Ash Catton

PhD Candidate, Clinical Psychology Student

Is there an evolutionary explanation for humans’ fascination with stories about non-existent people and events?

March 30, 2018

Darwin’s theory of evolution comes with such strong explanatory power that it can be applied across a range of contexts that involve natural phenomena. Thus, evolutionary psychologists consider universal aspects of human cognition and emotion to see whether they can be said to have served some fitness enhancing function in the distant past. Given its apparent ubiquity, fictional narratives are a viable candidate for such consideration. In this essay, I will contrast two competing evolutionary explanations of fictional narratives; an epiphenomenal and an adaptionist account. After finding considerable compatibility between them, I conclude that both sufficiently explain the phenomena they describe and can be considered complements of each other.

An Emotion Simulator

To examine any evolutionary argument for the mental factors implicated in producing and consuming fiction, it is necessary to outline what those mental factors are. Many authors describe fiction as a type of simulation. Fiction transports us into the minds and lives of other people, allowing us to explore their environment and mental processes and thus become emotionally invested in the unfolding events. Denis Dutton suggests that fiction allows us to explore other minds and research has shown that this is a crucial element in the experience.[1] Specifically, researchers argue that the emotional transportation leading to perspective taking of fictional protagonists may depend upon some empathic identification with that character.[2] Thus, our fascination with fiction may lie in how we feel about its main characters.

While other emotions are involved in the consumption of fictional narrative, it is the relationship it has with empathy that forms the basis of our investigation. As Dutton suggests, this relationship is unlikely to be a random mutation given the sheer ubiquity of fictional narrative across the human race.[3] Any evolutionary account of this relationship is likely to be in one of two forms. Either fictional narrative is a casually linked but functionally separate by-product of an adaption (an epiphenomenon), or fiction itself is the adaption.

Literary Cheesecake

Steven Pinker, like many others, claim that fiction “…not only delights but instructs”.[4] He begins by looking at the pleasure we derive from fiction and claims that the same range of emotions are also involved in gossip. This leads on from our earlier claim that we need to relate to a protagonist to feel immersed. If we take on the point of view of another person, we also take in their perspective of other people via the emotions that arise in their interactions. Pinker suggests that fiction, as a simulator, provides a chess-like tutorial on the range of moves people can make in the chessboard of life, in the form of human conflict.[5] Which of these features does Pinker believe is the reason we have fiction? His focus seems to be on pleasure, arguing that the gossip-like pleasure we derive from fiction is the reason we engage with it. There is some empirical support for this claim with several studies suggesting that our motivation for selecting fictional media may be purely hedonic.[6] On a neurological level, it has been shown that the same brain regions are implicated in both the aesthetic and sensory pleasures.[7]

What Pinker is claiming is that fiction an epiphenomenal expression of pleasure, where pleasure is an adaption bestowed upon us by natural selection. To further illustrate the point, he presents us with cheesecake as an analogy, claiming that while cheesecake serves no evolutionary (or nutritional) purpose, the pleasure centres that sweetness appeals to was once an essential survival mechanism.[8] He further claims that pleasure once possessed survival value as a form of reward for each small advancement of individual fitness. Pinker is expressing an early form of the Approach-Avoidance theory of motivation which states that we are attracted to pleasurable stimuli and averse to that which is painful.[9] As for the complexity of art forms such as fiction, Pinker attributes it to a rational mind being able to calculate means to obtain the reward of pleasure without the accompanying work. Thus, the complexity of fiction is a product of a larger human brain.

However, this account is not without some problems. Pinker does concede the utility of fiction but seems to have overlooked its effect on the brain when drawing his conclusions. Fiction has been shown to have a significant impact on our capacity for empathy, and has been used as a successful intervention on children who have difficulty regulating their emotions.[10] Could something as universal and powerful as fiction really serve no adaptive function for our ancient ancestors? Popper and Eccles do not believe so, claiming that any cognitive (and thus biological) mechanism which influences our behaviour must exist as the result of natural selection.[11] However, we need not dismantle Pinker’s argument entirely, as he may have been correct in his conceptual link between fiction and gossip.

