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Facts aren’t the most powerful tool in the event of a contested election

October 13, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

Did you hear about the election worker in Pennsylvania who threw out nine military ballots? The U.S. Justice Department says at least seven of them were marked for Trump. Or how about the mail carrier in West Virginia who admitted to changing the party affiliation of five absentee ballot applications from Democrat to Republican?

Stories like those could be crucial in the aftermath of a contested election outcome. Never mind that the numbers of votes involved are insignificant or that such anecdotes would count for little in the courts or legislatures where a contested outcome would be decided. But these stories could largely determine the critical question of whether the eventual outcome is widely accepted, for the simple reason that stories, researchers have found, are far more powerful than data.

It’s the way we’re hardwired. We don’t naturally see the world as data that we analyze; that’s what Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist, calls System 2 thinking. Collecting and analyzing information—what the legal process does—is slow and difficult, and we have to make ourselves do it. Our default way of thinking is System 1, which “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control,” he wrote in his classic bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

By contrast, System 1 understands the world as stories, not data. It’s so powerful that it creates stories from whatever we see or hear. As Kahneman puts it, “System 1 is adept at finding a coherent causal story that links the fragments of knowledge at its disposal.” Seeing stories, which includes attributing motives to the people involved, is actually easier for us than not seeing stories.

When we hear a story, we are driven to repeat it. And when we repeat it, the brains of the storyteller and the listener align—what researchers call “neural coupling.” When the storyteller is speaking to a group, the effect is “to induce similar brain activity across different individuals.” That is, the storyteller and a group of listeners are all having the same emotional experience at the same time. It’s enormously more powerful than when everyone merely possesses the same facts.

One more element in the magic of story: Research shows that we remember information far better when it’s included in a story than when the very same information is presented simply as a collection of facts.

Which brings us back to a potential contested election outcome. President Trump’s refusal to promise he’ll accept a loss has prompted party leaders on both sides to recruit brigades of lawyers and politicians who could be deployed for battle in courts and legislatures. That’s where the outcome would be decided—but it’s only half the battle. Truly winning requires that the country broadly accepts the outcome, and data alone wouldn’t do the job. But data plus stories would.

The idea of using stories strategically isn’t new. For years, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) developed such strategies in a program called Narrative Networks. “We need a more comprehensive understanding of how a failure to tell good stories can lead to an increased risk of insurgencies, violent social movements, and terrorist action,” explained program manager William Casebeer. The objective was to develop a “counter-narrative strategy” for “undermining the efficacy of [the enemies’] narratives” and to develop competing stories.

Elections are war, and it’s possible this war could extend past Election Day. We don’t know if party leaders are developing story strategies along with legal strategies in the event of a contested outcome. But if they’re not, they should be.