Hari Patience-Davies gets out her magnifying glass and dearstalker hat to look into the source of the widely claimed statistic that stories are 22 times more memorable than facts alone…

I recently purchased a copy of Actual Minds, Possible Worlds by Jerome Bruner. The internet – and various articles, blogs and graphics – have been crediting this book as the source of “a fact wrapped in a story is 22 times more memorable than facts alone”.

Except it’s not – I read it from cover to cover and while there are some very interesting bits about the two modes of cognitive functioning (the narrative and the paradigmatic) and a breakdown of basic story structure as steady state, breach, crisis, redress – there’s nothing whatsoever about stories being more memorable than facts.

It’s possible this tidbit is in one of his other books, or that he said it in a speech and the source got incorrectly labelled, but I can’t find any references to Bruner’s authorship that don’t also reference Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Some sources credit Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University with the 22 times more memorable statistics – but again I can’t it in her books, only in one video where she states it as fact, with no explanation of how the number was determined.

This particular phrase – a fact wrapped in a story is 22 times more memorable than the fact alone – seems to be somewhat apocryphal.

However, I do know of two studies which prove that stories are more memorable – but neither one has a ratio as high as 22 times.

In a 1969 study students at Stanford were tested on their ability memorise a list of 12 words. Half the group studied the list for 2 minutes, the other half were instructed to use the same amount of time to create a narrative – a story – that contained all the words.

When the students were tested on their recall, 93% of the students who had created a story remembered the words, while only 13% of those who has simply tried to memorise the list could.

So building a story around the list made it around 7 times as memorable as the list alone.

Similarly, in their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath conduct an experiment with students at Stanford. Students are asked to prepare a 1 minute speech on whether or not non-violent crime is a serious problem (half for, half against). On average, the students used 2.5 statistics in their 1 minute speeches – only 1 in 10 students tells a story.

But when it comes to remembering the presentations 10 minutes later, only 5% of the audience could recall any individual statistic, but 63% of the audience could remember the stories.

Which means in this case, stories are about 12 times as memorable as statistics.

It is clear that including stories in a presentation makes it more memorable, and using a story to help you remember something is a powerful technique – but we should probably drop the 22 times rhetoric – unless some wonderful reader can point me in the direction of the research – be it Bruner’s, Aaker’s or someone else’s – that proves the point.


Image credit: Photo by Black ice from Pexels

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