Why Science Needs a Story

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Whether it's a medication, skincare product, or breakfast cereal, we increasingly want the choices we make about health and wellness products to be science-based yet simple, informed yet intuitive, and evidence-based yet effortless.

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Doing so creates a clash between the new technologies powering the latest scientific innovations in health and wellness and the old technology of our human brains. Resolving this tension requires mastery of a new marketing necessity: the art of scientific storytelling.

Natural Born Storytellers

As Jonathan Gottschall reminds us: “We are as a species addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” While many will accept that storytelling is a hard-wired human tendency, some may challenge the idea that storytelling can play a role in how we help consumers make choices about something as important as human health. Science and story seem like incompatible opposites — a choice between fact and fiction — but appearances can be deceiving.  

The Truth Is The Truth Hurts

In fact, much of science is storytelling. Novelists understand we do not need to know everything about a character to make sense of a story. Instead, they offer sufficient detail to let us extract meaning and paint a reasonable picture in our minds.

Confronted with unfathomably rich data from clinical studies recruiting hundreds of participants, scientists do something similar. They use statistics to create stories about a fictional “average” person, based on just a fragment of available information. Rather than being deleterious to our well-being, our propensity to sacrifice science for story is fundamental to our well-being and ability to make good decisions.

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As Seth Godin, author of All Marketers are Liars: The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-Trust World, put it: “The stories we tell ourselves are lies that make it easier to live in a complicated world.”

The truth is the truth hurts. Not only can having too much information literally cause our brains to hurt, it can impair our ability to make good decisions. To make a positive difference in our lives and product choices, science needs a story.

The Healing Power of Story  

Not only can too much truth hurt, a little storytelling can heal. When participants in clinical trials receive a placebo, what they're getting isn't just a sugar pill — it can be thought of as a “story pill.” They're told a story about the innovative, scientifically advanced medication that they're potentially receiving. By changing expectations, that story, in itself, has been proven to elicit meaningful health benefits. Interestingly, there are indications that placebo effects have become stronger over time, as society's belief in the power of modern science has increased.

Applying the Art of Scientific Storytelling

If scientific storytelling alone can impact health outcomes, then how can we apply that knowledge in practice? Imagine two cancer patients discussing treatment options with their oncologists. 

The first patient is told about a medication that interrupts a signaling pathway involving a protein called PDL1 expressed on the tumor cell and its receptor, called the PD-1, expressed on T-cells.  

The second patient is told about a medication that will takes the brakes off their immune system and harnesses their inner potential to fight back. Both patients are being told about the same medication. But whereas the first patient is offered a mechanism of action, the second is offered a mechanism of meaning: a simplified scientific story that transforms the science into a more meaningful, memorable, and human form, increasing its capacity to effect a change in human behavior, decision making, and, ultimately, health outcomes.

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For health and wellness brands looking to help users initiate an important but difficult life change, such as changing their diet, losing weight, or quitting smoking, or in giving them the motivation to continue an intervention long term, despite inconvenience, costs, or side effects, this ability to tip the motivation scales can be decisive, both for the health outcomes of the end user and for the business.

For health and wellness brands and their marketing agencies, scientific storytelling artists should be deeply infused into creative and business-building strategies. To get the most out of health and wellness products backed by credible science, we owe those products, and their users, a good story.


Tim Mitchell is EVP, strategic innovation at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness.

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