Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Psychology of Story

As a bit of a ruminator, I can chew on ideas for a long time, a useful attribute for a blogger. Eventually I find myself in need of new inputs which often come from books and lectures.  The University of Minnesota does a day-long gathering where professors talk on a variety of topics and my interest was piqued by one entitled The Cultural Psychology of Storytelling led by Moin Syed. As story is central to what I do, I was hopeful I might gain some new insights and was not disappointed. Syed is a developmental psychologist which is a branch of psychology that focuses on how people change over time. While many think of this area as focused on children, it is actually much broader. He noted that for a long time many people did not think much happened later in life in terms of development. I beg to differ, I thought. As one in that later stage I am often surprised at how much one can develop and grow in this very fertile period.

Syed began with a brief review of Erik Erikson's lifespan theory which posits a theory of development that contains eight tensions. It begins with trust and mistrust as infants learning to deal with the world. By adolescence we are struggling with identity or confusion and by my stage in late adulthood one is confronting generativity (legacy) or stagnation. These stages are not really linear, but at different stages in our life specific stages are more the focus of our energies. Erickson's focus was on identity and in fact he coined the phrase "identity crisis".

So the focus of developmental psychology is on who we are, what we are about and how we make sense of our past. So how does this relate to storytelling? We create story to make sense of something that is ambiguous. Storytelling is an innate practice. Syed shared a film of two triangles, one slightly larger, and a circle, moving within and outside of a house like structure. Take a minute to watch it and think about what you see. This was created by Fritz Heider in the 1940s, before you could so easily call it up on YouTube.

He asked us what we saw in this and the answers all related to relationships in one form or another. People often see bullying, domestic violence or custody battles. The finding of the study was that people project people, they anthropomorphize as their effort to make sense of the ambiguous.

I thought of the relationship of this to artwork. It is especially appropriate to the way my husband Martin Arend works as he begins his paintings with an abstract from which he identifies figurative imagery and develops it. What he sees is a reflection of his own life experience. Often others construct other stories about his imagery and his artwork may speak to a viewer in an entirely different way than he intended. Much of our response to figurative artwork is because it relates to a story that is meaningful to the viewer and the more ambiguous the imagery, the easier it is for them to project into it.

There is very little research on story, but tools that present ambiguity are often used to elicit story and hence the perceptions and experience of people. The Thematic Apperception Test picked up on my reflections on artwork as it uses visual imagery such as drawings that focus on themes of power and relationship. The viewer is asked what they see. The Rorschach blot presents an even more visually ambiguous abstract image.

Syed turned his attention to the Labovian Diamond which looks at what attributes make a good story. Created by Labov and Waletzky in 1967, he noted wryly that you don't want to be the second name as you tend to get overlooked. I can relate, I thought, often bristling at the perceived neutrality of alphabetical order. The Labovian diamond starts with "orientation" along one side. To be a good storyteller you need to create some background and orient the listener. Then you move into a "complication". This is the heart of the story, something has to happen. At the point of the diamond you "evaluate" the circumstances, before moving into "resolution", concluding with a "coda", a summary that brings it back to the orientation.

I found myself thinking of my interviewees who spurred my recent body of artwork on Identity and Legacy. Earlier this week I went to yet another funeral, an occupational hazard when you interview people in their 90s. Fannie Schanfield was one of my best storytellers and lived an amazingly full life until age 97. I thought of her stories behind my paintings and began to lay them out along the diamond. Fannie had told me about how as a child her mother designated her to preserve her stories. She would pull her in from play and tell her stories, then advise her to write it down. Ok, that's orientation. She didn't write them down and one day as an adult she came home to her mother burning papers on her history. Hmm, complication! When Fannie asked what she was doing, she retorted, "Did you write it down?", expressing concern that no one cared to retain her history. Fannie evaluated this, got her to stop and when Fannie was in her seventies she began to record her mother's stories. Aha, resolution. She ended her story with the coda, "Ma, I wrote it down". Write down your legacy lest it be forgotten. A perfect fit. (Listen to Fannie tell her story).

