It is not clear exactly when it happened. It is only clear that it has happened: The word “storyteller” has become something of a cliché — at the very least, it has on Twitter, appearing in 48,234 bios. Relatedly, it is not clear why this word has seemingly taken over, but a pair of psychologists offer at least a first step toward an explanation. Perhaps, they argue in a paper published recently in Personal Relationships, people respect good storytellers; maybe something about the skill, for that matter, unconsciously signals status.
Let’s let Alex Fradera, who highlighted the study earlier this week at BPS Research Digest, summarize:
John Donahue and Melanie Green ran experiments with US undergraduate samples (388 in total, 55 per cent women, two-thirds Caucasian, average age 20) who were asked to rate the attractiveness of a potential partner of the opposite sex based upon basic printed information. In the first experiment, participants received a photo and a short biography of a would-be partner which included information on their storytelling abilities. Participants in the strong storytelling condition, for example, heard that the person “often tells really good stories … he makes the characters and settings come alive.” Other conditions emphasised the mediocrity of the person’s storytelling or did not mention it at all.
Their findings showed that women tended to prefer the good storytellers over the mediocre ones as a potential long-term partner, and though Donahue and Green didn’t explicitly test why this might be the case, it’s not too hard to reason it out. The researchers themselves argue that being a good storyteller signals “higher perceptions of status,” as Green said in an email to Science of Us. It makes sense: To be a good storyteller necessitates a certain comfort in the spotlight, and that kind of confidence can be attractive. She suggests that this finding may be relevant to the corporate world as well. “That is, we think that people who are better storytellers are more likely to be leaders, to inspire others, etc.,” Green said.
If this explanation is true, then it also may help explain the second half of their findings: that the women who were good storytellers were not seen as more attractive by the men in this study. Many Americans continue to have — have you heard about this? — just a smidge of discomfort with women as leaders, and so maybe that explains the difference in perception by gender here.
Then again, who knows — it is just the one study, and John Oliver did just yell at everyone for exaggerating the results of questionable scientific research. Maybe all of these explanations are just stories we’re telling ourselves. Still, someone needs to explain all of these “storyteller” Twitter bios to me.