Other research by Green has found that people who perform better on tests of empathy, or the capacity to perceive another person’s emotions, become more easily transported regardless of the story. “There seems to be a reasonable amount of variation, all the way up to people who can get swept away by a Hallmark commercial,” Green says.
In Another’s Shoes
Empathy is part of the larger ability humans have to put themselves in another person’s shoes: we can attribute mental states—awareness, intent—to another entity. Theory of mind, as this trait is known, is crucial to social interaction and communal living—and to understanding stories.
Children develop theory of mind around age four or five. A 2007 study by psychologists Daniela O’Neill and Rebecca Shultis, both at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, found that five-year-olds could follow the thoughts of an imaginary character but that three-year-olds could not. The children saw model cows in both a barn and a field, and the researchers told them that a farmer sitting in the barn was thinking of milking the cow in the field. When then asked to point to the cow the farmer wanted to milk, three-year-olds pointed to the cow in the barn—they had a hard time following the character’s thoughts to the cow in the field. Five-year-olds, however, pointed to the cow in the field, demonstrating theory of mind.
Perhaps because theory of mind is so vital to social living, once we possess it we tend to imagine minds everywhere, making stories out of everything. A classic 1944 study by Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel, then at Smith College, elegantly demonstrated this tendency. The psychologists showed people an animation of a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square and asked the participants what was happening. The subjects described the scene as if the shapes had intentions and motivations—for example, “The circle is chasing the triangles.” Many studies since then have confirmed the human predilection to make characters and narratives out of whatever we see in the world around us.
But what could be the evolutionary advantage of being so prone to fantasy? “One might have expected natural selection to have weeded out any inclination to engage in imaginary worlds rather than the real one,” writes Steven Pinker, a Harvard University evolutionary psychologist, in the April 2007 issue of Philosophy and Literature. Pinker goes on to argue against this claim, positing that stories are an important tool for learning and for developing relationships with others in one’s social group. And most scientists are starting to agree: stories have such a powerful and universal appeal that the neurological roots of both telling tales and enjoying them are probably tied to crucial parts of our social cognition.
As our ancestors evolved to live in groups, the hypothesis goes, they had to make sense of increasingly complex social relationships. Living in a community requires keeping tabs on who the group members are and what they are doing. What better way to spread such information than through storytelling?
Indeed, to this day people spend most of their conversations telling personal stories and gossiping. A 1997 study by anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar, then at the University of Liverpool in England, found that social topics accounted for 65 percent of speaking time among people in public places, regardless of age or gender.
Anthropologists note that storytelling could have also persisted in human culture because it promotes social cohesion among groups and serves as a valuable method to pass on knowledge to future generations. But some psychologists are starting to believe that stories have an important effect on individuals as well—the imaginary world may serve as a proving ground for vital social skills.