Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal


Jason Collins


April 1, 2016

In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall asks why we live and breathe stories. We are prolific storytellers. We consume movies, novels and plays. We even create stories in our sleep.

Gottschall’s argument is that our propensity to storytelling is an evolved trait that helps us navigate problems. He likens stories to flight simulators that prepare us for problems when they arise.

Here are snippets from two chapters. First, the idea that the mind is a storyteller - an idea common in Nassim Taleb’s writings:

[W]hile Sherlock Holmes stories are good fun, it pays to notice that Holmes’s method is ridiculous.

Take the risk story Holmes concocts after glancing at Watson in the lab [at the beginning of A Study in Scarlet]. Watson is dressed in ordinary civilian clothes. What gives him “the air of a military man”? Watson is not carrying his medical bag or wearing a stethoscope around his neck. What identifies him as “a gentleman of a medical type”? And why is Holmes so sure that Watson had just returned from Afghanistan rather than from one of many other dangerous tropical garrison where Britain, at the height of its empire, stationed troops? (Let’s ignore the fact that Afghanistan is not actually in the tropical band.) …

In short, Sherlock Holmes’s usual method is to fabricate the most confident and complete explanatory stories from the most ambiguous clues. Holmes seizes on one of a hundred different interpretations of a clue and arbitrarily insists that the interpretation is correct. This then becomes the basis for a multitude of similarly improbable interpretations that all add up to a neat, ingenious, and vanishingly improbable explanatory story. …

We each have a little Sherlock Holmes in our brain. His job is to “reason backwards” from what we can observe in the present and show what orderly series of causes led to particular effects. Evolution has given us an “inner Holmes” because the world really is full of stories (intrigues, plots, alliances, relationships of cause and effect), and it pays to detect them. …

But the storytelling mind is imperfect. … The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness and coincidence. It is addicted to meaning. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t.

The second snippet relates to the fallibility of our memories in telling stories. Memories are open to contamination, and are fictionalisations of past events rather than perfectly recollections.

In a classic experiment, Elizabeth Loftus and her colleagues gathered information from independent sources about undergraduate students’ childhoods. The psychologists then brought students into the lab and went over lists of actual events in their lives. The lists were Trojan horses that hid a single lie: When the student was five years old, the psychologists claimed, he wandered away from his parents in a mall. His parents were frightened, and so was he. Eventually an old man reunited him with his parents. At first, the students had no memory of this fictional event. But when they were later called back into the lab and asked about the mall episode, 25 percent of them said they remembered it. These students not only recalled the bare events that the researchers had supplied, but they also added many vivid details of their own.

The study was among the first of many to show how shockingly vulnerable the memory system is to contamination by suggestion.

I have several “clear” childhood memories that I suspect did not occur. That doesn’t overly worry me, but what does is my recollection of papers and books that I regularly refer to in conversation. Each time I recall the paper or book, I affect my memory of it. More than once I have gone back to the original after several years to re-read it, and realised that, even if not wrong in fact, my recollection of the tone, nuance and strength of the argument was well off.

Having pulled out two snippets of storytelling gone wrong, the book is positive about the effect of storytelling on the world. Gottschall argues that storytelling is often deeply moral, normally deals with problems of great (evolutionary) relevance to us and is a major cohering force in society. And I tend to agree.