Faith WoodLike many Canadians, I was amused and entertained (and appalled) by the recent Canadian election. But beyond the entertainment factor, there was a lesson here about human behaviour which we need to take to heart.

The spate of scandals (#MeToo, political interference in the legal system, racism, lapses in ethical behaviour, the Norman Affair)  surrounding Prime Mininster Justin Trudeau, which led some to question his suitability to even be Prime Minister, generated both good and bad attention: good in that it seized the interest of so many who would normally sit on the political sidelines; and bad because it played out like an inferior reality TV show (are there any other kind?).

Why was it impossible to turn away from the political decline of the Prime Minister?

Because humans appreciate the power of a great story, no matter how cringe-inducing. They take us in, transport us, and allow us to live vicariously and visually through another’s experience or meltdowns.

We are all attracted to stories. As social creatures, it is how we relate to others. Stories are also how we influence and/or are influenced by others. Humans have been using stories for centuries to influence behaviours and politics. People passed information from one person to another via storytelling long before they could read or write.

As a result, our brains are hardwired to listen to and respond to stories.

Stories form the very fabric of what we think and how we think. If you are not telling a story, you are likely listening to someone else’s tale. And the person who mesmerizes you with the best stories can control the direction of your decision making.

Certainly, stories can carry negative baggage – or we use them as tools of hurt and deception, even self-deception.

How many times have you walked away from a conflict with someone at work or home, or read an email that ticked you off and then made up a narrative about what’s happening? We need to get honest about our stories and start owning them, since they affect the decisions we make and how we behave.

And if we want to avoid being part of an audience that gets tripped up or misled by another’s story, we need to understand how we are getting sucked in!

Neuroscientists tell us we have three levels of brain activity that affect our overall decision making.

  1. The lizard brain is all about fight/flight/freeze. It can’t distinguish between reality and fantasy. In an emotional upset, our bodies often respond before our conscious minds. This is the hardwiring of safety and protection. According to the research of Dr. Brené Brown, even with small, everyday conflicts and disappointments, physical and emotional intolerance for discomfort is the primary reason we linger on the outskirts of our stories – never truly facing them or integrating them into our lives. We disengage to self-protect.
  2. The mammal brain is the home of our emotions, memories and habits. It warehouses our “know how” and our beliefs about our own capacity. This part of the brain actually makes our decisions before we fully realize that one has been made.
  3. Finally, the logic brain is where we find the facts that rationalize feelings for us. The reality is that we buy into ideas through emotion and we justify with facts.

So as you casually watch a minority government in action, pay a little more attention. Watch how each party attempts to sway public opinion through feelings first and then seeks to justify invoked emotion with stories of “fact.” Watch how they establish a story, and where that story’s narrative might be misleading you or others.

Then take a closer look at your own life – is the narrative you and others fashion any less fabricated? And if your stories help you dodge reality, how healthy is that?

Troy Media columnist Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications. 

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