A Social Transaction

Michelle Sugiyama provides an account that begins from a similar starting point as Pinkers, stating that the motive for crafting fictional narrative is the same as rumour spreading.[12] She illustrates fiction as a type of transaction, where the consumer gains information about their environment and the storyteller elicits certain behaviours from their audience via a carefully calibrated story which in turn elevates their social status. Dutton provides us with a clue as to what that environmental information may be, suggesting that fiction may have originated to justify some intuitive imperative such as the avoidance of incest.[13] The person who manages to control groups of people on such a scale may accrue considerable power. This account parallels work done by Jonathan Haidt whose paper on moral judgement concluded that moral decisions are primarily intuitive, with verbal justifications only being later formulated to convince other people to adopt the same intuition.[14]

This account also has the benefit of being compatible with a leading explanation for the unusually large human brain. The Social Brain Hypothesis argues that much of the evolved growth of the human brain occurred in the neocortex, the seat of reasoning and consciousness.[15] The reason this is a social brain hypothesis is that one if its advocates, Robin Dunbar, discovered a significant relationship between the size of a species’ social circle and the size of their neocortex.[16] To navigate the needs of the members of a social circle, some form of social cognition must have evolved to facilitate such a requirement. Thus, most of the brain regions associated with processing literary narrative are also involved in social cognition, including mirror neurons.[17] 

Sugiyama claims that the selection process that chose fiction did so based on a need to preserve a social group while simultaneously needing to exploit it for power.[18] This fits with findings that in species with large neocortices, the smaller but more intelligent males are able to calculate means of undermining the rank-based monopolies of mates by the larger alpha males.[19] This means that the battle for social power at some point must have switched from the domain of physical prowess to that of the intellectual. This period is what some writers have described as a cognitive arms race.[20] This race would not just require larger brains, but larger brains that maximise the efficiency of the space they occupy. There needs to be some cognitive highway for data to travel along at speed. Thus, the need for an efficient social brain that can process language and empathy may have been the driving force behind the larger human brain.[21] Given that we have shown fiction to have a strong connection to the empathic capacities of the brain, it may have been a key weapon during this period. Not only would it have been used to influence the actions of others, it was also useful as a type of cognitive workout.

However powerful this account of fiction may be, it appears incomplete. If fiction was instrumental in shaping our social brain by acting as a simulation for life, why do we get a thrill out of fictional scenarios that would be undesirable in the real world?

The Swiss Army Knife

The two accounts presented here may appear to contradict each other but I believe they supplement each other. Both accounts are well supported and I believe they are both correct in their conclusions. If we take Sugiyama’s account as the origin of fiction and supplement with Pinker’s account we have a picture of fictions original adaptive function, as well as one of what it is currently used for. This does not make our account an epiphenomenal one. We accept fiction as an adaption albeit one that has expanded over time. It is not an expression of anything other than itself. This is supported by research that suggests that the act of reading is not an act that humans evolved to perform as reading reuses areas of the brain that were selected for other purposes.[22] Thus, if we consider fiction to have served some adaptive utility, it is reasonable to assume that it too has evolved beyond the scope of its original function. Hence, we have fiction as a multi-faceted tool, a swiss army knife, that can instruct or tantalise us, validate our mood or change it altogether, focus our attention or distract it.

Concluding Remarks

We have been unable to adjudicate between two competing arguments for the origin of fictional narrative. This appears to be because their conclusions are sufficient in explaining the phenomena they describe. Pinker overlooked the power of fictions utility, preferring instead to connect it to pleasure. While fiction is pleasurable, that accounts for its persistence over time but not necessarily its origin. Sugiyama’s account, by contrast, explains the origin of fiction in the distant past but little more. By bringing them both together we have been able to provide a comprehensive account of where fiction came from and why it is still a powerful tool for use across a wide range of contexts today.