Ok, let's try another. Fannie told me a story about her father that the rabbi retold at her funeral. The background was that in 1926 there had been a fire in the building next to the synagogue. Her father was disturbed by this because he thought that they needed to use electric lights instead of candles, a clear complication. He considered what could be done and brought his neighbor, a tin smith in on this. The tin smith gathered spare metal from work and Fannie's father drew a template. Together they found resolution by constructing two electric candelabras that stood at the synagogue for many years. And now the coda...About fifty years later the candelabras were in poor shape and moved to a back room. Fannie paid to refurbish them so they could be at her daughter's wedding, silent sentinels who embedded the legacy of her father, shining light on yet a later generation.

Interestingly this framework for story can vary culturally. Syed related a study of children and story based in both Chicago and Taiwan and how the coda can differ. In America we tell transgression stories with humor, at least sufficiently after the fact. The classic one in my family is of me as a toddler forced to sit on my booster seat until I ate my peas which I despised. My resourceful early self announced I was done and left the table, only to have my mother lift the booster seat to a layer of smashed peas. In my family the coda is bemusement at this resourceful child with a mind of her own (but obviously not the foresight to realize how quickly her subterfuge would be discovered). That is typical of the American orientation. In Taiwan that story would likely be told with the coda a lesson on how not to behave. Don't be a bad girl and smash your peas.

Some cultures may drop the coda entirely. Japanese storytelling is more open-ended and lets people draw their own conclusions. There is actually a Rashomon effect named after a Japanese film which shows multiple perspectives.

We reinterpret our own past constantly. Syed talked of a longitudinal study which interviewed a woman at 8-10 year intervals and asked her to reflect on the same relationship. They found that she kept reinterpreting the relationship based on her developing life experience. Interestingly we change our memories, but don't remember we changed them as we lose the ability to access our prior conceptions. I mulled over some tumultuous relationships in my mind and felt that I could recall my evolving perspective, but realized the difficulty in challenging this finding without video proof. How do I know what I forgot?

Syed closed his talk by introducing the concept of Master Narratives. A Master Narrative reflects our expectation of how things work. A Coming of Age story is a master narrative. Another common narrative is the Redemptive Narrative. Here Syed presented a curve that started high, dipped down into a trough and then rose upward above our starting point. We start with a good person who falls, but ultimately turns this negativity into something positive, a typical Hollywood rehab story. The contrast to this is the Contaminated Narrative where things go from bad to worse. Clearly the division between those who perceive a glass as half empty or half full.

These narratives vary culturally although there is not much research to date. Syed related that in working with Swedes the Redemptive Narrative didn't resonate. Instead they have an Unsung Hero Narrative.

Interestingly a study of Israeli and Palestinian youth found that Israeli youth had a redemptive narrative while Palestinian youth had a contaminated narrative.

After 9/11 our master narrative was a redemptive one codified by "united we stand". We began with innocence, it was damaged by 9/11, but it brought us together. There is of course an alternate narrative of exclusion as many moved towards exclusion of Muslims, a contamination narrative.

Syed reminded us that a narrative may be one portion of a larger curve. One attendee proposed the Lance Armstrong narrative which began with a redemptive narrative as he overcame testicular cancer and then moved into a contaminated narrative as he fell from grace. Whether his story arc includes yet another redemption remains to be seen.

I am intrigued with how story and psychology relate. It builds upon the concept I've written about previously on the "intergenerational self" where children who know their family history deal better with challenges. No doubt it relates to a master narrative passed on within their family. I also found myself thinking of the two descriptors I use for my diverse activities of finance, genealogy and artwork. I've described the common threads that bind them as solving puzzles and telling stories. Perhaps there is a closer relationship between the two than I've previously identified, with telling stories as a vehicle to explain those more ambiguous puzzles of life.

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