Why do we like stories?
Evolution is a powerful force, shaping species to optimize their survival and proliferation. All human behavior can be seen in the light of evolution. But some types of behavior are more easily explained than others. For example, the evolutionary purpose of eating is obvious. But listening to a story does not provide us with any immediate, tangible benefit in the real world. Nonetheless, enjoying stories, such as in movies and TV, is widespread. We are clearly shaped by evolution to find enjoyment in listening to stories, and to be engaged in them. How come?
I posit that there are two main evolutionary reasons that we like listening to stories.
They teach us about the world
They improve the functioning of the tribe
Both of these imply a number of attributes we would like in stories.
(Note that in evolutionary terms, humans have had language for more than a hundred thousand years, while we have only had civilization for a few thousands. So the main evolutionary shaping would have happened in prehistory, where humans lived in tribes as hunter-gatherers.)
Teaching us about the world
Stories can inform us about scenarios that may happen in the world, and about the possible consequences from different choices in those situations. Real life experience is very valuable, but it can be costly. The insights gained from stories is not as valuable, but it is also much less costly.
This theory makes a number of predictions about what we would tend to like:
Stories that are about things that do not happen in every day life. Such experiences are trivial to acquire for ourselves at low cost, and therefore the advantage of gaining the risk-free insights through stories instead is small.
Stories with a dangerous element. Since dangerous situations are ones where our choices are particularly important, and thus it is of extra value to gain insights about those situations.
Stories that are more realistic regarding the actions of the characters, and the logic of the story. If people in the story do not act in the way they would act if such a situation happened, this detracts from the learning value of the story.
Notice here that there is a subtle distinction. The setting of the story, and its content, should not necessarily be realistic. In fact a highly realistic, every day setting can be in tension with the first bullet point. But the way that characters act given the situation and their motivations should be realistic in a good story.
The two genders would have a skew regarding their story preferences, towards elements that evolutionarily have been more relevant for them. This means that men would have a preference skew towards stories that are more about conflict and bigger scale threats, while women have a preference skew towards stories that are more about relationships and social relations.
Within horror stories we could also expect a gender divide. Men would tend to be more drawn to stories with a larger number of enemies, which are relevant to situations of inter-tribal conflicts, while women would tend to be more drawn to stories with single, known characters, simulating the dangers that would more often play out for them. Thus, zombie movies are more for men, while vampire movies are more for women; and war documentaries are more for men, while serial killer documentaries are more for women.
Women would tend to be drawn to stories about dangerous, powerful men; exploring whether it is possible to tame them and get them on their side. This is because there are potentially valuable lessons for women in such stories. Women can already handle more gentle men; this is not a large challenge. But if we are talking about a more powerful man, there is more risk to the woman, but also a higher possible reward - forming a bond with a powerful partner. This is a high stakes situation, and therefore one in which insights gained from stories can be extra useful.
Improving the functioning of the tribe
This aspect is from group selection. I believe that group selection dynamics have shaped the human psyche through evolutionary history. (More about this in a future post.) Stories can help groups of humans (tribes) function better and thereby outcompete other tribes.
A simple example of this is stories that enhance sentiment against stealing. Stealing can be advantageous to the thief himself, but overall for the tribe it is negative sum. Stories that include thieves who get a bad outcome, will promote the insight that thievery is often not as advantageous to the individual, as it may appear at first glance. This can lead to fewer people stealing, which is an advantage to the tribe overall.
In general we like stories where good people get good outcomes, and bad people get bad outcomes. Good people means people who act pro-socially, furthering the welfare of the other people in the tribe; and bad people are people who hurt others, or elsehow act in ways that are negative sum for the tribe.
A tragedy is a type of story in which a person who is not bad to start with, comes to follow a bad path, and thus in the end gets a bad outcome. This is instructive for ordinary members of the tribe regarding paths they should be wary of.
An additional advantage of stories can apply to the tribe as an entity. Stories can be about valour; about standing together with your fellow tribe against a common enemy. This can help build better morale and cooperation in group conflicts, which can be crucial for the tribe in such high-stakes situations.
In the above examples, I have focused on the encouragement of individual pro-social actions and behavior. But an aspect that is also important is that they can forward a shared understanding in the tribe. Stories help to establish common knowledge and shared agreement about which actions should be lauded, and which should be reprobated. People can then more confidently punish wrong-doers, without fearing retribution from third parties. Punishing evil people is of course also a popular story motif in itself.
Notice that there is a potential tension between the two main evolutionary purposes of stories (teaching us about the world, and improving the functioning of the tribe). As mentioned above, the best way to learn about the world is from realistic plots. But the elements that work towards improving the functioning of the tribe may not necessarily be the most realistic. An example of this tensions is in Independence Day. It is not a movie with the most realistic plot, but it is good at building tribal spirit.