S5E16: Transcript
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
with Dr. Brie Linkenhoker


Tavia Gilbert: Welcome to Stories of Impact. I’m writer/producer Tavia Gilbert, and every first and third Tuesday, journalist Richard Sergay and I bring you conversations about the art and science of human flourishing.

In today’s episode, we welcome Dr. Brie Linkenhoker, founder of Worldview Studio, a collective of brain and behavioral scientists, human-centered designers, and multimedia producers who create innovative learning experiences. Like last week’s guest, Dr. David Addiss, Dr. Linkenhoker is the recipient of grant funding from Templeton World Charity Foundation’s Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing program. Her ground-breaking research is centered on the stories we tell ourselves. 


Through the scientific research of personal narratives, Dr. Linkenhoker explores the influence of our personal story-telling on our behavior, well-being and achievement; how stories differ across cultures and generations; and how they change with meaningful intervention from families, mentors, and media.

What drew Dr. Linkenhoker to the scientific study of an area that, at first glance, might seem distinctly unscientific — storytelling? And what kind of stories is she looking at?


Brie Linkenhoker: The stories we tell ourselves matter, because they really order the way we see the world, they order what we pay attention to. They determine what choices we see for ourselves and how we prioritize those choices. So when we talk about the stories we tell ourselves, we’re really thinking about the narratives we have about the way the world works, about what to expect from people, about what motivates people, about what truth is or what facts are, and what’s available to us, who we are, where do we belong? Are there places that we don’t belong? 


Those narratives that we have, we may not even be entirely aware of, but they have these remarkably long-term, powerful effects. There’ve been a number of story interventions that are fascinating and that have long-term impacts on people's behavior and their well-being and achievement.


Tavia Gilbert: What does Dr. Linkenhoker mean by “story interventions?” 


Brie Linkenhoker: So in one really powerful example, when parents were identified as having medically needy children and also identified as people who might be at risk for child abuse because they were under so much stress — economic stress, medical stress, etc. — social workers did an intervention with those parents to help them kind of reframe their stories about why children — and these were little children — were exhibiting trying behaviors. Crying, grabbing things, throwing tantrums. 


And the social workers were trained to just help them reframe their narratives a little bit, very gently, just from, like, “This child was misbehaving to really annoy me. They were trying to get at me, ‘cause they were mad” to “Maybe there was something that was making the child fussy. Maybe it was a diaper that needed changing, maybe it was a formula issue.” And maybe there was something to be done or maybe there was a way to understand this problem that didn't put the child being aggressive or the child meaningfully misbehaving at the core of the story. 


And just these very small changes made a huge difference in the amount of child abuse that were measured, so the percentage of parents who were abusive after that intervention was 85% lower than parents who were in a control group that still had visits from the social worker, but where the visits were informational, they weren't trying to fundamentally change the story the parents were telling themselves about the child's behavior. 


So this tells you something about just how powerful a story, a change in story, can be, in ordering behavior. The narrative change fundamentally changed the way they saw the world. It fundamentally changed the range of behaviors that they saw as acceptable to them in a moment of stress. And it changed outcomes for these little children in the long run.


Tavia Gilbert: Dr. Linkenhoker’s research has shown not only how transformative story interventions can be, but how long-term their positive effects. 


Brie Linkenhoker: There are other studies about story interventions and belonging, with undergraduate students from minority groups, where an intervention early on helps students kind of frame their own experiences as being valuable and see their presence on campus as being a good thing. And that one intervention still has impacts four years later on academic achievement, grades, staying in school, etc. 


So these interventions have the capacity to be very, very powerful when they're done well. There are many different, fantastic story interventions out in the world, and there's great potential for a lot of those across child development, education, in the workplace, as well. 


Tavia Gilbert: As. Dr. Linkenhoker considered the implications of her findings, she started to consider the positive implications of story interventions, not just for individuals and families, but for society at large. 


Brie Linkenhoker: So I started getting interested in how these stories can order our behavior and really create some differences in the way that you and I might see the world that are actually very hard for us to talk about. And that's really the link to this body of work that TWCF is sponsoring around listening and learning in a polarized world. 


We started thinking maybe part of the polarization that we're seeing right now in the world is the result of us having very, very different stories about how the world works, the role that each of us can expect to play there, how we generate new knowledge and facts and understanding. So that's where we really wanted to dig in.


