Maria Konnikova on Stories as a Force for Evil

October 28, 2016

I used to make my living as a stage actor, and I was lucky enough to do almost nothing but Shakespeare for about five years. To explain what I thought was so important about Shakespeare and theatre, I often cite a scene in Al Pacino’s documentary Looking for Richard, in which a panhandler on the street tells Pacino, “Shakespeare teaches us how to feel.” So the stories I helped to tell as an actor could teach people how to feel. I loved that.

New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova reminds us this morning that as valuable as storytelling is, as intrinsic to the human experience it is, and as much as it does to give us new insights and deeper empathy, “In the wrong hands, stories can be a force for evil.” Her topic is con artists. “Con artists are actors, they are storytellers.”

You can imagine that this was quite an affecting line of thought for me. The core of Konnikova’s message is that humans are not the creatures of fact we think we are. Con artists are actors of the criminal element, and they succeed by weaving a story in which the victim of the con is the good guy, and to not follow through with what the con artist, posing as a victim, needs, is to betray the idea of the kind of people we think we are and want to be. If we default to skepticism, if we show skepticism, when someone seems to be in need, we’re violating the story.

Of course this negative power of storytelling is not just applicable to con men, but to almost all areas of our lives. Konnikova cited examples such as the law, where cases are won by the best story told. Politicians tell stories of varying degrees of truthfulness, and then another layer is added when journalists tell stories about the stories they’re being told.

Want she wants us to take away is that the more you want to believe a story, the more you have to rely on the trust-but-verify dictum.

Or, as she says she sometimes feels compelled to shout, “Humanity sucks, trust no one!” I kind of glommed on to that one.

Oh hey! You can hear Konnikova talk more about this subject on CFI’s podcast Point of Inquiry.