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Stories and Feelings: Powerful Tools for Creative Thinking

By Shlomo Maital

Feelings in History

 My last blog was posted nearly two months ago, on March 30. Shortly after, I left for China, for teaching and lecturing. WordPress was not accessible in China. Then, on returning home, I somehow found it hard to restart the blog machine. I deeply regret this, because knowing I have blog readers keeps my eyes and ears open for ideas….   So, this is a ‘restart’, hopefully with no more long regrettable silences…

       Nobel Laureate in Economics Robert Shiller (Yale) wrote a wonderful piece in the New York Times, Jan 22, 2016, “How stories drive the stock market”. Shiller is the author of a fine book, Finance and the Good Society, about how finance could be (but alas, sometimes is not) part of the solution, not part of the problem.

      In his NYT piece, Shiller refers to psychologist Jerome Bruner, who showed how popular narratives (human interest stories) are “fundamental drivers of motivation”.

Shiller discusses the sharp decline in the U.S. stock market since early January, and describes the ‘stories’ that explain it. First, the slowdown in the Chinese economy – “gross exaggeration” of its importance for the U.S. Second story: “record for poor performance of the stock market in the first week of the year”… Third story: low oil prices.   Fourth: tripling of the US stock market from 2009-14, and its “unwinding this year”. Many missed the big tripling, owing to pessimism and fear after the 2008 crash.   This created heightened sensibility about a possible fall, after such a surprising precipitous rise.

     Shiller cites a fine book by fellow Yale professor Ransay MacMullen,   Feelings in History: Ancient and Modern, (2003), in which he writes, “History is feeling. It is feelings that make us do what we do. And feelings can in fact be read. But the reading of them requires writers and readers to join their minds in ways that have long been out of fashion among students of history”.

     History, financial markets, consumer spending, virtually everything in our economy is driven by feelings. And feelings are evoked by stories about people, challenges, conflicts, crises and how they deal with them.

       Conclusion?   When you invest, try to analyze the prevailing ‘narrative’ or story that is driving human behavior, including the emotions underlying it. Is it valid? Is it evidence-based? Or is it superstition and empty guesswork?   If the narrative is groundless, sooner or later (it might well be much later!), the story will change and reverse.  Consider a contrarian (buy when everyone is selling) strategy.

       What is the TRUE story? The real narrative?   How do you know? What stories are people telling themselves?  

         In your startup business – what is YOUR underlying story, the story about how you create value for your clients?   Is it powerful? What emotion does it evoke?

       Feelings drive behavior. If you’re investing, a buyer, analyze which feelings are at work, and why, by identifying the dominant stories. If you’re an entrepreneur, a seller, shape your stories, by identifying clearly the motion you want to create with your innovation, then build everything you do around it, with a powerful narrative.


Read Stories to Your Kids – It Builds Their Brains!

By Shlomo Maital

childrens stories

   Among many “old fashioned” things now disappearing, are parents reading stories to their kids.  Dr. Parri Klass, writing in today’s Global New York Times, describes new research that shows we actually build kids’ brains when we read them stories.

    A year ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement saying all pediatric primary care should include “literacy promotion”, starting at birth!  Babies need stories, not just vaccines. This month, Klass reports, the journal Pediatrics published a study using FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to study brain activity in 3-5 year old children as they listened to age-appropriate stories.  Children whose parents read a lot to them had more activity in a part of the brain that deals with integrating sound and visual stimulation.  Why?  “When kids are hearing stories, they’re imagining in their mind’s eye when they hear the story.”     Apparently, this will help kids make images and stories out of words later on.     It will also help stimulate creativity.

     “When we show them a video… do we short circuit the process [of imaginging things] a little?” asked a researcher. 

      A famous Kansas study found that poor children heard millions fewer words by age 3 than better-off kids.  They’re disadvantaged right from the start.

    Another study found that “children who are being read to by caregivers are hearing vocabulary words that kids who are not being read to probably are not hearing.” 

    A researcher, Dr. Hutton, concluded, “Early reading is more than just a nice thing to do with kids…    It really does have a very important role to play in building brain networks that will serve children long-term as they transition from verbal to reading.”

    But all this is a bit  beside the point.  Reading to kids and grandkids is simply a great source of joy and satisfaction.  And besides, when you do it, you get to read wonderful imaginative stories, like one I just bought, by Israeli author David Grossman, about “The Sun Princess”,  a little girl whose mother secretly makes the sun rise and set and who joins the process.    Now where can you find ‘adult’ books like that?


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital