We Pay Attention to Stories with Emotional Appeal


“All the knowledge I possess everyone else can acquire, but my heart is all my own.”

[Johann Wolfgang von Goethe]

Dr. Paul D. MacLean was a physician and neuroscientist who made significant contributions in the fields of physiology, psychiatry, and brain research through his work at Yale Medical School and the National Institute of Mental Health.

The author of a controversial evolutionary theory, the “triune brain,” he proposed that the human brain was in reality three brains in one—the reptilian complex in charge of fight-or-flight type decision-making, the emotions-controlling limbic system, and the neocortex, which drives higher thinking skills. Post-2000, comparative neuroscientists have moved away from MacLean's hypothesis that each layer was added sequentially.

It was the 1977 Pulitzer Prize winner The Dragons of Eden that spread the model. Carl Sagan combines the fields of anthropology, evolutionary biology, psychology, and computer science to give a perspective on how human intelligence may have evolved. Scientifically, the book may be outdated today, as we have advanced in our understanding of the human brain and in how we make the connections we make, but it still makes for a fascinating reading.

A simplified diagram of the “triune brain” model shows the emotional layer of our brain wrapped around the decision-making levels and that is a good start for understanding why a story with emotional appeal works. When well done, it moves us to a reaction of some kind. In a primitive sense, stories charged with emotion elicit a kind of fight-or-flight visceral reaction in us. We must do something.

There's more. In Brain Rules John Medina says, “emotionally charged events are better remembered—for longer and with accuracy—that neutral events.” Given that 10 minutes is all we have to hold someone's attention after we got it, this is a data point to take into account.

While what appeals to specific individuals is based on their context and history, “certain emotionally charged events are universal, capable of capturing the attention of all of us.” Says Medina:

Such stimuli come directly from our evolutionary heritage, so they hold the greatest potential in teaching and business. They are strictly related to survival concerns. Regardless of who we are, the brain pays a great deal of attention to several questions:

“Can I eat it? Will it eat me?”

“Can I mate with it? Will it mate with me?”

“Have I seen it before?”

We're tuned into perceiving threats, having reproductive opportunities, and discerning patterns. Hence why the timeless popularity of stories like Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, which even as a parody of Roland starts with the tie-tested, “Of loves and ladies, knights and arms, I sing, / of courtesies and many a daring feat.”

Holding attention in movies

Hollywood has its own way of dealing with story and emotion. In Story former Fulbright scholar and screenwriter Bob McKee says:

All writers must come to understand the relationship of story to life: Story is the metaphor for life.


A storyteller is a life poet, and artist who transforms day-to-day living, inner life and outer life, dream and actuality into a poem whose rhyme scheme is events rather than words — a two-hour metaphor that says: Life is like this!

Therefore, a story must abstract from life to discover its essences, but not become an abstraction that loses all sense of life-as-lived. A story must be like life, but not so verbatim that it has no depth or meaning beyond what's obvious to anyone on the street.

Story in Hollywood is often forced and filled with cliches or thin when it comes to art films. To hold the audience attention directors must resort to creative narrative devices to compensate. In the case of art:

with one or two possibilities: information or sensory stimulation. Either dialogue-heavy scenes of political argument philosophical musing, and character's self-conscious descriptions of their emotions; or lush production design and photography or musical scores to pleasure the audience's senses: The English Patient.

Whichever narrative device we choose, we should remain coherent to bring our audience on a journey with us.

Vying for attention in ads

Threats to the status quo, sex, and remembering things we have seen before are good ingredients to have in an ad, says Medina. Steve Hayden, who produced the famous commercial introducing Apple Computer in 1984 included all three of them in the story, setting a new standard for Super Bowl ads.

It opens with a scene showing an auditorium filled with robot-like men all wearing the same attire in a bluish light. The reference is to Nineteen Eighty-Four a dystopian drama film depicting a totalitarian future society written for the screen and directed by Michael Anderson in 1956, loosely based upon George Orwell's novel of the same name.

the men are staring at the screen where a giant male face is spouting off platitude fragments such as “information purification!” and “unification of thought!” The men in the audience are absorbing these messages like zombies.

Then the camera shifts to a young woman in gym clothes, sledgehammer in hand, running full tilt toward the auditorium. She is wearing red shorts, the only bright color in the entire commercial. Sprinting down the center isle, she throws her sledgehammer at the screen containing Big Brother. The screen explodes in a hall of sparks and blinding light.

Plain letters flash on the screen: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984.”

The threat of totalitarian society in a free country, the sexy red shorts… and the liberated female of the '80s throwing a literal wrench in the bluish male atmosphere. Mac vs. IBM. Lots of pattern matching as well.

Many people have read 1984 or seen the movie. People who were really into computers at the time made the connection to IBM, a company often called Big Blue for its suit-clad sales force. There universal emotional stimuli are the reason why Apple's ad was so memorable.

Attention in culture

IBM's uniforms were not the only, well, uniform thing about IBM. In Quiet Susan Cain describes the rise of the “mighty likeable fellow” using IBM's earlier sales culture as an example:

At IBM, a company that embodied the ideal of the company man, the sales force gathered each morning to belt out the company anthem, “Ever Onward,” and to harmonize on the “Selling IBM” song, set to the tune of “Singing in the Rain.”

“Selling IBM,” it began, “we're selling IBM. What a glorious feeling, the world is our friend.” The ditty built to a stirring close: “We're always in trim, we work with a vim. We're selling, just selling IBM.”

Only a certain kind of person could do that first thing in the morning, and then go out and sell. The jingle and ritual reinforced the story these men told themselves about their attitude sin getting the job done.

It was a dog-eat-dog society and whoever could not cope, well, there was a handy anti-anxiety drug just released on the market by the Carter-Wallace drug company in 1955. Anxiety thus nicely reframed as the natural product of an overly social society. Marketed to men, the drug became the fastest selling pharmaceutical product on the market.

Anxiety and tension are strong emotions to overcome.

North Carolina University researchers who have conducted an analysis of 50 years of hit songs have identified key themes that resonate. They found a limited range of emotions that resonate with the most people. Not surprisingly they are themes that relate to loss aversion and the perception of threat, “loss, desire, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration, nostalgia, rebellion, jaded, desperation, escapism and confusion.”

We respond to emotion because we relate to it from the intimate confines of the human experience. Weaved into a story, emotion make it resonate… and stick.

A bonus discovery researchers will need to replicate is the connection between creativity and attention in the brain. Preliminary data from one study shows the area of expressive communication lighting up.

If you're curious about the principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school, grab a copy of Brain Rules.