Psychologists call us humans, among other things, “meaning-making machines.”  We’re always looking for the reason why, the cause for the effect, the coherent narrative that pulls it all together and ties it up neatly.  So far so good, but of course we can get carried away.

Consider the phenomenon of “cancer clusters.”  They can generate intense public and legislative attention, featuring sympathetic victims and seemingly odds-defying concentrations of disease: “There must be something in the air or water or soil that’s causing this!”  And anyone with a heart has to feel sorry for those stricken with disease. Powerful stories!

But how real are they? That is to say, invoking a recently unfashionable but time-honored tool, “Does the science support their existence?”

Fortunately, the NIH thoroughly looked into this and a few years ago published “Cancer clusters in the USA: What do the last twenty years of state and federal investigations tell us?” (Critical Reviews in Toxicology, July 2012).  They reviewed the publicly available cancer cluster investigations since 1990, covering all 50 states, constituting 428 investigations of 567 cancers of concern.  In 87% of cases they could not even confirm an increase in incidence.  Of the 13% that passed this threshold (72 in total), three were linked, with variable confidence, to hypothesized environmental exposure and only one revealed a clear cause.  Final score: Stories 427, Science 1. Or as they put it in their understated conclusion, “It is fair to state that extensive efforts to find causes of community cancer clusters have not been successful.”

As always, methodological challenges can be (and were in this case) issued, but that is irrelevant to our message; we’re not here to sponsor a dialectical exhumation of this NIH meta-study:  The point is unmistakable: Stories have tremendous power, particularly where they purport to explain the inexplicable.

In our own lives, if we repeat the constructed narratives of our lives to ourselves often enough, they become scripts or patterns that can unconsciously govern our behavior.  In other words, we forget they’re stories that we made up ourselves and treat them and act on them as immutable truths, the way the world is.

This may suggest stories operate primarily at the personal, individual level: They can, and if you find yourself trapped in or wondering whether a narrative you’ve constructed for yourself is still optimally adaptive, may we suggest an executive coach or a therapist.  But as you would expect in the pages of Adam Smith, Esq., I want to focus primarily on the organizational level and the power of stories to influence behavior.

Especially in the realm of changing organizational behavior, stories can make or break you. A first logical step might be simply to identify the leading stories “in circulation” at your firm: Expose them to the light of day, as it were.  Then you can at least start to understand how they arose, how relevant or obsolete they are today, and who at the firm is particularly invested in maintaining their hold on people.

What exactly might these stories look like?

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