Paralympics, Obama v Romney and the power of stories

Paralympics, Obama v Romney and the power of stories

Graham Pike, Professor of Forensic Cognition, writes: Like me, you are probably finding that you can’t switch on the TV or radio at the moment without being bombarded by news from the Paralympics and the US presidential race. Both elicit some strong, if very different, emotions and the this  strikes me as interesting. I’m not usually a fan of athletics, but have been captivated by London 2012 and am sure I’m not alone in this. Is that just because it is in my own country? Perhaps that’s part of it, and it is also a mistake to underestimate the power of ‘in-group/out-group’ psychology, but looking back on the days I’ve sat transfixed to the TV, I think something else is at work. And I don’t mean being caught up in a new form of national identity and patriotism, as my guess is that the social and political impact of the Olympics (beyond the sporting legacy) will be as long-lived as the multi-cultural impact on West London of having a multi-ethnic crowd at a Chelsea game. No, what has really struck me about the Olympics, but particularly the Paralympics, is the narrative approach that has been adopted by the media. Sure, that is nothing new, but it feels to me that for each competitor (well, British competitor at least) I’ve seen, I’ve also been provided with a compelling back story: Jade Jones, the plucky Welsh teenager;  Mo Farah, the Dad who misses his kids; and of course the classic old-champ vs new-hopeful battle of Bolt and Blake. The coverage of the Paralympics seems to have gone even further with providing narratives of the competitors and I certainly feel like I know a lot about Peacock, Weir et al., which has had the effect of making me care far more about the result. Narratives are powerful things and our brains make considerable use of them in everyday life. Basing our memories around a story of what happened to us means we can fill in many of the less salient details without actually needing to remember them, and using ‘schemas’ (a way of cognitive processing that stores information in a story-like construct) is also very useful for predicting what will happen next. It is clear that the campaign managers of both Obama and Romney are very aware of the power of narratives and back stories, and have used these to construct pictures of their candidates that make potential voters like them, invest emotion in them and want to help them achieve the right ending for their story. And there, of course, is the danger with stories. Although using story-like structures in our memories can be very helpful, the shortcuts involved also lead us to misremember and possibly even to have memories for things that never happened. In London 2012 the back stories have undoubtedly helped the audience to emotionally invest in each event, but in US politics the over-simplification and over-identification inherent in stories can make us see a candidate in terms of a stereotypical character, which means we invest them with all the characteristics we’d usually expect  that character to have.  So, (and excuse the obvious bias), is Obama’s opponent “Mitt Romney” or “Willard Romney”? Even the names alone are enough to conjure two very different potential stories and it is hard to imagine NASCAR Dads and soccer Moms buying into the story of Willard Romney, privileged son of a CEO, like they have good ole Mitt, family man and ‘straight shooter’.


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