The Secrets Of Storytelling: Why We Love A Good Yarn
- The Secrets Of Storytelling: Why We Love A Good Yarn
Our Love For Telling Tales Reveals The Workings Of The Mind
By Jeremy Hsu
Scientific American Mind
September 18, 2008
When Brad Pitt tells Eric Bana in the 2004 film Troy
that "there are no pacts between lions and men," he is
not reciting a clever line from the pen of a Hollywood
screenwriter. He is speaking Achilles' words in English
as Homer wrote them in Greek more than 2,000 years ago
in the Iliad. The tale of the Trojan War has captivated
generations of audiences while evolving from its origins
as an oral epic to written versions and, finally, to
several film adaptations. The power of this story to
transcend time, language and culture is clear even
today, evidenced by Troy's robust success around the
Popular tales do far more than entertain, however.
Psychologists and neuroscientists have recently become
fascinated by the human predilection for storytelling.
Why does our brain seem to be wired to enjoy stories?
And how do the emotional and cognitive effects of a
narrative influence our beliefs and real-world
The answers to these questions seem to be rooted in our
history as a social animal. We tell stories about other
people and for other people. Stories help us to keep
tabs on what is happening in our communities. The safe,
imaginary world of a story may be a kind of training
ground, where we can practice interacting with others
and learn the customs and rules of society. And stories
have a unique power to persuade and motivate, because
they appeal to our emotions and capacity for empathy.
A Good Yarn Storytelling is one of the few human traits
that are truly universal across culture and through all
of known history. Anthropologists find evidence of
folktales everywhere in ancient cultures, written in
Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Chinese, Egyptian and Sumerian.
People in societies of all types weave narratives, from
oral storytellers in hunter-gatherer tribes to the
millions of writers churning out books, television shows
and movies. And when a characteristic behavior shows up
in so many different societies, researchers pay
attention: its roots may tell us something about our
To study storytelling, scientists must first define what
constitutes a story, and that can prove tricky. Because
there are so many diverse forms, scholars often define
story structure, known as narrative, by explaining what
it is not. Exposition contrasts with narrative by being
a simple, straightforward explanation, such as a list of
facts or an encyclopedia entry. Another standard
approach defines narrative as a series of causally
linked events that unfold over time. A third definition
hinges on the typical narrative's subject matter: the
interactions of intentional agents-characters with
minds-who possess various motivations.
However narrative is defined, people know it when they
feel it. Whether fiction or nonfiction, a narrative
engages its audience through psychological realism-
recognizable emotions and believable interactions among
"Everyone has a natural detector for psychological
realism," says Raymond A. Mar, assistant professor of
psychology at York University in Toronto. "We can tell
when something rings false."
But the best stories-those retold through generations
and translated into other languages-do more than simply
present a believable picture. These tales captivate
their audience, whose emotions can be inextricably tied
to those of the story's characters. Such immersion is a
state psychologists call "narrative transport."
Researchers have only begun teasing out the relations
among the variables that can initiate narrative
transport. A 2004 study by psychologist Melanie C.
Green, now at the University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill, showed that prior knowledge and life experience
affected the immersive experience. Volunteers read a
short story about a gay man attending his college
fraternity's reunion. Those who had friends or family
members who were homosexual reported higher
transportation, and they also perceived the story
events, settings and characters to be more realistic.
Transportation was also deeper for participants with
past experiences in fraternities or sororities.
"Familiarity helps, and a character to identify with
helps," Green explains.
Other research by Green has found that people who
perform better on tests of empathy, or the capacity to
perceive another person's emotions, become more easily
transported regardless of the story. "There seems to be
a reasonable amount of variation, all the way up to
people who can get swept away by a Hallmark commercial,"
In Another's Shoes Empathy is part of the larger ability
humans have to put themselves in another person's shoes:
we can attribute mental states-awareness, intent-to
another entity. Theory of mind, as this trait is known,
is crucial to social interaction and communal living-and
to understanding stories.
Children develop theory of mind around age four or five.