Tavia Gilbert: What did Dr. Linkenhoker consider as she applied her study of our individual stories to a wider investigation of societal stories that contribute to polarization? 


Brie Linkenhoker: Where are we seeing some polarization in the world that might be related to the stories we tell ourselves about the world? And being right in the midst of Covid and all of the debates around masking and vaccination, we thought about science. We keep seeing these survey results about how much people trust in science, and they're showing still pretty high numbers across the board, both in the United States and globally, but that doesn't seem to be reflected in the way that people are talking about masking and talking about vaccination. And there seems to be so much more polarization around those issues — same with climate change — than you would expect if people really trusted in what the science was telling them. 


So we thought, let's dig in a little bit, because maybe part of what's going on here is that when you ask people, "Do you trust science?", if they all have different stories about what science is, maybe we're obscuring some of the attitudes and the worldviews that work here that might actually be responsible for some of the polarization around science.


We really wanted to understand what people think science is. Most scientists think that it's a process, it's a way of knowing, it's a method. You know, we generate a hypothesis, we test it, we analyze the results, we share them, we open them up to scrutiny, and the process goes on. So if you think that science is a process and a new piece of data comes along that corrects or invalidates something that came before, you're likely gonna understand that as, the process is working. 


But if you think of science as a body of knowledge, a fixed body of knowledge, like this is what you learn in chemistry, this is what you learn in biology, this is what you learn in earth science, then if science then comes along with a new finding that might invalidate something that you used to believe, that might make you really skeptical that scientists know what they're talking about. It might bring all of science or all of that body of science into question. 


So both groups could say we trust science, but when challenged with knowledge that is changing in real time, as what we saw with Covid, it’s what we also see with climate change — one group of people could say, ah, that's proof that science is working. Another group could say, ah, that's proof that science is bunk, right? That science, they don't know what's true. So maybe I should be more skeptical of everything that science says, that science thinks it knows.And still another group of people might believe that science is a collection of professionals, an industry, a group of people who are likely to be motivated by the same kinds of things that all people are motivated by. Sometimes altruistic motives, sometimes fame, sometimes power, sometimes profit. 


So in each of these cases, people may encounter science and especially encounter new findings or uncertainty in science in very, very different ways. And we thought that investigating this might help us start to tease apart what it is that is polarizing people around science that is really evolving in real time.


Tavia Gilbert: So how did Dr. Linkenhoker begin her investigation?


Brie Linkenhoker: We did very open-ended interviews to start, where we'd just ask questions about what is science? What do you think about when you hear the word science? What is science to you? We also really dug into emotions about science. We had a hypothesis about that, too. We figured that we would probably encounter among a diverse sample of Americans really different, mixed emotions about science, from deep mistrust and skepticism or even anger all the way to excitement, hope, and gratitude. We also thought that we would hear reports of conflict between science and other deeply held worldviews, like religion or faith traditions. And so that's what we set out to test.


Tavia Gilbert: And what were the results and some possible conclusions about people’s relationships with science? Did she discover anything unexpected? 


Brie Linkenhoker: When we actually asked people, "What is science?", we did hear quite a few people say that they thought science was a process. We found even more, about 50% of the people we interviewed, who talked about science as a collection of content. They often referenced what they learned in school or what their children were learning in school. We had a few, about 5% of our respondents, that talked about science as an industry or a profession. 


But we also heard another story, which was that science is everywhere, it is in everything, it is everything, that science is the basis for, like, matter and process in the universe. And we were really surprised to hear this. Our interpretation of that was that this is not people saying science is, like, the study of everything or the accessibility of everything to scientific inquiry. It really is everything. And the way that people talked about this was with this incredible awe and wonder. And it was almost like in real time, they were looking around and saying, “Wow, science is in my cell phone. Science is in the trees outside. Science is in the food I eat. Oh my gosh, science is everywhere.” 


Talking to those people made us think that, one, this group of people doesn't have a lot of proximity to science in its kind of everyday methodology, but they have a kind of awe and reverence for science.


Tavia Gilbert: Dr. Linkenhoker’s research didn’t just investigate people’s ideas about science, but their emotional response to it. And acknowledging that an important component of people’s stories around science stems from their emotions about science offered Dr. Linkenhoker and her team hope for the potential that polarization might be defused. 


Brie Linkenhoker: We also asked, how do people feel about science? We gave people, I think, 10 to 12 different emotions that they could choose from when they were talking about how they most often feel when they encounter science. And we were really surprised to find out that our hypothesis was wrong. Our hypothesis was that we would see really mixed emotions, and for the most part, we just didn't. 


