farm/ranch in Kansas and received all her degrees from Kansas State University before joining the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the University of Guelph in 1991, where she subsequently collaborated with Powell.

The study, “Assessment of food safety practices of food service food handlers : testing a communication intervention” was authored by Dr. Ben Chapman of North Carolina State University, Dr. Douglas Powell and Katie Filion of Kansas State University, and Tiffany Eversley and Tanya MacLaurin of the University of Guelph in Canada. The study is published in the June issue of the Journal of Food Protection.

“Assessment of Food Safety Practices of Food Service Food Handlers: Testing a Communication Intervention”
Authors: Benjamin J. Chapman, North Carolina State University; Douglas A. Powell, Katie Fillion, Kansas State University; Tiffany Eversley, Tanya MacLaurin, University of Guelph
Published: June 2010, Journal of Food Protection

Abstract: Globally, foodborne illness affects an estimated 30% of individuals annually. Meals prepared outside of the home are a risk factor for acquiring foodborne illness and have been implicated in up to 70% of traced outbreaks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called on food safety communicators to design new methods and messages aimed at increasing food safety risk-reduction practices from farm to fork. Food safety infosheets, a novel communication tool designed to appeal to food handlers and compel behavior change, were evaluated. Food safety infosheets were provided weekly to food handlers in working foodservice operations for 7 weeks. It was hypothesized that through the posting of food safety infosheets in highly visible locations, such as kitchen work areas and hand washing stations, that safe food handling behaviors of foodservice staff could be positively influenced. Using video observation, food handlers (n ~ 47) in eight foodservice operations were observed for a total of 348 h (pre- and postintervention combined). After the food safety infosheets were introduced, food handlers demonstrated a significant increase (6.7%, P , 0.05, 95% confidence interval) in mean hand washing attempts, and a significant reduction in indirect cross-contamination events (19.6%, P , 0.05, 95% confidence interval). Results of the research demonstrate that posting food safety infosheets is an effective intervention tool that positively influences the food safety behaviors of food handlers.

Are web searches indicators of disease outbreaks? Is Twitter useful?

I’ve tried playing on Twitter, the social networking tool that keeps things self-obsessed and brief, and now that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have weighed in and told me what to think, I agree:

Twitter sucks.

In a related item, researchers from Ottawa and Harvard reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal today that search engine queries of the term "listeriosis" demonstrated a possible signal of the deadly outbreak that killed 20 Canadians a month before the official announcement was made.

Or not.

One of the researchers, John Brownstein of Children’s Hospital Boston, said,

"In the case of listeriosis, as soon as the outbreak was announced we saw people in Canada searching for the word "listeria.’ That’s not surprising. The media drives a lot of people’s search habits on the web."

But searching for the more technical term "listeriosis" began about a month before the public announcement, "and peaked a couple of weeks before."

The researchers don’t know who was doing the early searchers. It could have been food inspection or industry officials investigating the possibility of the outbreak, they say, or queries by family and friends of people diagnosed early.

People were not diagnosed that early, except a couple. Much of the diagnoses came after initial media coverage.

And in another related item, newspapers are dying. But more targeted forms of information are doing okay. People, individuals, are still required to investigate, to probe and to weave disparate data into compelling stories, whether it’s  journalism, public health or science.

People writing on Twitter, “I farted,” does not mean there is an increase in gastrointestinal upsets. People searching the Internet for listeriosis would not have prevented listeria bacteria from accumulating in Maple Leaf slicers and killing people.

Want effective food safety communication? Put a name and a face on victims

Acording to the Western Mail, in a speech tomorrow, Professor Hugh Pennington will tell world food safety experts at FoodMicro in Aberdeen that “we owe it to people like Mason Jones” to ensure “top-rate” safety systems are put in place. Mason Jones was a five-year-old boy who died after eating a school lunch in October 2005. Some 150 schoolchildren were sickened in the outbreak traced to the John Tudor & Son meat plant in Bridgend, which supplied hundreds of schools in the Valleys with cooked meats. Owner William Tudor was sentenced to 12 months in jail in 2007 after admitting breaching food hygiene rules and supplying contaminated meats to schools. A public inquiry into the outbreak, which Pennington led, was chronicled on barfblog.

What struck me about Pennington’s comments was how he, like Doug and I have been doing through barfblog and food safety infosheets, was putting names and faces on the victims. Pennington is calling out the food safety professionals to make food safety personal.  Food safety communication isn’t just about the statistics, it’s about the stories.

We’re not just making this stuff up.

Morgan and colleagues (2002) evaluated various safety messages targeted at farmers regarding the use of personal protective structures for vehicles, by presenting message combinations and surveying 433 members of the target audience. Although the researchers did not look at practices (self-reported or otherwise) of the target audience, and only measured what the respondents felt would have the highest impact with them, they found, that messages based on stories, and those that were meant to elicit fear about individual practices had more impact with than presenting consequence-based statistics alone.  Slater and Rouner (1996) investigated the effectiveness of a variety of messages containing a combination of narratives and statistics around the safety of alcohol consumption with a convenience sample of 218 undergraduate students. Slater and Rouner (1996) found that survey respondents who were non-believers prior to the presented information, rated messages with narratives as higher quality and perceived them as more effective.  Slater and Rouner (1996) also found that statistics alone only reinforced respondents who identified themselves as already believing in the messages. Psychologist Howard (1991) argues that narratives and storytelling are effective methods in conveying information and suggests that there is a better understanding of one’s place in a system when individual sees himself or herself as an actor within the context of a story.

Our research supports this concept of storytelling: the most impactful infosheets (from a food handlers’ point of view) are the ones which put a name and a face on victims, the food safety offenders and their establishments.  Food safety communications is about storytelling, and personalizing the outcomes for the front-line staff who are in control.

Howard, G. S. 1991. Culture tales: A narrative approach to thinking, cross-cultural psychology, and psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 46: 187-197.

Morgan S.E., Cole H.P., Struttmann T. and Piercy L. 2002. Stories or statistics? Farmers’ attitudes toward messages in an agricultural safety campaign. Journal of Agricultural Safety and Health. 8:225-39.

Slater, M. D., & Rouner, D. 1996. Value-affirmative and value-protective processing of alcohol education messages that include statistical evidence or anecdotes. Communication Research. 23: 210-235.