A 2007 study by psychologists Daniela O'Neill and
Rebecca Shultis, both at the University of Waterloo in
Ontario, found that five-year-olds could follow the
thoughts of an imaginary character but that three-year-
olds could not. The children saw model cows in both a
barn and a field, and the researchers told them that a
farmer sitting in the barn was thinking of milking the
cow in the field. When then asked to point to the cow
the farmer wanted to milk, three-year-olds pointed to
the cow in the barn-they had a hard time following the
character's thoughts to the cow in the field. Five-year-
olds, however, pointed to the cow in the field,
demonstrating theory of mind.
Perhaps because theory of mind is so vital to social
living, once we possess it we tend to imagine minds
everywhere, making stories out of everything. A classic
1944 study by Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel, then at
Smith College, elegantly demonstrated this tendency. The
psychologists showed people an animation of a pair of
triangles and a circle moving around a square and asked
the participants what was happening. The subjects
described the scene as if the shapes had intentions and
motivations-for example, "The circle is chasing the
triangles." Many studies since then have confirmed the
human predilection to make characters and narratives out
of whatever we see in the world around us.
But what could be the evolutionary advantage of being so
prone to fantasy? "One might have expected natural
selection to have weeded out any inclination to engage
in imaginary worlds rather than the real one," writes
Steven Pinker, a Harvard University evolutionary
psychologist, in the April 2007 issue of Philosophy and
Literature. Pinker goes on to argue against this claim,
positing that stories are an important tool for learning
and for developing relationships with others in one's
social group. And most scientists are starting to agree:
stories have such a powerful and universal appeal that
the neurological roots of both telling tales and
enjoying them are probably tied to crucial parts of our
As our ancestors evolved to live in groups, the
hypothesis goes, they had to make sense of increasingly
complex social relationships. Living in a community
requires keeping tabs on who the group members are and
what they are doing. What better way to spread such
information than through storytelling?
Indeed, to this day people spend most of their
conversations telling personal stories and gossiping. A
1997 study by anthropologist and evolutionary biologist
Robin Dunbar, then at the University of Liverpool in
England, found that social topics accounted for 65
percent of speaking time among people in public places,
regardless of age or gender. Anthropologists note that
storytelling could have also persisted in human culture
because it promotes social cohesion among groups and
serves as a valuable method to pass on knowledge to
future generations. But some psychologists are starting
to believe that stories have an important effect on
individuals as well-the imaginary world may serve as a
proving ground for vital social skills.
"If you're training to be a pilot, you spend time in a
flight simulator," says Keith Oatley, a professor of
applied cognitive psychology at the University of
Toronto. Preliminary research by Oatley and Mar suggests
that stories may act as "flight simulators" for social
life. A 2006 study hinted at a connection between the
enjoyment of stories and better social abilities. The
researchers used both self-report and assessment tests
to determine social ability and empathy among 94
students, whom they also surveyed for name recognition
of authors who wrote narrative fiction and nonnarrative
nonfiction. They found that students who had had more
exposure to fiction tended to perform better on social
ability and empathy tests. Although the results are
provocative, the authors caution that the study did not
probe cause and effect-exposure to stories may hone
social skills as the researchers suspect, but perhaps
socially inclined individuals simply seek out more
In support for the idea that stories act as practice for
real life are imaging studies that reveal similar brain
ac-tivity during viewings of real people and animated
cha-racters. In 2007 Mar conducted a study using Waking
Life, a 2001 film in which live footage of actors was
traced so that the characters appear to be animated
drawings. Mar used functional magnetic resonance imaging
to scan volunteers' brains as they watched matching
footage of the real actors and the corresponding
animated characters. During the real footage, brain
activity spiked strongly in the superior temporal sulcus
and the temporoparietal junction, areas associated with
processing biological motion. The same areas lit up to a
lesser extent for the animated footage. "This difference
in brain activation could be how we distinguish between
fantasy and reality," Mar says.
As psychologists probe our love of stories for clues
about our evolutionary history, other researchers have
begun examining the themes and character types that
appear consistently in narratives from all cultures.
Their work is revealing universal similarities that may
reflect a shared, evolved human psyche.
Boy Meets Girl . A 2006 study by Jonathan Gottschall, an
English professor at Washington & Jefferson College,
found relevant depictions of romantic love in folktales
scattered across space and time. The idea of romantic
love has not been traditionally considered to be a
cultural universal because of the many societies in
which marriage is mainly an economic or utilitarian
consideration. But Gottschall's study suggests that
rather than being a construct of certain societies,
romantic love must have roots in our common ancestry. In
other words, romance-not just sex-has a biological basis
in the brain.
