psychologists and literary theorists have now identified many potential benefits to this fiction addiction. One common idea is that storytelling is a form of cognitive play that hones our minds, allowing us to simulate the world around us and imagine different strategies, particularly in social situations. “It teaches us about other people and it’s a practice in empathy and theory of mind,” says Joseph Carroll at the University of Missouri-St Louis.
The Agta, a Filipino hunter-gatherer population, have long shared stories containing messages of equality between men and women (Credit: Paulo Sayeg)
Providing some evidence for this theory, brain scans have shown that reading or hearing stories activates various areas of the cortex that are known to be involved in social and emotional processing, and the more people read fiction, the easier they find it to empathise with other people.
Crucially, evolutionary psychologists believe that our prehistoric preoccupations still shape the form of the stories we enjoy. As humans evolved to live in bigger societies, for instance, we needed to learn how to cooperate, without being a ‘free rider’ who takes too much and gives nothing, or overbearing individuals abusing their dominance to the detriment of the group’s welfare. Our capacity for storytelling – and the tales we tell – may have therefore also evolved as a way of communicating the right social norms. “The lesson is to resist tyranny and don’t become a tyrant yourself,” Kruger said.
Along these lines, various studies have identified cooperation as a core theme in popular narratives across the world. The anthropologist Daniel Smith of University College London recently visited 18 groups of hunter-gatherers of the Philippines. He found nearly 80% of their tales concerned moral decision making and social dilemmas (as opposed to stories about, say, nature). Crucially, this then appeared to translate to their real-life behaviour; the groups that appeared to invest the most in storytelling also proved to be the most cooperative during various experimental tasks – exactly as the evolutionary theory would suggest. […]
In his book On the Origin of Stories, Brian Boyd of the University of Auckland describes how these themes are also evident in Homer’s Odyssey. As Penelope waits for Odysseus’s return, her suitors spend all day eating and drinking at her home. When he finally arrives in the guise of a poor beggar, however, they begrudge offering him any shelter (in his own home!). They ultimately get their comeuppance as Odysseus removes his disguise and wreaks a bloody revenge.
You might assume that our interest in cooperation would have dwindled with the increasing individualism of the Industrial Revolution, but Kruger and Carroll have found that these themes were still prevalent in some of the most beloved British novels from the 19th and early 20th Centuries.
Asking a panel of readers to rate the principal characters in more than 200 novels (beginning with Jane Austen and ending with EM Forster), the researchers found that the antagonists’ major flaw was most often a quest for social dominance at the expense of others or an abuse of their existing power, while the protagonists appeared to be less individualistic and ambitious.