Keep It Familiar : NPR

There’s a difference between the stories we tell and the stories we like to hear. New social science research finds most of us like to listen to stories about familiar things.


OK, I want you to think about the last time when you were at a dinner party and you were telling a story to your friends. Maybe you were talking about that exotic vacation you just got back from, maybe a brand new movie you saw that no one else had seen. Well, there’s some new social science research suggesting that you might be better off talking about experiences that your audience also has had. And to understand why this is, we are joined by NPR’s social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam. Hey, Shankar.


GREENE: So what’s wrong with talking about a movie you’ve seen that no one else has seen? Is that a problem?

VEDANTAM: Well, it kind of is a problem, David, because what happens very often when you do that is that you leave your audience with blank stares. I was talking with psychologist Dan Gilbert at Harvard…

GREENE: And you don’t want that. You never want a table full of blank stares (laughter).

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) Gilbert told me that people who tell you about a movie that they’ve seen that you haven’t seen often end up confusing you.

DAN GILBERT: They say, oh, there’s this guy. He’s a detective, and he lives in New York. And he’s got this girlfriend. And then they go to this place. And you’re just thinking, what, what, who? So we get lost very quickly when other people are speaking because most people are not particularly talented at telling stories.

GREENE: OK, I got totally confused when he was describing that movie. So is this a problem because I, as a listener, am sort of just totally left out?

VEDANTAM: That’s right. Now, it’s also possible that envy may be a part of this. If you tell me, David, that you’re off to Maui tomorrow, I might end up feeling envious of you. And so that earlier research has actually shown that one reason that stories about experiences we haven’t had are less satisfying to us is that they can leave us feeling left out. But what Gilbert and his colleagues Gus Cooney and Timothy Wilson are finding here is a different phenomenon. A common assumption that both storytellers and listeners are making turns out to be wrong.

GILBERT: Speakers tend to think that listeners will most enjoy hearing novel stories – that is, stories about experiences the listeners haven’t had. And that makes perfectly good sense. We think of communication as an attempt to tell people things they don’t already know. But what our experiments revealed was that listeners actually far preferred to hear stories about experiences they had already had.

GREENE: Shankar, how did Gilbert do experiments here? Did he hang out at hundreds of dinner parties or what?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter). Well, he did something much easier but less…

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