"You do find these commonalities," Gottschall says. He
is one of several scholars, known informally as literary
Darwinists, who assert that story themes do not simply
spring from each specific culture. Instead the literary
Darwinists propose that stories from around the world
have universal themes reflecting our common underlying
Another of Gottschall's studies published earlier this
year reveals a persistent mind-set regarding gender
roles. His team did a content analysis of 90 folktale
collections, each consisting of 50 to 100 stories, from
societies running the gamut from industrial nations to
hunter-gatherer tribes. They found overwhelmingly
similar gender depictions emphasizing strong male
protagonists and female beauty. To counterbalance the
possibility that male storytellers were biasing gender
idealizations, the team also sampled cultures that were
more egalitarian and less patriarchal.
"We couldn't even find one culture that had more
emphasis on male beauty," Gottschall notes, explaining
that the study sample had three times as many male as
compared with female main characters and six times as
many references to female beauty as to male beauty. That
difference in gender stereotypes, he suggests, may
reflect the classic Darwinian emphasis on reproductive
health in women, signified by youth and beauty, and on
the desirable male ability to provide for a family,
signaled by physical power and success.
Other common narrative themes reveal our basic wants and
needs. "Narrative involves agents pursuing some goal,"
says Patrick Colm Hogan, professor of English and
comparative literature at the University of Connecticut.
"The standard goals are partially a result of how our
emotion systems are set up."
Hogan does not consider himself a literary Darwinist,
but his research on everything from Hindu epic poems
such as the Ramayana to modern film adaptations of
Shakespeare supports the idea that stories reveal
something about human emotions seated in the mind. As
many as two thirds of the most respected stories in
narrative traditions seem to be variations on three
narrative patterns, or prototypes, according to Hogan.
The two more common prototypes are romantic and heroic
scenarios-the former focuses on the trials and travails
of love, whereas the latter deals with power struggles.
The third prototype, dubbed "sacrificial" by Hogan,
focuses on agrarian plenty versus famine as well as on
societal redemption. These themes appear over and over
again as humans create narrative records of their most
basic needs: food, reproduction and social status.
Happily Ever After The power of stories does not stop
with their ability to reveal the workings of our minds.
Narrative is also a potent persuasive tool, according to
Hogan and other researchers, and it has the ability to
shape beliefs and change minds.
Advertisers have long taken advantage of narrative
persuasiveness by sprinkling likable characters or funny
stories into their commercials. A 2007 study by
marketing researcher Jennifer Edson Escalas of
Vanderbilt University found that a test audience
responded more positively to advertisements in narrative
form as compared with straightforward ads that
encouraged viewers to think about the arguments for a
product. Similarly, Green co-authored a 2006 study that
showed that labeling information as "fact" increased
critical analysis, whereas labeling information as
"fiction" had the opposite effect. Studies such as these
suggest people accept ideas more readily when their
minds are in story mode as opposed to when they are in
an analytical mind-set.
Works of fiction may even have unexpected real-world
effects on people's choices. Merlot was one of the most
popular red wines among Americans until the 2005 film
Sideways depicted actor Paul Giamatti as an ornery wine
lover who snubbed it as a common, inferior wine.
Winemakers saw a noticeable drop in sales of the red
wine that year, particularly after Sideways garnered
national attention through several Oscar nominations.
As researchers continue to investigate storytelling's
power and pervasiveness, they are also looking for ways
to harness that power. Some such as Green are studying
how stories can have applications in promoting positive
health messages. "A lot of problems are behaviorally
based," Green says, pointing to research documenting the
influence of Hollywood films on smoking habits among
teens. And Mar and Oatley want to further examine how
stories can enhance social skills by acting as
simulators for the brain, which may turn the idea of the
socially crippled bookworm on its head.
One thing is clear-although research on stories has only
just begun, it has already turned up a wealth of
information about the social roots of the human mind-
and, in science, that's a happy ending.
Note: This story was originally printed with the title,
"The Secrets of Storytelling".