Depends on How You Tell It

On the psychology of narrative style

Photo by Paul Bence
Photo by Paul Bence


We know how this is supposed to work. A first-person narrator corrals us inside her head, showing us her world in language generally reserved for our own innermost thoughts: I, we, mine. The third person, in contrast, relegates us firmly to gnat-on-the-wall status. We might be keen observers of the narrative world—sometimes supernaturally so, seamlessly flitting from one wall to the next (and with telepathic powers!)—but we’re observers nonetheless.

But what is taught in high school English and what can be detected in the laboratory may be two very different things—not, I should clarify, that the latter is necessarily privileged. So what do psychologists understand about our responses to different narrative styles?

In 2012, researchers Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby handed about 80 college students different versions of a short story in which the main character encounters a series of mishaps: trying to get to the polls on Election Day despite bad weather, driving a car that won’t start, and so on. After reading the story, participants rated how much they identified with the character. They also gauged their own intention to vote in an upcoming election, just a week away.

When the character belonged to an in-group (when he attended their own university, as opposed to a neighboring one), students identified more strongly with him—but, crucially, only when his story had been told in the first person. Most fascinating of all, while these participants were no likelier than others to report that they intended to vote, a follow-up question sent after Election Day revealed that they did in fact end up voting at significantly higher rates.

Now, the caveats here are plenty. I doubt that the story about the beleaguered voter was very interesting. I’ve seen the stories psychologists use in studies like this. Hell, I used to write them. And generalizing about narrative style from a single, uninspired story is not unlike generalizing about Italian food after an impromptu trip to Fazoli’s. But the findings are, overall, much as any English teacher might expect: the first person does seem to encourage us to identify with the narrator, especially when that narrator is a lot like us.

Earlier this year, a different group of researchers led by Ethan Kross took the study of narrative style in another directly entirely. Instead of investigating how we respond to other people’s stories, as told in a variety of ways, these researchers looked at how we respond to our own stories.

Participants were told, upon entering the lab, that they faced a nerve-wracking task: to impress a member of the opposite sex, in one study, or to give a speech. To up the ante, they also knew their performance would be videotaped and later analyzed. But right before they began, they were told to prepare themselves for the task ahead. Some participants were assigned to do so by speaking to themselves in the first person; the rest were instructed to address themselves using their own first name, as well as non-first-person pronouns like she, he, or you.

Though we don’t tend to look kindly upon those who speak of themselves in the third person, the practice is not without its benefits. According to reviewers, who were blind to participants’ condition, those who’d avoided I and me in their pep talks actually appeared less nervous, and did a better job on the task at hand. Speaking to ourselves as though we are someone else, it seems, lets us distance ourselves from an overwhelmingly stressful experience. Even your English teacher didn’t see that coming.


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Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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