The Connection Between Narrative and Culture


“Economics has re-discovered the power of folklore: the themes in world folktales are linked to current culture.” Professor Ethan Mollick shared a recent study that exemplified this core concept.

Cultures with stories where tricksters are punished are trusting; stories where men dominate have more gender bias; stories of risk rewarded have more entrepreneurship.

These are the findings of a working paper by Stelios Michalopoulos and Melanie Meng Xue. They found that those patterns hold across groups, countries, and second-generation immigrants. The myths at the origin of the collective imagination are at the root cause of success or failure.

It makes sense as narratives are the central building blocks of societies. Stories have power. They help people remember what matters. Hence why if you want to change the outcome, you change the story.


Using conversation as a tool

What's fascinating about the study is that the authors use oral tradition to shed light on a group's cultural heritage. The analysis relies on a rich catalogue of thousands of motifs across 958 world societies: the lifetime work of eminent anthropologist and folklorist Yuri Berezkin.

This they link to the Ethnographic Atlas (EA) created by George Peter Murdock (1967), taking into account the uneven coverage of groups. Using the degree of political complexity and the presence of high gods, the researchers identify gaps in the ethnographic record.

As they explain, one can use folklore to quantify the extent of the pre-industrial market economy. The motifs above are the key themes used in the study. Tricksters are a common archetype in oral tradition and their stories exemplify trust. 

How societies portray challenges and competition is a clue to their risk-taking appetite. Stereotypes address questions of gender and power.

These folklore-based measures of historical attitudes are robust predictors of contemporary values and economic choices. Folks that grew up listening to stories where tricksters often fail to deceive their victims are more trusting and prosperous today.

Groups with oral traditions rich with heroes who successfully tackle challenging situations tend to display more appetite for risk and appear more entrepreneurial. Societies whose folklore portrays females as less dominant, more submissive, and more likely to engage in domestic affairs than males tend to relegate their women to inferior roles in their communities, both historically and today.

These patterns hold across countries, second-generation immigrants, and ethnic groups, suggesting that folklore may be one of the vehicles via which norms are intergenerationally transmitted.

A society's culture informs a company's culture. What people say in the hallways and between meetings is often telling. Beliefs and attitudes have a bearing on energy and results. Conversation is a great tool to uncover what's going on.


How does change happen in culture?

Culture develops over larger time horizons. It's a reflection of a society's or group orientation. Like the market, collective attention determines what people carry forward. Hence the prevailing narratives. 

Some see change as the result of influence by a group of outsiders. Moneyball, Liar's Poker, and Flash Boys and The Big Short all tackle the common theme of “outsiders with innovative ideas who find astonishing success.” Michael Lewis on Fresh Air:

“Everybody [on Wall Street] was working with the same set of facts about subprime mortgage lending — about how subprime mortgage loans were turned into bonds and repackaged and turned into CDOs and so on and so forth.

[And] the vast majority of the people in the markets took those facts and painted one kind of picture with it; it was a very pleasant picture. And a very small handful of people took the same facts and painted a completely different kind of picture with it. [I wanted to find out] 'What is it that enables [the people who bet against the market] to paint that picture?' and 'Why do these people look at the world differently?' ”

They “were able to see the failures of the market before the rest of the world did because they viewed the world differently.” Diversity of thinking is part of it. This is leverage. And likely inspiration for copycats. The harbinger of future change? Change that will stick?

I have another theory of change. There's no change without work. And there is no work without energy. You have to constantly replace money and products just to stay in the game. Because they lose value quickly. And each time there's a little less energy in the system.

Culture doesn't lose value through use. It's more stable. You can draw from it. Step into real culture and you feel it. The environment supports you. You can produce ideas. There's accountability for facts and lies. People invest in things that have more value.

It does start with a story. But the story has to reflect the reality to draw from it. Not just be utopia.

Culture is dynamic and ever changing. It contains multitudes. As so it should. Because so do individuals and thus groups. Simple constructs like the idea that we can manage change seduce us.  The truth is that more often than not, we're called to understand and explain it.


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