When we looked in our survey at what respondents chose from that list of emotions—we found that the top five emotions chosen by college-educated people or people with higher education beyond college, the top five emotions were all positive. And for people who had a high school education or some college, four out of the five emotions were positive. And the only one that was ambivalent was “confused." So, we didn't find this kind of, you know, mix of mistrust or anger or frustration with science that we thought we might find.


We think this is because we really worked hard to talk about science in its most neutral form. We didn't prompt people to think about Covid or vaccines or climate change or any other hot button issue that science might wade into. We just talked about science broadly. And we found that almost everyone has a kind of positive story to tell about science at some point, and most of those connect to health and medicine. So, when science comes up in the context of I or a family member or someone I care about has a medical condition that needs treatment, science is framed really positively in those moments.


And this suggests to us that maybe there really isn't this kind of deep well of bad feeling about science. Maybe there isn't a deep well of kind of native mistrust or skepticism about science. It may be that most people don't think about science very often, and how they think about science is the process through which science comes into consciousness. 


So if it's pulled into consciousness by a need in the moment when you're in the hospital with a spouse or a parent who's had a stroke, you're dependent on science in that moment, you're grateful for science in that moment. If science is pulled into consciousness in a social media thread, in a highly politicized way, then that can prime you to think about science in a very skeptical or mistrustful way. 


But I think it's really important that what we didn't find was that kind of deep well of “I don't believe in science” or “I don't trust science” or “science gets things wrong too often.” And, to us, that suggests that there's real hope in avoiding some of the polarization around science if we can figure out how to do a better job of pulling science into consciousness in ways that are neutral or positive when we need people to think about science for their own decision making in life. What we have to do is also increase proximity to science in people's daily lives so that it's a little closer to consciousness, it's a little more part of daily life when we need it to really come into what somebody is thinking about on a day-to-day basis.


Tavia Gilbert: What is Dr. Linkenhoker’s take-away from her research about the ideas, emotions, and stories people hold about science?


Brie Linkenhoker: If you can help bring some of the thinking that people can do about science into their daily thinking before it gets politicized, before it gets taken over, then you might be able to get people thinking about science in a way that taps into that awe and wonder and gratitude that we saw so often in both the survey and our interviews.


Tavia Gilbert: Why does Dr. Linkenhoker believe that science has become so polarized in the modern era?


Brie Linkenhoker: Everybody is navigating trying to understand what is true, what is a fact, what do we know, in a world that is radically different than what we had 20, 25 years ago. We went from a few journalistic resources that were guided by professional standards and high degrees of ethical behavior to what's essentially a free-for-all on social media right now. 


And the ways that people access information, we all start with Google, right? But Google doesn't give us all the same results. And this is a fundamental problem for our society, right, that we don't have a set of, here's the best of our knowledge facts, even though they might get updated and changed, but here's the best of our knowledge, right here, right now. And when you Google it, I Google it, we get the same thing. That's not where we are. That's not the world we live in. 


And so there are some of these issues that are beyond science, right, that are fundamentally about ways of knowing. How do we know and learn about the world? Who do we trust? And we heard over and over and over again in our interviews that people said, “I have to find out for myself, I have to do my own research. I have to go out, and I want to hear from people who, I don't want to hear from trusted experts who tell me the way things are. I want them to tell me how they know something, and I want them to be willing to engage with people who think something different. I want to see multiple perspectives so I can decide myself.” 


And that's really different terrain to navigate for science communicators who are used to being able to say, “Hey, this science process told us this, this is the best of our knowledge, trust me, I’m a scientist. I know how to do this stuff. And my peers agree.” But that's not where we are in America right now.


Tavia Gilbert: Despite that not being where America is right now, Dr. Linkenhoker does not despair. 


Brie Linkenhoker: I choose to hold onto optimism. I would like to see some of our search engines and companies that really control access to information do a better job of promoting the stuff that's being produced by people who adhere to a code of ethics and standards, like what we have in most of science and in traditional journalism.


Tavia Gilbert: But even though she’s optimistic, she is realistic about how scientists might have contributed to the problem of polarization, and what they can do better in the future to mitigate it.


