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