Nov 18, 2021

The Stories We Tell Ourselves - Part 1

How the stories we tell ourselves form and influence our lives, differ across cultures and generations, and change with meaningful intervention.

By Brie Linkenhoker, PhD

This post is Part 1 of the seventh in a series from the 11 Awardees of the Templeton World Charity Foundation's Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing. The Foundation is investing US $60 million to grow the field of human flourishing to encompass scientific research, practice, and policy. Check back as we launch further requests for proposals under this important rubric.

We are storytelling creatures. It’s part of what makes us uniquely human. And we’ve been telling stories for a long time. Ancient cave art depicting hunting scenes, and carvings like the Löwenmensch, a 35,000-40,000 year old ivory sculpture of a human body with a lion’s head, suggest that we have been sharing our stories—real and imagined—since Homo sapiens migrated across the planet.

We have told stories to describe our origins and afterlives, explain the workings of the natural world, transmit social and cultural norms, reinforce power structures, guide cooperative behavior, justify conflict, cultivate envy and empathy, and help us understand the minds and motivations of others. We share these stories with each other through literature and the arts, social media, casual gossip, and countless conversations with our children.

But there are also stories we tell ourselves, shaped by our cultures of origin, and by our own individual experiences. The stories we tell ourselves encompass concepts of mindset, schema, worldview, and narrative. Our team at Worldview Studio thinks of them as abstract, but coherent, frameworks of knowledge and beliefs that capture causal relationships, truths, and predictions about the world. They may not always be accurate, but the stories we tell ourselves exert powerful influence over our expectations and motivations. They direct our attention, trigger emotions, and influence what we remember. They structure the ways we define and solve problems, assess new information, and make decisions. Fundamentally, they help us navigate a complex world and our place within it.

The stories we tell ourselves have tremendous psychological power. But they can also be changed through intervention. First generation and minority college students may feel like they don’t “fit in” when they start university—a perception that can affect their wellbeing and performance. Social psychologists Greg Walton and Geoffrey Cohen conducted a study in which African-American and European-American freshmen viewed a brief presentation framing social adversity in school as common and short-lived, and then wrote an essay describing how their own experience in college echoed the ones they heard presented. They recorded their stories as speeches on video for future students coming to college. Three years later, this brief story intervention had reduced the academic achievement gap between African-American and European-American students by 52%. The effect increased with time; in the 4th year, it reduced the achievement gap by 79%. By the end of college, African-American students in the intervention also reported being healthier and happier than peers in the control group (Walton, & Cohen, 2011). A follow-up study with these students at age 27 found lasting impacts on career satisfaction and success, psychological wellbeing and community involvement and leadership (Brady, Cohen, Jarvis, & Walton, 2020).

The stories we tell ourselves about others can strongly affect our behavior and relationships. Parents whose stories about their children’s difficult behavior are hostile or blame-oriented are more likely to mistreat their children. But in a study by Daphne Bugental et al. (Bugental, et al. 2002). Parents considered high risk for abusing their children were gently guided by visiting social workers to change their stories. For example, a narrative about an inconsolable infant being “mad” at the mother because she was a “bad parent,” shifted to a blame-free explanation for crying that focused on a possible problem with formula. After approximately 17 visits over the course of a year, the percentage of mothers who were physically abusive to their children was 83% lower in the story intervention group than in a group that had received purely informational visits from social workers. Helping parents change their stories about why children behave in trying ways has positive cascading effects on parental behavior that, in turn, makes life better for their children.

When we clarify or change our most important stories, the impacts can cascade across our perceptions, decisions and actions. This raises several tantalizing possibilities for thinking about how we can advance human flourishing:

  • Can we design interventions or experiences at scale that can help make people more aware of the stories they tell themselves, and possibly to shift those stories in ways that promote flourishing?
  • Many of the most compelling story interventions don’t depend on just telling someone a new story. The interventions that work tend to focus on ways to help people take ownership of new stories, in their own words and contexts. What are the most effective ways to help people customize and internalize new, helpful stories?
  • We can hold multiple stories in our minds about the same subjects. Are there ways to prime or nudge more empathic, informed, inclusive, or helpful stories to come to the fore and exert stronger influence over our perception, decision making, and behavior?
  • Might some of the deepest divisions within society right now be related to fundamental differences and shifts in the stories we tell ourselves? For example, we know that trust in institutions has been declining precipitously in the US for some time, but we don’t really know why. Could we gain insight into the causes of this decline in trust (and what we might do about it) if we understood the stories people were telling themselves about science, government, religion, higher education, etc.?

This list could go on, and we certainly won’t be able to tackle all of these questions at once. Our current plan is to focus first on some of the technique and design questions that should help us develop better approaches to probing, listening to, and ultimately, understanding the stories people tell themselves. Then we hope to use these techniques to dive into a particularly timely and relevant set of stories: those we tell ourselves about what science is and whether it’s the best or most valid way of learning about the world. Stay tuned for more on that topic in our next blog post!

Read Part 2 of The Stories We Tell Ourselves by Brie Linkenhoker, PhD.

Brie Linkenhoker, PhD is the founder of Worldview Studio, a collective of brain and behavioral scientists, human-centered designers, and multimedia producers who create innovative learning experiences. She holds a Ph.D. in Neurosciences and an M.A. in International Policy Studies from Stanford University, and a B.A. in Psychology from Transylvania University. She did postdoctoral research in neuroeconomics at Baylor College of Medicine.


1. Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1447-1451.

2. Brady, S. T., Cohen, G. L., Jarvis, S. N., & Walton, G. M. (2020). A brief social-belonging intervention in college improves adult outcomes for black Americans. Science Advances, 6(18), eaay3689.

3. Bugental, D. B., Ellerson, P. C., Lin, E. K., Rainey, B., Kokotovic, A., & O'Hara, N. (2002). A cognitive approach to child abuse prevention. Journal of Family Psychology, 16(3), 243.