The Power of Storytelling

By Albert Lou

In 1987, a toddler named Jessica wandered into her family’s backyard and fell 22 feet into a well. Within minutes, police and reporters were on the scene to cover the desperate rescue. 58 hours later, Jessica was saved. Her story was developed into a film, the family appeared on live television shows, and a photo of her rescue won a Pulitzer Prize. 

In 2016, there were reports that 400 Syrian refugees drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean. This estimate added to the total of 3,072 refugee deaths attempting to cross the sea. The media couldn’t care less. Unlike the story of baby Jessica, this was given little coverage.

But why does one story of a little girl receive so much more attention than a massive problem that affected thousands?

Well-known mathematician John Allen Paulos once made the argument that humans can be separated into two categories: those who prefer stories and those who prefer statistics. Yet in  situations like this, I can’t help but disagree. 

There reaches a point in the human mind where it is no longer able to process human experience to a large scale. A point where the severity of topics becomes unclear and clouded behind large facts and figures. A point where statistics fail to communicate anything of value. 

In 2007, researchers conducted a study on the Identifiable Victim Effect. They asked university students to complete a survey in exchange for 5 dollars. After doing so, each was presented with an opportunity to donate to an emergency aid charity. Participants who were told the story of a single individual donated twice as much as those who were told of the larger problem in the form of statistics.

I recently read an article that classified the Syrian refugee crisis as “one of the worst humanitarian emergencies in a brutal nine-year war”. The text begins by describing the death of a toddler in her father’s arms as he rushes by foot to the nearest hospital. 

I am not fleeing from a war-torn country or worried I won’t have food on the table tonight. I don’t know what life was like for the thousands of refugees who were forced to pack into a boat in hopes they could find a home elsewhere. I did not know this man, but I knew his story. And his story represented each and every refugee dealing with struggles of their own.

Stories, especially ones told through a personal lens, have an immensely powerful ability to communicate what no statistic can. They describe the experiences of individuals that we may have nothing in common with but through universal human emotions that anyone can understand.

Moreau, Patrick. “The Importance Of Storytelling Over Statistics. A Powerful Research Study. — Muse Storytelling”. Muse Storytelling, 2016, https://www.musestorytelling.com/blog/importance-of-storytelling.

Paulos, John. “Stories Vs. Statistics”. Opinionator, 2010, https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/stories-vs-statistics/.

Yee, Vivian, and Hwaida Saad. “Syrian Children Freeze To Death. Bombs Rain Down. And ‘Nobody Cares.’”. Nytimes.Com, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/26/world/middleeast/syria-idlib-refugees.html.
Gayle, Damien. “Hundreds Of Migrants Believed To Have Drowned Off Libya After Boat Capsizes”. The Guardian, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/14/400-drowned-libya-italy-migrant-boat-capsizes