• The Story Paradox

  • How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down
  • By: Jonathan Gottschall
  • Narrated by: Joshua Kane
  • Length: 7 hrs and 2 mins
  • 4.3 out of 5 stars (65 ratings)

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The Story Paradox

By: Jonathan Gottschall
Narrated by: Joshua Kane
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Publisher's Summary

Storytelling, a tradition that built human civilization, may soon destroy it.

Humans are storytelling animals. Stories are what make our societies possible. Countless books celebrate their virtues. But Jonathan Gottschall, an expert on the science of stories, argues that there is a dark side to storytelling we can no longer ignore. Storytelling, the very tradition that built human civilization, may be the thing that destroys it.

In The Story Paradox, Gottschall explores how a broad consortium of psychologists, communications specialists, neuroscientists, and literary quants are using the scientific method to study how stories affect our brains. The results challenge the idea that storytelling is an obvious force for good in human life. Yes, storytelling can bind groups together, but it is also the main force dragging people apart. And it’s the best method we’ve ever devised for manipulating each other by circumventing rational thought. Behind all civilization’s greatest ills - environmental destruction, runaway demagogues, warfare - you will always find the same master factor: a mind-disordering story.

Gottschall argues that societies succeed or fail depending on how they manage these tensions. And it has only become harder, as new technologies that amplify the effects of disinformation campaigns, conspiracy theories, and fake news make separating fact from fiction nearly impossible.

With clarity and conviction, Gottschall reveals why our biggest asset has become our greatest threat, and what, if anything, can be done. It is a call to stop asking, “How we can change the world through stories?” and start asking, “How can we save the world from stories?” 

©2021 Jonathan Gottschall (P)2021 Basic Books

Critic Reviews

"Jonathan Gottschall has written a gripping and thoughtful book on a neglected but urgent topic: the dark side of stories. With crisp prose and an array of fascinating examples, he demonstrates how our innate ability to spin tales can lead to distortion, dissolution, and destruction. The Storytelling Paradox is a bracing call to action to become more empathetic and to deploy narrative as a force for good." (Daniel H. Pink, number one New York Times best-selling author of When, Drive)

"In this provocative and insightful book, Jonathan Gottschall shows us why dangerous stories spread so rapidly, and how they lead to division and distrust. But our storytelling instinct can also be harnessed for good, and Gottschall draws on a trove of research and compelling stories to show us how we can stop conspiracies, bigotry, and misinformation. The Story Paradox couldn’t be more urgent." (Jonah Berger, Wharton professor and best-selling author of Contagious)

"We constantly modify one another's brains, and the surgical tool we use is storytelling. In this luminous and incisive page-turner, Jonathan Gottschall takes us deep into the world of stories: what we tell, how we receive, and why it matters so deeply for our world." (David Eagleman, Stanford neuroscientist, author of Livewired)

What listeners say about The Story Paradox

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

A bit of a mixed bag with some amazing discussion

I went into this book with an open mind. I already kind of understand the subject matter of the book. Jordan Peterson talks about how grand narratives have made us what we are today and it's a logical step to conclude that stories and narratives can have bad outcomes. The author gives many examples of this, including discussing how it was simple narrative that ultimately lead the Rwandan Genocide, a bloodbath that would make the Nazi's blush (not in scope, but in brutality).

It challenged me with interesting new concepts, perhaps things that I implicitly understood but couldn't put into words. Villains are important parts of stories, and as story telling animals we tend to flatten them out, and feel empathy towards victims in stories. The part that I found interesting is the discussion about how empathy can breed enmity, when we empathize with one party, we flatten the cause of that pain into a caricature of a villain, which actually hurts our ability to be objectively assess the situation in real life. But in the real world, villains, like all people, are round, not flat. They have their good points and bad points, the villains of real life are not mustache twirling men who kidnap damsels and tie them to train tracks. The villains of real life tend to be people who have many other people who care about them, see them as good but misunderstood people, perhaps people just in need of a little help.

Another great point brought up is kind of the inversion of the common saying: "those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it". Perhaps, in some situations, it's actually better to forget the past. It's these stories of the past that don't let old transgressions die, it keeps them alive and seething, and in the right circumstances it can lead to extreme violence or social strife.

The book is chock full of these types of discussions. It's pretty amazing in that regard.

The mixed bag aspect is that the author wears his politics on his sleeve. I don't typically care about each individuals personal politics and people can certainly have their say in any way that they see fit, but the biggest shame is that it will limit who will potentially read/listen to this rather remarkable book. At one point he sounded completely pathological when talking about President Trump. It wasn't out of context or just thrown in, but he basically discusses how Donald Trump is like a story telling king and he has written his own legend onto public consciousness. To me, this is an absolute statement of fact, since I was a child people have adored Donald Trump, an adoration I never really understood. The author had such pathological hatred for the man that he literally wouldn't say his name in the book (he flattened him into a real life Voldemort, literally refusing to name him).

