Telling stories

Are narrative stories the glue that holds society together? That’s the thesis of literature professor Jonathan Gottschall, who has written for the Boston Globe, “Why fiction is good for you”. It’s a prcis of his book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.

In Appels study, people who mainly watched drama and comedy on TV??as opposed to heavy viewers of news programs and documentaries??had substantially stronger just-world beliefs. Appel concludes that fiction, by constantly exposing us to the theme of poetic justice, may be partly responsible for the sense that the world is, on the whole, a just place.
This is despite the fact, as Appel puts it, that this is patently not the case. As people who watch the news know very well, bad things happen to good people all the time, and most crimes go unpunished. In other words, fiction seems to teach us to see the world through rose-colored lenses. And the fact that we see the world that way seems to be an important part of what makes human societies work.

I met Gottschall at the Consilience Conference last week and he is an energetic and insightful presenter. Construction of narratives is an important cognitive tool, one that may be fundamental to planning social action. If we consider the oral storytelling in preliterate societies, fictional stories and myth both provide a domain for individuals to learn about the social expectations of other group members. Gossip is another way of communicating about social expectations and intentions, but has a more immediate seriousness as it concerns actual individuals. A fictional story draws attention to intentions and rules in a context that is removed from immediate threat.