By Garth Sundem, author of Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Challenges: Overcoming Adversity Around the World
Unless I’m misremembering, I once had a chance to interview famed psychologist Elizabeth Loftus about the formation of false memories. Really, her research is on how our memories of events change after the fact. She described an experiment she’d done in which participants watched the video of a car crash and then estimated how fast the cars were going. But she didn’t just use the word crash to describe how the cars came together. She also used hit, smashed, collided, bumped, and contacted.
These words framed the story of the crash. How bad was the accident? Well, if the story was that the cars smashed into each other, it must have been worse than if they’d bumped each other. And how fast were the cars going? When Loftus said the cars had contacted each other, participants estimated the cars had been going, on average, just over 30 mph; when she said the cars smashed into each other, participants put the speed at over 40 mph.
On the surface, using words to influence memories is a nifty trick. But what Loftus’s work really shows is that the stories we tell ourselves after an experience are as important as the experience itself in how we understand it. For example, the story we tell ourselves about being lost in the woods can transform the experience from an ordeal into an adventure. Was that math test hard, or was it challenging? Did a World Cup soccer team lose because the players weren’t good enough, because they were unlucky, or because the referee was unfair? The event itself is only a starting point. It’s the story we tell ourselves about the event that defines how we understand it and what we take from it.
You’ve heard this before: Stories define our realities. Our stories may even define our identities.
“Identity is a life story,” writes Dan P. McAdams, professor and director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University.
I can see this in action. My son, Leif, is 12, and I can see him trying out different stories as he searches for his identity. For example, he’s a good rock climber, but we live in Boulder, Colorado, amid climbing mutants, and I recently heard him say, “I’m not very strong, but I’m good at figuring out tricky moves.” For better and for worse, this story influences his identity and helps define what he sees as possible. And I hear Leif’s coaches trying to help him change his story from “I’m bad at climbs that require strength,” to “I’m still learning how to be good at climbs that require strength.” The first story defines identity and possibility; the second seeks to change it.
But it is not only our own stories—our interpretations, framing, and evaluation of the things we experience—that shape our identities. Others’ stories also show us what is possible for our own lives. This is one reason (of many) that it can be hard to break cycles of poverty—the life stories surrounding a child influence that child’s expectations and menu of possibilities for his or her own life.
However, if stories of hopelessness and loss shrink kids’ possibilities, then stories of resilience and triumph can help expand them. The fact that Salva Dut led children through the desert to escape the civil war in South Sudan makes it seem more possible for kids to overcome their own challenges. The fact that the “Boys in the Boat” emerged from the Great Depression to win the gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics makes any dream seem possible. And the fact that Jackie Robinson was able to withstand blatant racism to integrate baseball makes it seem possible for kids to persevere in their own lives.
It is not just the stories we tell ourselves, but also the stories we are told—through the examples around us or by culture, media, and more—that shape the possibilities of our identities. Just like adjusting the interpretation of a car crash can change how people remember the event, the right stories can help kids see their lives in new ways.
Garth Sundem is a TED-Ed speaker and former contributor to the Science Channel. He blogs at GeekDad and PsychologyToday.com. He has been published in Scientific American, Huffington Post Science, Fast Company, Men’s Health, Esquire, The New York Times, Congressional Quarterly, and Publishers Weekly. Garth grew up on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and currently lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife, two kids, and a pack of Labradors. He is the author of the books in the Real Kids, Real Stories series and STEAM In a Jar®.
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