When I got the above section, and it went on about how terrible President Trump was, I actually thought the ending was ruining the book (it's discussed in the book itself how a bad ending to a story can ruin all that came before it). I had intended to come on here and slam the author for his lack of self reflection. But, he actually beat me to it, much to my elation. In the section title "PS", he calls out his own error in doing this to someone he clearly does not like. He discusses that he forced himself to round out Donald Trump for the book. I don't think he necessarily did a good job on this, but he clearly tried. And if a well written book like this doesn't force you or the author to look inward, then you would have to question if it was effective.

This is a good listen, I would have loved to give it a higher rating but the authors own politics actually detracts from the overall book, and that is not to say I necessarily disagreed with the author on some of the politically driven parts of the book. You may experience some grating feelings on points that come off as overly political, but it pays off in the end. At least it did for me.

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Gottschall throws down the gauntlet.

This is an important book.

The author touches on a vitally important reality we must face every day in our time. The significance, power, and danger of The Narrative. The Story is the most powerful thread that binds us as a Family, Tribe, Community, Country, and World.

From the earliest moments when Humans came together they created Stories to explain the World in which they found themselves. Whether through tales of hunts, battles, disasters, or celebrations, they found ways of communicating the importance of these events to members of the Group. These stories survive today as Holy Books, Founding Documents, Anthems, Myths, and Legends forming and reinforcing the common bonds we feel between ourselves and our fellow Humans.

Gottschall explores the universality of this Human need for Narrative and the positive impact it has had in building Societies, but he also traces the dangers of stories manipulated over the centuries to create division and chaos. His book is filled with examples of the destruction caused by false stories that create enemies of minorities, neighboring countries or tribes

This is the danger we face today and it is only made worse by evolving technologies that make it harder and harder to distinguish Truth from Lies. Unfortunately, while accurately depicting the possibilities of evil manipulation of events, he fails to offer any realistic tools to help us meet this challenge. Telling the reader to be careful in hearing and believing stories told by others and even ourselves is sound advice, but I don’t think that it is sufficient when faced with a QAnon believing mob.

Still, stressing the importance of the Human history, attraction, and need for Narrative is worth-while service and The Story Paradox performs it well. Four Stars. ****

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  • DD
  • 04-19-22

important and enlightening look at human thought

This appears as an important enlightening book on the orders of Thinking Fast and Slow and Sapiens. It informs about a way of our thinking as the many other thought bias's that we need to be aware of in ourselves as well as others to understand how society functions. This is very well worth the read.

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

interesting

I was expecting something significantly different when I started this audio book. the first half I was upset by his bias. the second half of the book I found more interesting and thought provoking

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A manual of sorts and a clever analysis of Trump

This is an excellent follow-up to his previous book on the subject, The Storytelling Animal. It can be read as a manual for capturing the attention of an audience, whether for good or bad. I have a few quibbles on some issues, but overall, it's a very good book that also gives us a thorough understanding of why Trump was so effective in attention grabbing and poisoning the minds of a large chunk of the American public.

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars

as an optimist this book is too pessimistic

so yeah I'm trying to maintain my optimism but stuff like this really tests me

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Gottschall can save the world with this book

My brain finally clicked while reading. Society's "problem" today is that evolved hominids- naturally curious story loving animals- now have access to more stories than ever before. Homo sapiens greatest strength is the ability to cooperate. Our civilization could *not* exist without that quality. Modern civilization had previously been organized by a few/several narratives in each country with the help of our second distinguishing quality, rationality's occasional management of emotion. Since we're most often emotional actors, the sheer volume of stories is weakening a civilization built on a handful of stories; so our ability to agree on the primary stories holding us together has greatly diminished. Although we evolved our way into this conundrum (paradox?), homo sapiens' evolving our way out is impossible. Gottschall helped clarify something about which I've been struggling to the point that I can now see the future being China's due to its unity. Good or bad is up to you.

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Decent book about storytelling.

First few chapters about storytelling are quite good, but nothing new. I bought the book just looking to hear more on the topic. Some later chapters intending to show how storytelling trumped truth get thin on logic. He aims for scientific low hanging fruit (like flat planet theory), but I found (imo) the logic used on why these are wrong was ... questionable. He was making a point about good story telling though, and this part was good. For those who like deep dives in probability and logic, some of it is just a bit hard to get through.

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  • BenMcNevis
  • 01-25-22

Thin and insular

Author's head stuck his up white American bum. America good others not good. Biden good Trump bad.
Kills the potential of the premise

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Fran
  • 01-21-22

Potentially life saving good sense in a time of chaos.

One big step closer to understanding what makes us think and do what we do. We desperately need to step back from the stories we tell ourselves if we are to survive ourselves, and Gottschall makes a highly informed and successful (in my opinion) attempt to show us how and why we got here in the first place. He shows the way to extricate ourselves from these stories through objectivity and reason - separating story teller from story - and shows us why we have such a debt to science, which we can ill afford to deny.