How cognitive bias affects storytelling

Storytelling is deeply interlaced with our experience as a species. You may think of the bards of Medieval England or Viking-age Skalds, traveling the land and collecting stories. Or perhaps you think of an old grandmother recounting a fable to her grandchildren to help them learn an important lesson about fairness or honesty. But storytelling has had an impact on how we interact since the dawn of our species, from the earliest Cro-Magnon cave paintings 40,000 years ago, believed to be the work of respected elders or shamans (Ayiter, 2005), to the memes we share on social media today.

Lascaux cave paintings in Montignac, France, estimated to be approximately 17,000 years old.

Visual storytelling is more important today than ever before. The constant onslaught of information available to us in this digital age has shortened our attention spans and devolved our ability to consume, or at least our interest in, long-form communications. We have never been closer to our cave painting Cro-Magnon ancestors. To that end, studies show that 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual, visuals are processed 60,000x faster in the brain than text, and that 79% of people scan online content. (Parera, 2016). Bo Bergström, in his book Essentials of Visual Communication tells us, “The human brain welcomes a well-structured story, but it is likely to reject a dry, fact-packed report, or a banal detective series on television that fails to grip the viewer’s imagination.” (Bergström, 2008, p. 15).

The human attention span in 2020 vs. the notoriously forgetful goldfish.

In a time when storytelling is so entwined with every aspect of our lives, and can take on so many forms, it is easy to take this art for granted. Storytelling is no longer relegated to the theatre or the novel but is part of our daily lives. It can be used to promote sales through advertising, marketing, public relations and on social media; spread information or solve problems through photojournalism, fundraising, and science; entertain us in film, television, video games; or even cross-over or fall into multiple categories at the same time.

As we can now see, storytelling surrounds and infiltrates almost every moment of our lives. It helps us understand the world around us and it shapes how we want to portray and purport ourselves. Stories can serve two equally important purposes – to teach us something new, and to confirm what we think we already know or believe. The latter is called confirmation bias and it has an unendingly important impact on both the stories we consume, and the stories we tell.

Stories can serve to teach of new ways of thinking, or confirm what we think we already know. The Lion & the Mouse. Aesop’s Fables.

Every day we must make decisions, and are faced with missing information or an incomplete understanding of the situation, or the need to decide very quickly. These decisions are often made with the help of heuristics, or “rules of thumb that guide behavior down the most efficient pathway.” (Psychology Today, 2019). Drawing on the work of Nobel-prize winning economist and cognitive psychologist Herbert Simon and made popular in the 1970s by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, heuristics are mental shortcuts that allow people to solve problems and make decisions quickly without causing undue burden on our mental load. The three main types of heuristics used by humans in the decision-making process are anchoring, availability, and representativeness.

Tversky & Kahneman. Two wild and crazy guys.

The anchoring heuristic suggests that people will rely heavily on the first piece of information that they learn about a topic, even if it isn’t the most relevant. This heuristic is often drawn upon in marketing when retailers show items marked down of an original, higher price.

The availability heuristic says that individuals will estimate the likelihood of something occurring based on how readily examples come to mind. Therefore, people tend to overestimate the probability of events that are easy to remember or have been recently discussed. As an example, people may overestimate the likelihood of being attacked by a shark because specific incidents of shark attacks are sensationalized on the news and are often very memorable.

Finally, the representativeness heuristic allows people to categorize objects or people based on how similar they are to known entities or estimate the likelihood of an event by comparing it to existing prototypes. When you see a heavily tattooed man, you are more likely to think he is a criminal, or at the very least a musician, than a doctor.

Heuristics can be helpful in making quick decisions without overburdening your mental load, but they can also create cognitive biases and lead to stereotyping. Cognitive biases are described as “a phenomenon which involves a deviation from reality that is predictable and relatively consistent across people.” (Dimara et al., 2018). In their paper A Task-based Taxonomy of Cognitive Biases for Information Visualization, Dimara et al. identified 151 biases. They state that while unique, they share the following traits:

  • Biases are subconscious. “A person who is subject to a cognitive bias is unaware of it, and believes that their decision, judgement, or memory is unbiased.”
  • They are persistent. “Biases often persist even when people are informed and trained on how to overcome them.”
The Cognitive Bias Codex lists 176 different biases, which Dimara et al. used as the start of their list for the taxonomy.