Brie Linkenhoker: One thing we can do as science communicators is to recognize that people want to make their own decisions, and they don't do that on the basis of authority. So it's not enough to say 98% of scientists agree that the climate is changing and the cause is human behavior. That doesn't cut it anymore. What you've gotta say instead is, “Let me take you through the data. Let me tell you how we got to this assertion and actually show you what we did, and let you interpret it.” 


That is a much harder ask for scientists, and it's not something they're trained to do, but I think it's essential that we give people the opportunity to work through that themselves. Members of the public who do not have scientific educational backgrounds are expressing a desire to be able to do this, to decide for themselves. We have to give them the tools to make that happen. 


And if we don't, someone else is gonna come in with a different story, and they're gonna create the illusion of doing that, and people will fall for it. This guy over here who's saying, “Don’t trust the science,” he's at least showing me what's not working or why I shouldn't trust this, or how these scientists are being paid by Pharma companies. And it feels like the truth is being revealed by one side, but the actual scientists who have a real truth to reveal aren't doing the work of revealing that truth. And it's not just scientists. It's also people in media who are telling the stories of science. 


We've looked at different media reports of the same scientific finding. And there are times when only one in five will tell you anything about the methods that were used to get to the new piece of knowledge that everybody should engage and assess and appreciate. So, if one report in five is telling you how the work was done, how can we expect people to feel like they're having the experience of even being given the opportunity to decide for themselves?


Tavia Gilbert: What else has Dr. Linkenhoker learned from her study of the stories we tell ourselves about science?


Brie Linkenhoker: We did hear in some of our interviews that people suggested that they felt that science was valuable, they respected or appreciated science, but there was some sense that science needed to stay in its lane, that science or scientists, it's fine to kind of reveal information about the world and advise on what we might want to do behavior-wise, but when it starts to get into telling me what I have to do, I get pretty unhappy or a little uncomfortable with that.


We also heard some really interesting stuff, and we realized that there's something very important about what people think about their bodies and what they put in their bodies. They don't ask questions, necessarily, about the food they put in their bodies every day, or even supplements, but if something comes along and it feels technological and it feels untested, we did hear people expressing concern about that and about using science in a way that would tell their body to do something or that would change their body. That's very uncomfortable for people.


Tavia Gilbert: Through her research, Dr. Linkenhoker also better understands the role that the media — perhaps inadvertently — plays in unfortunately undermining what they intend to be positive public health messaging.


Brie Linkenhoker: Unfortunately, I do wonder if maybe all of our media hubbub might have actually caused more problems than creating goodwill or excitement about the vaccine, which was, I think, the intention. And oddly, I think, for people who have proximity to science, like myself and many of the people that I encounter on a daily basis, all of that media coverage of the newness and the speed, it did excite us. It did make us more interested in getting the vaccine as soon as possible, and it made us feel good will towards the scientists who are working so hard at this. 


I think it might have done exactly the opposite for people who don't have proximity to science, who really don't know about the process and don't understand it, who don't know scientists, who don't know what motivates them, and who may have had experiences or know people who have had experiences with things that were called safe in the past that really weren't.


We can't dismiss those people. We have to understand them, and this is part of why we wanted to really dive into these deeper worldviews, to try to understand, where are people starting? Where are they coming from? And when they start to get uncomfortable about science, what's leading to that discomfort?

Tavia Gilbert: Has Dr. Linkenhoker discovered that there’s an inherent disconnect between science and faith?

Brie Linkenhoker: The science/religion tensions that we've seen out in the world was a good place to start to try to understand some of these questions. Science is the only way to reliably know things, or faith is the only way to reliably know things. 


We did have about 20% of people who said that science is the only way to know things reliably, and 8% who said that faith is the only way to reliably know things. And 12% of people said that they were fundamentally conflicting approaches to knowing something. But more than half saw them as being in some way complementary or applying to different kinds of situations. And that, to me, gives me hope that there's room for different ways of knowing and different ways of navigating our choices and bringing our values into these conversations. 


But I do think that science as a whole has mostly done a pretty poor job of bringing values into the conversation, because scientists feel like they're so often just fighting the battle of, you know, just accept the truth that I do know, right? Accept the fact that I do know. Accept that first, and then we can talk about values. So we have to get better as a society at figuring out how to have those conversations, using both knowledge that comes from the scientific endeavor and values that come from other places.

Tavia Gilbert: Where does the study go next?

