Early Edutainment: The Behavioral Scientist’s Guide to Fairy Tales

“No one ever made a decision because of a number. 
They need a story.” 

—Daniel Kahneman, quoted in The Undoing Project

Once Upon A Time there was a series of articles on why behavioral scientists should be interested in literature. We introduced the fundamentals before giving our fresh take on nineteenth century classics. In this piece we turn to European fairy stories for lessons on how narrative and mass media can shape real-world behavior.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is fairest of all?

— “Little Snow-White,” Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm (1812)

A primary function of fiction is to reflect society, mirroring and critiquing its values in the guise of entertainment. In turn, the stories we tell shape the values we hold, the behaviors we enact, and the way we understand our world and purpose. Today this is well recognized, and mass entertainment is deliberately used as a vehicle for social change. “Edutainment, the modern portmanteau that describes this practice, promotes injunctive norms—signals of whether a behavior is viewed as good or bad by society, irrespective of whether it is in line with what people actually do—and models ways to conform to those norms.

Producing successful edutainment programming demands a special kind of alchemy, combining cultural literacy with knowledge of the local media market and the creative skills to write and produce stories that will galvanize audience action. While we are new to writing down the recipe for edutainment, its ingredients have been used successfully for centuries.

The stories we tell shape the values we hold, the behaviors we enact, and the way we understand our world and purpose.

Fairy tales, for example, were often explicitly written to report the injunctive norms of the day. This was especially true when those norms were in danger—Germanic culture and folklore, captured by the Grimm brothers, was under threat from Napoleonic rule—or emerging, as was the case when nineteenth-century Europeans began to recognize childhood as a critical period of development. The mirror was distorted by fantasy, but it is clear that fairy tale authors were using the form to show readers their own social values and instruct them on how to behave.

So, as we seek to estimate with increasing precision the exact mechanisms for changing behavior through narrative, what can these authors teach us?

Lesson #1: Know your audience and what you want them to do

As with all behavior-change campaigns, having a clear target audience was imperative to any fairy tale author worth their salt. Today we have the impression that these stories were written largely for children, but this was not originally the case. Charles Perrault, the seventeenth-century pioneer of the genre, originally adapted stories collected from Paris’s salons for ladies of the court of Louis XIV. These stories contained explicit, often infuriating instructional messages in the form of a closing “moral.” In “Cinderella,” for example, we learn that “graciousness is more important than a beautiful hairstyle. It is a true gift of the fairies.” Interestingly, Perrault’s closing messages are not blind to the shortcomings of human nature; in the closing lines for “The Sleeping Beauty,” he concedes that advocating patience is unrealistic in the face of a “hot state”:

Yet this good advice, I fear,
Helps us neither there nor here.
Though philosophers may prate
How much wiser ’tis to wait,
Maids will be a-sighing still—
Young blood must when young blood will.

Some edutainment campaigns today also target young women who experience specific risk factors. Indeed, as Perrault was to French ladies of the court, Yenga is to teen girls in Ethiopia. This five-piece girl band was manufactured to empower adolescents by giving them practical advice on everything from intimate-partner violence (see Perrault’s “Blue Beard”) to consent and forced marriage (see “Donkey Skin”). Beyond the messages they promote, the members of Yenga are role models, each deliberately representing a different style and mode of modern womanhood in Ethiopia.

Yenga has been a powerful force in the Ethiopian media since it launched in 2013. Image: Yenga

There are many ways that role modeling can influence behavior. One specific component of the edutainment theory of change predicts that the parasocial relationships viewers form with these kinds of role models are powerful modifiers of behavior. While the careful design of Yenga results in a positive influence, parasocial identification can also backfire. For example, MTV’s show 16 and Pregnant appears to put its American viewers at greater risk of becoming teen moms themselves.

A more sophisticated means of asking a specific readership to change their behavior involves directly implicating them in the narrative outcome. Elementary-school-age players of the video game Squire’s Quest!, in which medieval knights must consume enough fruit and vegetables to protect their kingdom, increased their fruit and vegetable consumption, perhaps believing that extra apple a day really could keep the bad guys at bay.

Back in the nineteenth century, young readers of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” may have been similarly compelled to take action for the sake of their heroine. In a happy shock to everyone, she is given one last shot at eternal life. However, her success relies on children behaving well: “For every day on which we find a good child, who is the joy of his parents and deserves their love, our time of probation is shortened… But when we see a naughty or a wicked child, we shed tears of sorrow, and for every tear a day is added to our time of trial!” This masterstroke of blurring the line between fantasy and reality feels custom-made for a young audience less equipped to disentangle the real from the fictional.

