How powerful stories can change the world for the better

Email a Friend

Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, “Atlantic” magazine writer Derek Thompson, author of the recent book “Hit Makers,” looks at how stories help us understand and even change the way we see the world.

It’s the latest installment in In My Humble Opinion.

Have a listen.

DEREK THOMPSON, Author, “Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular”: One thing I learned writing a book about pop culture hits in entertainment is that stories are weapons, for good or ill.

Movies like “Frozen” can teach us female empowerment. Movies like 1915’s “The Birth of a Nation” can teach us prejudice.

For example, take one of the most ancient and universal myths, vampires. For hundreds of years, people didn’t understand death or disease. Why did people get sick in bunches? Why did people often die after their friends did?

So, all over the world, different civilizations made up the same story: Death comes from the undead.

Before the 1800s, the belief in vampires stretched from Transylvania to China. Albanian vampires ate intestines, while their Indonesian brethren drank blood. In Eastern Europe, they discriminated against people they thought might become vampires, including the disabled, atheists, and even seventh children.

Today, we know germs exists and vampires do not. It’s tempting to say it was just a stupid story, but the truth is that vampires were the perfect story. It didn’t just explain the mystery of death. Even more, it explained the chaos of life with a spectacular tale that empowered villagers by telling them that everybody had the capacity to fight evil with potions, garlic, prayers, chastity, stakes, swords, and fire.

We have come a long way since vampires. Or have we? Even today, society is bound by the stories that we tell each other. In an office, loud women are bossy, but loud men are assertive. An outspoken white person is authoritative, but an outspoken black person is threatening.

Are men smarter than women, or whites smarter than other races? There is no scientific basis for these ideas. They are stories that had to be invented, constructed, told, and believed.

From the time we are children, we hear stories about the way the world ought to work. Who should we trust? Who should we fear? These are social narratives passed down, like bedtime stories, across generations, telling us how to live and what to expect.

Science finally killed the folk belief in vampires, but how do we drive a stake through misogyny or prejudice? History is full of men and women who successfully championed justice and equal rights. Empathy and equality are powerful stories. They need equally powerful storytellers.

The post How powerful stories can change the world for the better appeared first on PBS NewsHour.