While any of the 151 cognitive biases may affect any aspect of our lives, including the stories we tell and how we perceive the stories we hear, I have identified six to define. These are the biases that I have had the most experience with as a storyteller, but it is in no way an exhaustive list.

Confirmation bias: The tendency to look for information that supports or confirms existing beliefs or hypotheses. This bias can especially effect data visualization because it can be used to give more weight to data or evidence that confirms their hypothesis, or when data is gathered or interpreted selectively to confirm the hypothesis. (Noor, 2020).

False-consensus effect: The tendency to assume that your own opinions, beliefs, attributes, or behaviors are more widely shared than is the case. It is often attributed to people’s desire to be normal, correct, and appropriate. (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2020b).

Narrative fallacy: The tendency to see events as stories, with logical chains of cause and effect. While it helps us make sense of the world and find reason in situations we may not understand, it can also lead us to make decisions based more on how the information is presented than the validity of the information itself. (Hooper, 2021).

Social media especially acts as a bolster for many of our biases.

Fundamental attribution error: The tendency to assume personality-based explanations for behaviors (what “kind” of person they are) rather than considering social or environmental forces that may influence their actions or behaviors. (Mcleod, 2019).

Framing bias: Like the narrative fallacy, the framing bias suggests that we are likely to allow how information is presented to us change the outcome of our decision-making process. This often results in storytellers adjusting some facts into simpler terms or a more positive light to frame the story in a certain way. (The Decision Lab, 2018).

In a 1981 experiment by Kahneman and Tversky, study participants were asked to choose between two programs to combat an unusual disease. People preferred the program described as having a “33% chance of saving a life” over the program described as having a “66% chance of death” despite the two outcomes being the same. (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981)

This framing bias particularly informs how marketers and advertisers create their branding and content. Suggesting that a hand sanitizer kills 95% of germs rather than lets 5% of them live is using this framing bias advantageously in marketing terms.

Identifiable victim bias: The tendency to offer greater aid when a specific, identifiable person or group is observed under hardship, as compared to a large, vaguely defined community with the same need. (Small & Loewenstein, 2003). This bias comes into play particularly in storytelling through photojournalism and fundraising.

As a fundraiser, this bias is particularly interesting to me. Small et al. suggest that “it cannot be argued that the identifiable victim effect is a bias to give too much to identifiable victims, or to give too little to statistical victims. The bias is simply that people care inconsistently.” (Small et al., 2007). In a field experiment on how this bias impacted charity donations, Habitat for Humanity solicited funds to build a house for a family who “had been selected” or “will be selected.” In neither situation were the donors given any further information about the family. Contributions were significantly greater for the solicitation regarding the family who had already been selected. (Small & Loewenstein, 2003.)

Non-profits use the identifiable victim effect to influence donors.

In another real-time example about how the identifiable victim effect can be used in storytelling, Jenni and Loewenstein recount how in the 1993 debates over the North American Free Trade Agreement, “opponents could identify specific individuals who would lose their jobs if the agreement was approved, whereas proponents could refer only to the additional ‘statistical’ jobs that would presumably result.” (Jenni & Loewenstein, 1997).

The crux of good storytelling is getting your audience entranced by the message or information that you are trying to convey. To tell an impassioned story, you must in some way believe the information that you are conveying, which leans on your own biases, while also pique the interest of your audience by leaning on theirs.

“Strong against weak, evil against good. Such conflicts lie at the heart of a captivating, dramatic story, and the deeper the conflict, the stronger the audience’s identification with the character’s is likely to be.”

