Storytelling: Art and Science?


Co-Authored by Matthew Hayes, M.S., BCBA 

Melmark New England

Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

What makes a good story? What draws you in and begs you to stay? What makes us feel the way we do when a story concludes in triumph, or with a favorite character perishing, or with an ending that leaves you wanting so much more in the best possible way? We can all relate to enjoying a compelling story, be it from a novel, a film, or a friend. Thriller writer Lee Child tells us that to engage an audience you need suspense and likens suspense to hunger. Recall a time you were absolutely famished after a busy day and the first bite of food that passed your lips tasted divine. The food, whether it was a simple sandwich or an elaborate home-cooked meal, had more value in that moment. An expert storyteller manipulates hunger in an audience member by means of their narrative. 

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

How do we link the concepts of being hungry and being engrossed in a story to the science of behavior analysis? The concept of motivating operations introduced by the late Dr. Jack Michael is generally defined as something that momentarily increases the value of a reinforcing consequence and thus makes a behavior more likely to occur in a given moment. Just like hunger increases the value of food, use of tension in a narrative makes the resolution or change in situation that much tastier. A story with good pacing doesn’t leave the listener waiting for an exceedingly long time for a payoff, but provides release now and then to reinforce the listener for their attending behavior so that they continue to listen and are more likely to listen again in the future. In David Ball’s stage play analysis book, Backwards and Forwards, he describes any story worth telling as breaking stasis by some sort of intrusion and the rest of the narrative is an attempt to reclaim stasis. The intrusion is the motivating operation and the reclamation of stasis is the reinforcer. If stasis is not broken, it’s just a normal day for the characters.  

Dr. Philip Hineline saw a gap in behavior analysis discourse considering storytelling. Speakers and listeners have been viewed through a behavioral lens by means of Skinner’s verbal behavior and Hayes’ relational frame theory, but the phenomenon of one telling a story to another had not been fully explored. The ubiquity of stories is undeniable, manifesting in the forms of journalism, religion, fairy tales, anecdotes for political gain, theatre, and much more. The behaviors of telling a story and listening to a story are of clear social importance and thus should be explained from a behavior analytic perspective. We can also teach this skill! (see Conine et al., 2012; Spencer & Peterson, 2020; Valentino et al., 2015). 

In trying to find what factors keep a reader attached to a book, Hineline draws comparison between narrative and jigsaw puzzles. A puzzle has the completed image on the packaging, so the terminal reinforcer is not looking at the complete image, but rather it’s the user putting it together. A reader can look at the final page of a book or a movie-watcher could fast forward to the end of a film, but the power of the conclusion, if any power at all, is significantly cheapened. The experience of seeing or hearing many parts create a whole is what is reinforcing in both puzzles and stories. Hineline describes this as “coherence.” Introducing questions, mysteries, and uncertainties in narrative are establishing stimuli, and the coherent whole is the terminal reinforcer. He diagrammed the anatomy of a compelling story (p. 13) as interlaced setups and payoffs explained by motivating operations increasing the value (or impact to the listener) of subsequent story events.  

Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Dr. David Palmer, in response to Hineline, focused on how a listener’s behavior is changed after a story. He refers to a passage in Skinner’s Walden Two in which the narrator, a professor, expresses the discomfort he feels that students that visit him many years later can recall, nearly verbatim, stories he told in class with little academic value (such as his opinion on chocolate soda), but almost nothing from his lectures. Good stories have an “evocative power” that dry prose (a scientific paper, an encyclopedia entry, a boring lecture) doesn’t.  

As discussed in a previous entry in this blog, behavior analysts could do much better in spreading the word about their science. Hineline’s analysis may be informative for those interested in the dissemination of our science. Dr. Ronnie Detrich suggests that behavior analysts can develop better storytelling repertoires by taking some writing or film classes, or team up with professional storytellers. In order for a general audience to take interest in our science, we must write and tell stories that will create a hunger for adoption of our practices. 

If you are interested in reading and learning more about this topic from other behavior analysts, we recommend you visit the websites linked below!

Matt Hayes is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA®) currently working as an ABA classroom counselor at Melmark New England. He graduated from UMass Lowell’s Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis and Autism Studies program in 2021. Matt sees the great value that the study and application of behavior science brings to all facets of life. This behavioral lens has positively impacted him in a significant way, and he is grateful for being introduced to the science of behavior analysis during his first year as a college student at UMass Lowell. He looks forward to continuing to improve processes and systems that can result in positive changes in other folks’ everyday environments.