Can Stories Make Us Smarter?

In 1992, political strategist James Carville coined a phrase that would help focus Bill Clinton’s campaign and lead him to a presidential victory later that year. That phrase – [it’s] the economy, stupid. Today, economists are sharing a surprising message of their own: Economics needs storytelling. The point of both statements is essentially the same: We need memorable ways to convey complex ideas. 

In her eye-opening article in The Washington Post, Heather Long details how the decade-plus shift toward STEM fields and the “great migration” away from the humanities now calls for a correction. This is intriguing given that individuals in STEM-related fields are advocating for skillsets deeply entrenched in the humanities. 

Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller is leading that charge with his book Narrative Economics, where he makes the case for storytelling to help advance the science of economics. In essence, if people can’t wrap their heads around complex data points, then stories of how that data impacts people are necessary so they can grasp it. 

It echoes the ideas in Good Writing Is Not a Soft Skill. There we mentioned, “great writers are able to take the ideas of others, apply their own critical thinking and build a narrative that connects with specific audiences in a way that moves and motivates.” 

Shiller’s advocacy for storytelling also comes at a time when English majors are in steep decline, and perhaps that too is in part due to STEM’s memorable storytelling of higher pay and guaranteed employment in IT and computer science fields. 

But there’s more to that story, as Long points out in her article. 

A 2017 study revealed that English majors had lower unemployment rates than individuals with degrees in Economics, Mathematics, Mechanical Engineering, and Computer and Information Systems. Another study suggests that earnings for those with backgrounds in the humanities catch up with STEM-based peers by mid-career. That’s a very different story. 

The takeaway is that narratives evolve, but too often they aren’t being communicated effectively. And that is what Shiller is pointing out: Most economists aren’t natural storytellers. It’s a skill outside their wheelhouse, but critical to their work. 

It’s a reminder to CEOs, HR leaders and the rest of the c-suite on the importance of diversifying the backgrounds, perspectives and thinking of their teams. It’s not just about their know-how, but also knowing how to effectively convey the story of their work to existing clients and prospective customers. To paraphrase Shiller, the compartmentalizing of intellectual life (and the life of a business), is bad. 

Think of it this way: English majors might not write a single line of computer code, but they know how to crack the code when it comes to telling a story about what that code can do. And that’s just as valuable.