[In Part I of this two-part series, Patricia Raun discussed the work of Dan Kahan, founder of the Cultural Cognition Project, and his efforts to understand why it is difficult to connect across differences, the gaps between knowledge and belief, and the role of cultural identity in those gaps.]

Let me tell you a story about my early cultural identity. I was born into a family of proud Midwesterners. My father, a natural scientist and educator, identified deeply with farmers and rural America. He was a very practical man who preferred to stay away from urban centers and traffic, and he had a distrust of big city folks and anything that smacked of pretense. My mother, although a bit less rigid about her distrust of urban dwellers, was a model homemaker of the 20th Century and she adapted her identity to complement his. Our family subscribed to three periodicals: The Lincoln Journal-StarNational Geographic, and NebraskaLandmagazine. I absorbed this identity without questioning it.

When I was in undergraduate school I had a boyfriend who read The New Yorkermagazine. I refused to read the stories he recommended saying things like, “Oh brother. That effete magazine! I have better things to do with my time.” I think it was the title of the magazine that I could not bring myself to encounter. I had never been to New York – nor did I know any New Yorkers – but I pictured it as a frightening wasteland full of snobby, over-privileged people – and because of my firm identity as a practical and compassionate Midwesterner I had no time for whatever might be between the covers of that urban evangelism.

the new yorker cover

The root of the divisions in our country around politics, science, religion and more can be traced to exactly that kind of tribal identity. Just as my desire to identify with my family and Midwestern culture made me (foolishly and capriciously?) resistant to reading The New Yorker, members of certain groups must refuse to believe the findings of certain scientific research to preserve their place within their community.

The world has changed since my college days and I now know that none of us can afford to retreat to the safety of our comfortable tribal identities if our civilization is to survive. I have been deeply concerned about the absence of meaningful conversations around the most important ethical and social issues of our time – scientific issues (like stem cell research, climate change, and artificial intelligence).

As I said in my last blog post, Dan Kahan’s research suggests that it doesn’t matter much what we know about things like climate change – what matters is our community identity around the topic.


In his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores six moral foundations (care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, sanctity). Haidt is a master storyteller and his complex but compelling narrative leads one to consider many things – including the fact that our intuition leads our logic, and that different people react to different sets of moral foundations to guide their intuition – those sets that help them establish their cultural identity.

In Haidt’s discussion of the ties that bind people to one another, he outlines the way the hormone and neurotransmitter Oxytocin enhances our trust of, and care for, one another. Recent research suggests that people connect when they hear one another’s stories – and that hearing stories drastically heightens our levels of Oxytocin. Haidt writes: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. Everyone loves a good story; every culture bathes its children in stories.” “People who are able to construct a good narrative, particularly one that connects early setbacks and suffering to later triumph, are happier and more productive than those who lack such a ‘redemption’ narrative.”

Having spent the majority of my life studying and learning about stories in the theatre, it is clear to me that storytelling unites an abstract idea with human emotion and sensory experience. Recent neuroimaging research suggests that as you tell me a descriptive story about a specific event in your life, activity is taking place in the same locations in both of our brains. Your experience is literally becoming part of my experience. As I listen to, watch, or read a story I am – in some figurative and perhaps neurological sense – both myself and the storyteller. Seeing ourselves in the mirror of another’s story allows us to expand our tribe or group.

There are many challenges we face as a society, but in my opinion few tools are more important to our survival than empathy– or the desire to see through someone else’s eyes.

. The primary mechanism of that metaphysical sight is storytelling. My mission is to help scientists, scholars, medical professionals and sustainability leaders listen to their audiences, to empathize with them, to find points of commonality, to use metaphor, and to tell stories about their work. I use theatre exercises to help folks learn to connect in personal and emotional ways.


I’ve seen people develop their storytelling abilities in remarkable ways. In my experience the best storytellers have two things in common:

  • They listen to themselves. They notice their own physical, mental, and emotional experiences. They pay attention to their own senses – their own breath – their own feelings. They work to stay in the moment – not thinking about the mistake they just made or the meeting they have coming up.
  • They listen deeply to others. They are fully present for the person or people they are with. They give eye contact, orient their bodies and all their finely tuned human receivers to the others. They don’t move to analysis too soon – they give undivided attention. No technology or furniture between them and others . . . They notice tiny shifts in facial expression and other nonverbal communication.   They open their own minds, bodies, and hearts to the other. They notice what isn’t said and become curious. They ask questions.

Storytelling skill is a key capacity for any leader – and especially those who wish to lead change in the sustainability fields. That’s why I believe so strongly in my contributions to the needs of science communicators and sustainability leaders. Data and facts don’t stick in our minds. The data must be assembled into an emotionally moving story. The facts and information must to be arranged into something that makes sense to our intuitive selves. Emotional response and human connection are how we expand the tribe of thoughtful, open-minded citizens and support inclusive, generous, and sustainable enterprises.


Patty Raun headshot

Patricia Raun is a professional actor, theatre faculty member, and Director of the Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech where she shares the powerful tools of theatre to support skills of connection and communication in scientists, technology professionals, and scholars – helping them to discover ways to become more direct, personal, spontaneous, and responsive. In addition, she is a Fellow at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability in Arlington, Virginia where she teaches leadership skills distilled from actor training in theExecutive Master of Natural Resources program. From 2002 – 2016 she served as the founding Director of the School of Performing Arts at Virginia Tech. Raun is an award-winning teacher and administrator. Her applied work in science communication is inspired by her work with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Her particular interests include empathy development, serious games and roleplay, collaborative problem solving, and values-based leadership.