Brie Linkenhoker: We're very interested in trying to better understand, what are the experiences that people have or the media that they’re consuming that shapes what they think science is and how it works? When we ask people about how they most often encounter science, the number one answer is in consuming media. So we have to better understand what the media is telling people about what science is, and what they're taking away from that.


We think that proximity to science probably really changes the path through which science comes into consciousness. We also want to better understand what people want, to help them do their own research. What is it that helps in science communication to let people feel like they are in charge of understanding how science was done and how that science led to the interpretations that they're seeing out in the world?


We also want to understand what people want from science communication that helps them have the experience they want of doing their own research. We also want to understand more what people think the limits of science are and what they mean more when they talk about doing their own research, in terms of their own behavior.


Where we want the project to lead is really to new, testable theories about science engagement. The ultimate end is really very practical. It's all about tools and personas that we can use to do more effective science communication and engagement when it really matters to our health, to our public health, and to the world around us.


Tavia Gilbert: What’s the most meaningful lesson Dr. Linkenhoker takes away from her studies about the stories we tell ourselves about science?


Brie Linkenhoker: I look at science as an incredible human achievement, you know, it's a gift to humanity, because it is the best way we have of knowing about the world around us and about how our bodies work, how our brains work, the origins of the universe. I mean, science is the best method that we have for knowing about the world. 


A healthy society can agree on facts. We can agree on what we know, but we can disagree on our interpretation. We can disagree about how those things came to pass or what we should do about them, but we should fundamentally agree on what we know. And that's not working right now. And it's not working in science, it's not working in other realms, too, but our research on the stories that we tell ourselves about science really does suggest that with a few changes in the way that we do science engagement, maybe we could get closer to that place of being able to agree on what we know and what we don't know about science, and then being able to disagree on what to do about it, or disagree on the meaning of it. 


I think that would help us flourish as a society. This sense of awe and wonder that people have when they're given an opportunity to kind of look up from their daily lives and look around them and think about all the ways that science is embodied in their technology, in their homes, in the world around them, helping them tap into that sense of wonder and doing that through science could help all of us have a deeper connection to each other and to the world around us and to this what really ought to be a common pursuit of understanding. Not something for a rarified group of people in universities to do, but something that all of us can partake of in this amazing process that's called science.



Tavia Gilbert: The stories we tell ourselves are not limited to our own minds — they impact life for those around us. In the last 48 hours, ten Black people were shot dead at a grocery store in Buffalo, NY. These were victims of the story that the gunman told himself about who was worthy of life and liberty and safety and dignity, who was responsible for perceived harms in the world, who should be held accountable for disappointments the gunman felt in his own life. 


I want this to be a hopeful podcast. But race-based violence is the daily reality and threat for countless American brothers and sisters of color, and it doesn’t make sense to pull that punch. I appreciate Dr. Linkenhoker’s research into the societal impact of the stories we tell ourselves, and urge you, and each one of our listeners, to courageously assess the stories you tell yourself. Because we are all building this country through the stories we tell about it. We have a choice, day to day, moment to moment. 


We tell ourselves constructive stories about equality, justice, and a hopeful, healthy, happy future, or we tell ourselves stories about scarcity, zero-sum games, winner-take-all scenarios. Each story we tell creates this reality that we all share. Each story creates our country in the modern age. So we each have a responsibility to decide what kind of storyteller we’re going to be. I hope you’ll join me in telling the most positive, the most beneficial to all, the most creative and empowering story you possibly can. And I hope you’ll believe me when I say that the story you tell yourself today makes a huge difference in the world we all experience tomorrow.


We’ll be back in two weeks in conversation with Hasfat Abiola, president of Women in Africa.


Hafsat Abiola: In terms of the minimum conditions we need to flourish,  I think democracy is one. And I’m very fortunate that my family taught me the importance of sacrificing for creating that kind of world. You know, because my father, and my mother, actually both of them, fought to have democracy in my country and actually died in the course of trying to ensure that Nigerians will have the right to vote.


Tavia Gilbert: If you appreciate the Stories of Impact podcast, please follow us, and rate and review us. You can find us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and at storiesofimpact.org.


This has been the Stories of Impact Podcast, with Richard Sergay and Tavia Gilbert. Written and produced by Talkbox Productions and Tavia Gilbert. Senior producer Katie Flood. Music by Aleksander Filipiak. Mix and master by Kayla Elrod. Executive producer Michele Cobb.

The Stories of Impact Podcast is generously supported by Templeton World Charity Foundation.