(Bergström, 2008, p.15)

Biases are a subconscious byproduct of the decision-making process. Since everyone exhibits different biases, the way we collect and tell stories, and the ways that our stories are interpreted are always going to be subject to their effects. The bias blind spot is the tendency for people to see themselves as less susceptible to nonconscious predispositions and cognitive influences than others. (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2020). Knowing what biases we are subject to is the first, and most important step, in understanding how we can both avoid their unintended consequences and use them to our advantage in a way that does not cause our audience to jump to harmful conclusions.

Confirmation bias is one of the most common, and most harmful biases that we will encounter as storytellers. It can affect how we may collect, analyze and curate sets of data to display. Lydia Hooper suggests that for graphic artists specializing in data visualization, “we might be inclined to select and use only data that tells the story we are personally most convinced of.” (Hooper, 2021). If you are creating content with an agenda, you can be sure that confirmation bias is weighing into your storytelling.

Many articles focus on avoiding bias, but studies on the identifiable victim effect have shown instances in which educating others about bias can reduce the efficacy of your content. The identifiable victim effect is discussed often in the terms of raising funds for non-profits. A famous quote in the fundraising world, which has been often attributed to Josef Stalin, though that attribution is not carved in stone, is “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” This quote speaks to the identifiable victim effect which states that people are more likely to provide monetary support for a single, identifiable victim than for many, unidentifiable (statistical) victims. In fundraising, storytellers use the identifiable victim effect to highlight one story of an individual the donors can help with their donation to spur empathy, and therefore donations.

Small and Loewenstein discovered, through four separate studies, that “debiasing through deliberative thinking, reduces the discrepancy in giving to statistical and identifiable victims.” Unfortunately, instead of raising the amount of funds given to statistical victims, it lowered the amount of money given to identifiable victims. “On one hand, teaching about identifiability led individuals to donate smaller amounts regardless of whether victims were identifiable or not. Hence, it at least increased people’s consistency toward the two types of victims. Yet, the intervention had a pernicious effect on overall caring, since people gave less after each of our interventions in the identifiable condition but gave no more to statistical victims. Insight, in this situation, seems to breed callousness.” (Small et al., 2007). So, is it alright to lean into the identifiable victim effect if it means that you will be able to raise more funds to support the statistical victims?

Perhaps we cannot, or as seen in the Sympathy & Callousness study referenced above, should not attempt to remove all bias from storytelling. But there are certainly ways to avoid the unintended outcomes of such biases:

  • Be balanced: Lydia Hooper notes that “stories are best when they balance both statistical trends and the experience of real people.” (Hooper, 2021). Saying simply that around six million Jewish people were killed during the holocaust may not truly affect an individual because they cannot comprehend what six million people means to them. Conversely, telling the story of one individual who died in a concentration camp is also not representative of this tragedy. But, finding a way to represent both great statistical numbers, and personal stories, such as the 4,000 shoes confiscated from prisoners at the Majdanek Concentration Camp in Lublin Poland, which can be viewed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, can combine the vast with the personal in an extraordinarily poignant way.
Shoes represent both the individual and the statistical victims of the Holocaust.
  • Be authentic: When telling a story, especially with the use of visuals, being authentic and transparent will get your far and help you avoid the framing bias. Jade Lien notes that, “visual storytelling needs to capture those slide-of-life moments that help the audience connect with the meaning behind the picture.” Furthermore, she suggests that the most effective way to tell a visual story “isn’t always the perfectly pristine photo, but rather the nitty-gritty and beautifully flawed, majestic images.” (Lien, 2019). While our first instinct may be to skew the story to fit the narrative that we want to portray, telling the true, raw, authentic story will always make a greater impact on the audience and perhaps help us learn something along the way.
  • Be inscrutable: If you create content with any modicum of professionality, people will believe you are an expert on the topic. Furthermore, because of confirmation bias, if the content that you create or the story you tell lends itself to confirm the beliefs of others, they will spread your message without a moment of thought. This is a huge responsibility for storytellers in the digital age especially. The NPR journalistic code of ethics states that their purpose is to pursue the truth – nothing more, nothing less. “Diligent verification is critical. We take great care to ensure that statements of fact in our journalism are both correct and in context. In our reporting, we rigorously challenge both the claims we encounter and the assumptions we bring.” (NPR, 2021). Treating all stories you tell with the same inscrutable respect with which NPR journalists treat their own reporting will ensure that you will not allow bias to color your content in a way that will make it dangerous for the audience to consume.

