The Psychology of Stories

So I kinda had this idea of writing a blog theorizing about why I thought the different popular genres: fantasy, sci-fi, romance, thriller, action, were indeed popular genres. However I came across a stumbling block, namely that I didn’t and continue to not have a unifying theory of why we even like written stories. Don’t get me wrong there is a tonne of material about the function of stories, about how they tend to do us good, I even did a Couple of Posts about the importance of stories.

And its not hard to pontificate on the matter, written stories allow us to communicate ideas, share experiences, teach lessons and entertain. But those are all goods rendered by the service, its hard to understand the why of a story being good, why do we like to see a sympathetic character overcome great odds, the girl and the guy get together, good triumph over evil (or in rare cases evil succeed).

Why do we even read at all?

I suppose I could be lazy and go down an evolutionary psychology path and claim that all those useful things that stories do helped human beings survive as a species and thus is entrenched in our psyches for all eternity. But I like to go a little more eccentric than that.

For a start Daniel Kahneman as described in The Undoing Project described an unusual line of research where he looked at the sort of fantasizing people did, both in the regretful instances of wishing they had done differently and how people hoped for the future. An odd feature of our fantasies seems to be that we don’t actually wish that far from the truth. We often think about how life would be different with comparatively tiny changes, usually to the tune of ourselves making slightly different decisions. For example people who thought of regrets like accidentally rear-ending another car tended to focus on the few decisions close to the event, like reacting faster, not being in such a hurry and so forth. What Kahneman found odd is that technically your imagination is limitless, why not fantasize about the person you rare-ended not being there at that time, or an asteroid hitting just before you did to absolve the guilt, or being a multi-millionaire who didn’t need to work or commute. The point being people tended to obsess over the minutiae of their decisions that lead to whatever happened.

Now you could point out that I’m still a bit stuck in evolutionary psychology, but it seems like we’re obsessed with decisions or perhaps more simply put how our choices lead to consequences (which may or may help us survive as a species). Since good stories are often hyper-focused on characters choices and where they lead this makes sense. I would go on to say that our particular gaze on choices that are close to ‘reality’ relates to how stories need to feel real to us, it doesn’t matter if the story is set in Middle-Earth, The Death Star, or is about a young woman being wooed by a unbelievably rich sicko, its whether the narrative feels as neurotically focused on individual choice and consequence as we are.

To take this theory further, I think personal narratives are how we make sense of the world. It would be nice to think that we sat down and crunched numbers in order to make sense of the life universe and everything, but something that lawyers, salespeople and non-fiction authors have known is that personal stories are what really sway people. It seems somewhat redundant to claim this but I want to emphasize the making sense part of my statement. I’m just as I write this trying to imagine creating a work that builds tension and resolution just like most fiction, however isn’t a personal narrative. It seems almost impossible to fathom, no matter how objective, intellectual or cold we might try to be, what we understand most is personal experience.

It would foolish to not touch on the role of empathy at this point. Personal narrative may be how we make sense of the world, we also often put ourselves into the heads and hearts and bodies of the characters we read about. This feels a little contrary to my point that we seem to like fantasies not too far from the beaten path of reality, however there is a weird duplicity at work here that does make sense. Yes we want stories that provide the same laser focus on individual choices that our own brains do for our own lives, however at the same time I think we like to be projected into something completely different from reality.

It’s kind of like we want to holiday somewhere different from our usual haunts, but don’t actually want to dive all the way out of our comfort zone. Storywise we don’t mind being in a new reality, just not out of the familiar paradigm of choice being important.

So just to recap, I think we like stories that capture what is important to us (the choices we make) that still make sense (centred around a personal narrative), but toy with the arbitrary stuff we don’t mind being toyed with (what planet we live on).

What I can’t quite get my head around is why we like stories of tension and conflict about characters overcome great odds to succeed. It could just be that this is just the most successful way to present all the stuff above, that once you have a reader relating your characters conflict and climax is just the most interesting way to present written material. Although fascinatingly enough other areas have the same paradigm, while radically different in medium, music shows the same patterns of good music having building tension that resolves towards the finale.

That might be another topic for another day (and probably several more lengthy hikes to get my head working on the subject). At the very least hopefully I’ve laid down a small amount of theory to at least set some context for my next few posts about why I think different genres are so successful. Although its worth pointing out that really the basis on this post is one unusual psychology line of research and a lot of wild guesses!

Moreso than any other posts I’d be keen to hear others thoughts – why do you think humans like stories?

What about stories make them good?





Veracity somewhat unclear – I think the numbers and red lines are just there to look interesting (or someone scribbling over a picture)



3 thoughts on “The Psychology of Stories

  1. I think you’re right about the idea of empathy.

    Most of the stuff about how to make a good (vidg-e-ma-) game talks about letting the player make meaningful choices. Whether those choices are about which alien to shoot first, or just about whether to walk left or right depends on the genre etc of the game.

    How much of it is “what I would do in these circumstances” depends on how abstract the game is (i.e. is there a clearly-defined player character who is like me and in a “realistic” environment).

    Similarly to the protagonist of a novel, the player either sees themselves in the character (if they’re a grizzled, stubbly, brown-haired white guy), or has feels for the character (protective/aspirational).

    As well as bonding with just about anything, people can associate themselves with just about anything (e.g. people freaking out when a spider runs towards their mouse cursor).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Psychology of Stories: Genre | Lonely Power Poles

  3. Pingback: The Psychology of Genre: Sci-Fi | Lonely Power Poles

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