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It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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It is in our nature to need stories. They are our earliest sciences, a kind of people-physics. Their logic is how we naturally think. They configure our biology, and how we feel, in ways long essential for our survival.

Like our language instinct, a story drive—an inborn hunger for story hearing and story making—emerges untutored universally in healthy children. Every culture bathes their children in stories to explain how the world works and to engage and educate their emotions. Perhaps story patterns could be considered another higher layer of language. A sort of meta-grammar shaped by and shaping conventions of character types, plots, and social-rule dilemmas prevalent in our culture.

Stories the world over are almost always about people with problems,” writes Jonathan Gottschall. They display “a deep pattern of heroes confronting trouble and struggling to overcome.” So a possible formula for a story = character(s) + predicament(s) + attempted extrication(s). This pattern transmits social rules and norms, describing what counts as violations and approved reactions. Stories offer “feelings we don’t have to pay [full cost] for.” They are simulated experiments in people-physics, freeing us from the limits of our own direct experience.

The “human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor,” says Jonathan Haidt. Certainly we use logic inside stories better than we do outside. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have shown that the Wason Selection Test can be solved by fewer than 10% as a logic puzzle, but by 70-90% when presented as a story involving detection of social-rule cheating. Such social-rule monitoring was evolutionarily crucial because as Alison Gopnik notes “other people are the most important part of our environment.” In our ultra-social species, social acceptance matters as much as food. Indeed violating social rules can exclude you from group benefits, including shared food.

Darwin understood how our biology is fitted to the stories in our social environments, noting, “Many a Hindoo…has been stirred to the bottom of his soul by having partaken of unclean food.” The same thing eaten unknowingly would cause no reaction, so the story of the food, not the food itself, causes the “the soul shaking feeling of remorse.” Stories configure contextual triggers and the expected emotional reactions of our culture—perhaps defining a sort of emotional grammar.

Any story we tell of our species, any science of human nature, that leaves out much of what and how we feel is false. Nature shaped us to be ultra-social, and hence to be sharply attentive to character and plot. We are adapted to physiologically interact with stories. They are a key way in which our ruly culture configures our nature.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

Previously in this series:

It Is in Our Nature to Be Self-Deficient
Inheriting Second Natures
Our Ruly Nature

Jag Bhalla About the Author: Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at www.errorsweliveby.comwww.errorsweliveby.com. His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at www.hangingnoodles.comwww.hangingnoodles.com. It explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles Follow on Twitter @hangingnoodles.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. paulus 11:34 am 05/8/2013

    I don’t know that it can be said that we need stories so much as we need comprehension and meaning in order to internally structure and understand the world we see around us. It may be that it is possible to structure meaning in ways other than language, although most civilizations do so. Perhaps there are cultures that structure meaning through song or image. I do not think that the word is necessary to impart meaning, although the need for logos and its association with the word run deep in civilizations–especially Western civilizations.

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  2. 2. marclevesque 7:02 pm 05/8/2013

    “Every culture bathes their children in stories to explain how the world works and to engage and educate their emotions”

    Considering the stories often told, I’m not that surprised we end up with so much bullying, racism, and hatred. Considering that, I think our problems are mainly derived from our culture.

    “In our ultra-social species, social acceptance matters as much as food”

    Well said, and it surely can.

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  3. 3. Mythusmage 12:09 am 05/9/2013

    Methinks this can go a long way towards explaining the need to ascribe a certain activity to story, when story really has nothing to do with it. It would help if people had a clearer idea as to what narrative and story were.

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  4. 4. justin ou 3:09 am 05/9/2013

    It’s true that human beings are enticed by stories. For example, the reason why president Obama’s speech can strike a chord with our emotions lies in his use of many real people examples. This tactics make listeners feel if they were acquainted with or knew those people referred. It arouses people’s feelings and empathy, and lead to sentimental success.
    The same magic applies to lectures and interviews and any forms of conversation. It enables us to quickly grab the attention and interest of listeners, then the messages we try to communicate with them would penetrate into their mind easier, and more effective.

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  5. 5. Raghuvanshi1 7:04 am 05/9/2013

    We human being are social animal.Without human relationship we could not survive.we learn our language in social circumstances.All other living norm family teach us.Story is collected social norms.We are very curious to know others activities.Stories tech us many thing that is learning precess.Essential for survival.

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  6. 6. marclevesque 10:04 am 05/9/2013

    I love the series

    “Perhaps story patterns could be considered another higher layer of language. A sort of meta-grammar shaped by and shaping conventions of character types, plots, and social-rule dilemmas prevalent in our culture.”

    Yes, and perhaps lower too, like bees dancing, shaped by and shaping conventions, like what makes up a sad face, like what makes up a happy story.

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  7. 7. Earon 10:01 am 05/10/2013

    I think that this blog is succinctly brilliant and yields tremendous insight into our culture and our lives – and our potential !!!!

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  8. 8. CliffClark 10:47 pm 05/11/2013

    One of the major achievements of Buddhists is that, through regular meditation, they manage to divest themselves of the need for stories and live in the moment. On the way they develop an exceptional compassion and happiness. Perhaps the reason is that, as was captured in the book “My stroke of insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor, the stories told by the left brain are frequently untrue and cause stress to the person who is unable to quieten the storytelling internal voice…

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  9. 9. franscouwenbergh 7:40 pm 10/13/2013

    I wonder if you know why we, humans – in contrast with all other animals on Earth – need stories. It is because we are – in contrast … – linguistic animals. How we became linguistic animals, and how this made us so special in the animal world, is a too long story for here, so I have to ‘spam’ my website http://www.humanosophy.org

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