Works Cited

Barrett, H. Clark, Leda Cosmides, and John  Tooby. "The Hominid Entry into the Cognitive Niche." In The Evolution of Mind: Fundamental Questions and Controversies, edited by Steven W. Gangestad and Jeffry A. Simpson, 241-55. New York: The Guilford Press, 2007.
Currie, Gregory. Narratives and Narrators : A Philosophy of Stories. Oxford, United Kingdom: OUP Oxford, 2010.
Dehaene, Stanislas. Reading in the Brain. New York: Viking/Penguin, 2009.
Dunbar, R. I. "The Social Brain Hypothesis." Evolutionary Anthropology 6, no. 5 (1998): 178-90.
———. "The Social Brain Hypothesis and Its Implications for Social Evolution." Ann Hum Biol 36, no. 5 (Sep-Oct 2009): 562-72.
Dutton, Denis. The Art Instinct. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010. 2009.
Elliot, Andrew J., and Martin V. Covington. "Approach and Avoidance Motivation." Educational Psychology Review 13, no. 2 (2001): 73-92.
Haidt, Jonathan. "The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment." Psychological Review 108, no. 4 (2001): 814-34.
Kringelbach, M. L., and K. C. Berridge. "The Neuroscience of Happiness and Pleasure." Soc Res (New York) 77, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 659-78.
Kumschick, I. R., L. Beck, M. Eid, G. Witte, G. Klann-Delius, I. Heuser, R. Steinlein, and W. Menninghaus. "Reading and Feeling: The Effects of a Literature-Based Intervention Designed to Increase Emotional Competence in Second and Third Graders." Front Psychol 5 (2014): 1448.
Mar, R. A., and K. Oatley. "The Function of Fiction Is the Abstraction and Simulation of Social Experience." Perspect Psychol Sci 3, no. 3 (May 2008): 173-92.
Mar, R. A., K. Oatley, M. Djikic, and J. Mullin. "Emotion and Narrative Fiction: Interactive Influences before, During, and after Reading." Cogn Emot 25, no. 5 (Aug 2011): 818-33.
Oatley, K. "The Cognitive Science of Fiction." Wiley Interdiscip Rev Cogn Sci 3, no. 4 (Jul 2012): 425-30.
———. "Fiction: Simulation of Social Worlds." Trends Cogn Sci 20, no. 8 (Aug 2016): 618-28.
Pawłowskil, Bogusław, Dunbar, and Lowen. "Neocortex Size, Social Skills and Mating Success in Primates." Behaviour 135, no. 3 (1998): 357-68.
Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. Great Britain: The Softback Preview, 1997.
Popper, Karl R., and John C. Eccles. The Self and Its Brain. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1977.
Sugiyama, M. S. "On the Origins of Narrative : Storyteller Bias as a Fitness-Enhancing Strategy." Hum Nat 7, no. 4 (Dec 1996): 403-25.
Ziegler, F., P. Mitchell, and G. Currie. "How Does Narrative Cue Children's Perspective Taking?". Dev Psychol 41, no. 1 (Jan 2005): 115-23.

[1] Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010), 110.

[2] F. Ziegler, P. Mitchell, and G. Currie, "How Does Narrative Cue Children's Perspective Taking?," Dev Psychol 41, no. 1 (2005): 116; K. Oatley, "Fiction: Simulation of Social Worlds," Trends Cogn Sci 20, no. 8 (2016): 621.

[3] Dutton, The Art Instinct, 91.

[4] Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (Great Britain: The Softback Preview, 1997), 541.

[5] Ibid., 542-3.

[6] For a comprehensive discussion see R. A. Mar et al., "Emotion and Narrative Fiction: Interactive Influences before, During, and after Reading," Cogn Emot 25, no. 5 (2011).

[7] M. L. Kringelbach and K. C. Berridge, "The Neuroscience of Happiness and Pleasure," Soc Res (New York) 77, no. 2 (2010): 664.

[8] Pinker, How the Mind Works, 524.

[9] Andrew J. Elliot and Martin V. Covington, "Approach and Avoidance Motivation," Educational Psychology Review 13, no. 2 (2001).

[10] I. R. Kumschick et al., "Reading and Feeling: The Effects of a Literature-Based Intervention Designed to Increase Emotional Competence in Second and Third Graders," Front Psychol 5 (2014); K. Oatley, "The Cognitive Science of Fiction," Wiley Interdiscip Rev Cogn Sci 3, no. 4 (2012).

[11] Karl R. Popper and John C. Eccles, The Self and Its Brain (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1977), 74.

[12] M. S. Sugiyama, "On the Origins of Narrative : Storyteller Bias as a Fitness-Enhancing Strategy," Hum Nat 7, no. 4 (1996): 405.

[13] Dutton, The Art Instinct, 89.

[14] Jonathan Haidt, "The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment," Psychological Review 108, no. 4 (2001).

[15] R. I. Dunbar, "The Social Brain Hypothesis," Evolutionary Anthropology 6, no. 5 (1998).

[16] "The Social Brain Hypothesis and Its Implications for Social Evolution," Ann Hum Biol 36, no. 5 (2009): 101.

[17] R. A. Mar and K. Oatley, "The Function of Fiction Is the Abstraction and Simulation of Social Experience," Perspect Psychol Sci 3, no. 3 (2008).

[18] Sugiyama, "On the Origins of Narrative : Storyteller Bias as a Fitness-Enhancing Strategy," 404.

[19] Bogusław Pawłowskil, Dunbar, and Lowen, "Neocortex Size, Social Skills and Mating Success in Primates," Behaviour 135, no. 3 (1998).

[20] Gregory Currie, Narratives and Narrators : A Philosophy of Stories (Oxford, United Kingdom: OUP Oxford, 2010), 45.

[21] H. Clark Barrett, Leda Cosmides, and John  Tooby, "The Hominid Entry into the Cognitive Niche," in The Evolution of Mind: Fundamental Questions and Controversies, ed. Steven W. Gangestad and Jeffry A. Simpson (New York: The Guilford Press, 2007), 244.

[22] Stanislas Dehaene, Reading in the Brain (New York: Viking/Penguin, 2009), 88.


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