Lesson #2: Let the narrative do the persuading

Edutainment audiences are often more susceptible to social instruction delivered via narrative, as it makes them less likely to feel they are being sold a moral agenda. Building recognizable character archetypes; introducing likeable, aspirational, or relatable protagonists; and constructing unfamiliar worlds to transport readers are all well-evidenced ways to do this. While his explicit morals might run counter to this, Perrault is a master of these narrative-involvement techniques. Take, for example, “the Wolf” as a character archetype. While it is tempting to take literally the idea that Little Red Riding Hood is duped by an animal pretending to be her Grandmama, Perrault clarifies that the Wolf is a stand-in for predatory men who would “follow the young maids in the streets, even into their homes.” Depressingly, the predatory wolf, who “may lurk in every guise” to lure young ladies into trouble, sounds a lot like the Fataki, the character archetype constructed by Johns Hopkins researchers in 2007 to reduce tolerance for predatory cross-generational relationships in Tanzania.

Narrative transportation also helps readers overcome fear. Specifically, compelling plotlines can motivate audiences to confront frightening ideas that they might otherwise avoid. For example, the third season of MTV’s series Shuga features a story line in which central characters discover they have been exposed to HIV, face their fears, and get tested. Research was able to prove that watching the series doubled the rate of HIV testing among young Nigerians, with even larger effects for those who reported higher narrative involvement.

In a far cry from the expected “happily ever after,” readers of fairy tales in their original form are often struck by the shocking and sudden endings… These shock endings linger, reinforcing the key takeaway through emotional hangover.

Traveling back in time, fairy tales also used fear to great effect. As authors shifted their sights to young children in the nineteenth century, the stories became no less terrifying: child characters are kidnapped by a cannibal witch, taken to be dissected by their stepmother’s henchmen, and forced to promise their firstborn to a creepy magic man with a mystery name. These dramatic plot points are likely to have made the stories even more popular than if they involved fairies alone, but they may also serve a pedagogical purpose. As we know from behavioral science research, the peak-end effect means that the climax and close of an experience shape our impression of it, whether that experience is a colonoscopy or trick-or-treating.

In a far cry from the expected “happily ever after,” readers of fairy tales in their original form are often struck by the shocking and sudden endings. “Little Snow-White” closes with the stepmother being forced to don a pair of red-hot shoes and dance until she drops dead, the last line of “Rumpelstiltskin” describes how “the little man … in his rage … tore himself in two,” and—before an editorial intervention—Collodi’s “Pinocchio”ended with everyone’s favorite “real boy” being hanged after murdering Jiminy Cricket, lying about Geppetto abusing him, and having his feet scorched off. These shock endings linger, reinforcing the key takeaway through emotional hangover.

Pinocchio met a gruesome end in the original version of the story. Image: Enrico Mazzanti, the first illustrator of Le avventure di Pinocchio, colored by Daniel Donna/Wikimedia Commons

Lesson # 3: If you want people to learn, use pedagogical techniques

The BBC Media Action guide to edutainment makes it clear that persuasive narratives do not happen by accident; they are constructed using deliberate scaffolding, an underlying theory of change, and audience feedback. For example, in The Tea Cup Diaries—the objective of which is to use radio drama to improve ethnic relations in Myanmar—characters from persecuted minority groups were introduced slowly over many seasons, before taking main story lines. While Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen probably didn’t have a theory of change on the walls of their writing rooms, they all produced works that read like a coherent whole; a kind of curriculum for readers that they audience-tested and tinkered with over time.

One common behavioral device embedded within their works is the use of psychological spacing, which refers to spreading key lessons out rather than cramming them together (in this case, across a longer set of stories). Through repeated story tropes, character archetypes, and moral lessons, the stories in each set build on one another to reinforce the overarching learning objectives.

While Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen probably didn’t have a theory of change on the walls of their writing rooms, they all produced works that read like a coherent whole.

Within the stories, repetition (usually in threes) is also a common rhetorical device. In “The Emperor’s New Clothesa foreshadowing of Asch’s early conformity experiments—we are shown three sequential trips to view the invisible cloth to cement the concept of the trick. Snow-White is duped by her stepmother disguised as three different peasant women. And three little pigs, three bears, and three gifts are deployed variously to make sure we don’t miss the point. The science of threes may not be iron-cast but the intuition of these writers isn’t far off, with some evidence suggesting that three to five items is the limit of what can be held in working memory at a given time.

In this modern era of story telling, we’ve become increasingly conscious of the feedback loop between the stories we tell and the way we see the world. Companies like Disney are generally trying to use this knowledge for good: people of color are becoming more visible; princesses (although still overrepresented) don’t have to be helpless; gay characters exist, and not exclusively as villains.

But the power of story telling can just as easily be used by those with less-noble intentions. Social media platforms are enabling fake news to spread, and outright propaganda is still used many parts of the world to control the masses. As we learn more about edutainment as a tool, we will wield greater power to shape culture and values, for better or for worse.

So, our fellow behavioral scientists, to paraphrase a modern fairy tale: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Choose your stories carefully.

Authors’ note: Special thanks to Elspeth’s mum (and fellow Literature grad), Sue, for lending her expertise in this genre!