“Photojournalists and photo editors have serous responsibilities to the viewers of their images, and clarity, accuracy, and transparency are our allies.”

Santiago Lyon (The New York Times, 2015).
  • Be Transparent: Just like in middle school math, show your work! If you collected data, share all the data as well as your methods for collection. If you are sharing photos, share the contact sheets. Stanley Greene tells The New York Times, “I put the contact sheets in my book Open Wound because I wanted the audience to see that I wasn’t setting up shots and to show them how I thought. I wanted to show the warts and all.” (The New York Times, 2015)
  • Be solutions based: It’s easy to get people wound up with a quipy piece of content that states a problem or issue. A lot of storytelling that is problems focused can be a haven for confirmation bias as well. If you’re going to report on a problem, try to look for solutions as well. This will force you to research your topic, hear different sides of the story, and expand your understanding of what is at play. “The way that many journalists select, frame, and tell stories, by focusing on dramatic events and problems and rarely on what is working, gives audiences a distorted picture of the world – a picture in which problems are rarely solvable.” (Campbell, 2018).

The word bias is biased. People have a knee-jerk reaction when presented with the idea of having them. We believe that the way we see the world and behave are introspective and attribute our own shortcomings to external influences. All the while, we see the behavior as others in the complete opposite manner, rarely reflecting on how outside forces may be influencing the world view or behaviors of others. As content creators we must understand our own biases and as best we can, those of our consumer, and then decide whether it is alright to utilize them in how we tell our stories.


APA Dictionary of Psychology. (2020a). APA Dictionary of Psychology. In

APA Dictionary of Psychology. (2020b). False-consensus effect. In APA Dictionary of Psychology.

Ayiter, E. (2005). History of visual communication.

BergströmB. (2008). Essentials of visual communication (p. 15). Laurence King Publishing.

Campbell, D. (2018, January 22). Why it’s time for visual journalism to include a solutions focus. Medium; Witness.

Dimara, E., Franconeri, S., Plaisant, C., Bezerianos, A., & Dragicevic, P. (2018). A task-based taxonomy of cognitive biases for information visualization. IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics, 26(2), 1–1.

Harvard Business Review. (2014, December 1). Vision Statement: How to Lie with Charts. Harvard Business Review.

Hooper, L. (2021, May 23). Ten Ways Cognitive Biases Impact Data Design Work. Medium.

JENNI, K. E., & LOEWENSTEIN, G. (1997). Explaining the “Identifiable Victim Effect.” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 14(3), 235–257.

Lien, J. (2019, November 21). The four principles of visual storytelling. Amplifi.

Mcleod, S. (2019). Fundamental attribution error. Simply Psychology.

Noor, I. (2020, June 10). Confirmation Bias. Simply Psychology.

NPR. (2021). These are the standards of our journalism.

Parera, E. (2016, July 12). 10 types of visual content for your strategies on social networks. Postcron – Social Media Marketing Blog and Digital Marketing Blog.

Psychology Today. (2019). Heuristics. Psychology Today.

Small, D. A., & Loewenstein, G. (2003). Helping a victim or helping the victim: Altruism and identifiability. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 26(1), 5–16.

Small, D. A., Loewenstein, G., & Slovic, P. (2007). Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 102(2), 143–153.

The Decision Lab. (2018). Framing effect – biases & heuristics. The Decision Lab.

The New York Times. (2015, October 29). Staging, manipulation and truth in photography. Lens Blog.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 211(4481), 453–458.

One thought on “How cognitive bias affects storytelling

  1. Barbara Vestergaard says:

    Wow this is a long one and I am too tired to read right now but it is interesting to me so I’ll finish it tomorrow.

    Sent from my iPhone


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