The Way We Live Our Lives in Stories

The Way We Live Our Lives in Stories

Jonathan Gottschall [7.28.14]

We think of stories as a wildly creative art form but within that creativity and that diversity there is a lot of conformity. Stories are very predictable. No matter where you go in the world, no matter how different people seem, no matter how hard their lives are, people tell stories, universally, and universally the stories are more or less like ours: the same basic human obsessions, and the same basic structure. The structure comes down to: stories have a character, the character has a predicament or a problem—they're always problem-focused—and the character tries to solve the problem. In its most basic terms, that's what a story is—a problem solution narrative. 

JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL is a Distinguished Research Fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College. He is the author or editor of six books, including The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (a New York Times Editor’s Choice Selection and a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize). Jonathan Gottschall's Edge Bio Page


There's a big question about what it is that makes people people. What is it that most sets our species apart from every other species? That's the debate that I've been involved in lately.

When we call the species homo sapiens that's an argument in the debate. It's an argument that it is our sapience, our wisdom, our intelligence, or our big brains that most sets our species apart. Other scientists, other philosophers have pointed out that, no, a lot of the time we're really not behaving all that rationally and reasonably. It's our upright posture that sets us apart, or it's our opposable thumb that allows us to do this incredible tool use, or it's our cultural sophistication, or it's the sophistication of language, and so on and so forth. I'm not arguing against any of those things, I’m just arguing that one thing of equal stature has typically been left off of this list, and that’s the way that people live their lives inside stories.

We live in stories all day long—fiction stories, novels, TV shows, films, interactive video games. We daydream in stories all day long. Estimates suggest we just do this for hours and hours per day—making up these little fantasies in our heads, these little fictions in our heads. We go to sleep at night to rest; the body rests, but not the brain. The brain stays up at night. What is it doing? It's telling itself stories for about two hours per night. It's eight or ten years out of our lifetime composing these little vivid stories in the theaters of our minds.

I'm not here to downplay any of those other entries into the "what makes us special" sweepstakes. I'm just here to say that one thing that has been left off the list is storytelling. We live our lives in stories, and it's sort of mysterious that we do this. We're not really sure why we do this. It's one of these questions—storytelling—that falls in the gap between the sciences and the humanities. If you have this division into two cultures: you have the science people over here in their buildings, and the humanities people over here in their buildings. They're writing in their own journals, and publishing their own book series, and the scientists are doing the same thing.


You have this division, and you have all this area in between the sciences and the humanities that no one is colonizing. There are all these questions in the borderlands between these disciplines that are rich and relatively unexplored. One of them is storytelling and it's one of these questions that humanities people aren't going to be able to figure out on their own because they don't have a scientific toolkit that will help them gradually, painstakingly narrow down the field of competing ideas. The science people don't really see these questions about storytelling as in their jurisdiction: "This belongs to someone else, this is the humanities' territory, we don't know anything about it."

What is needed is fusion—people bringing together methods, ideas, approaches from scholarship and from the sciences to try to answer some of these questions about storytelling. Humans are addicted to stories, and they play an enormous role in human life and yet we know very, very little about this subject. There's an important growth area here for new understanding.

Storytelling is great, we all love stories, but do we need empiricism, too, or can we let stories run away from us and lose track of empirical reality? That's certainly a danger.

One of the major problems that I dealt with in my academic career coming out of the humanities was a tremendous frustration, to the point of almost paralysis, with the lack of an empirical foundation for any of the work that gets done in the humanities.

There are all kinds of storytelling. You have a question about X, Y or Z, and it's very easy for a talented PhD-wielding, high IQ person to tell a wonderful and engaging story about it. The story is often very credible, and very plausible, and very good, but the problem is that scholar B and scholar C have their own very plausible excellent stories as well.

A great deal of my work, especially earlier on in my career, was about going into the sciences and ransacking them, and trying to hijack the methodologies that are used to help scientists choose between competing stories. Scientists are telling stories, too. That's what a hypothesis is. You have the question, and you make up a story about how to account for the phenomenon. The advantage that sciences have over the humanities (one of them) is that science has methods for helping winnow down the field of competing hypotheses.

The argument has always been that none of those methods work in the humanities. That idea is bunk. It's like saying before people went to the moon, "You can't get to the moon because no one has ever been there." But no one had ever tried really before. It's not like people had tried desperately to make empirical methods work in the humanities, and then failed, and then moved on to something easy like string theory. They didn't put their shoulder into it and give up. We just have a thought habit that this is a field where it's strictly qualitative, and quantitative methods can't work, but that's false. You can find a lot of proof of concept studies that have been done. There's empirical work in the humanities that's quite good.

The main fear people have about importing empirical methods, scientific methods into the humanities is that somehow what's special about the humanities would be vaporized. It would become just like robotic, literary scholars would come to work in lab coats or something and the field would be sterilized. But it's really easy for the two things to co-exist. You need good scholarship, you absolutely do. You need good historians, and good literary theorists, and good literary critics, and none of that work is at odds with work that is methodologically scientific. There will be certain questions that can be addressed in a fairly rigorous scientific manner, and some questions that really can't.


I got to this place—this place between the sciences and the humanities—close to 20 years ago when I just started out in graduate school. I went to graduate school in literary studies, English. I wanted to be a scholar when I grew up, and a scholar I thought was someone who discovered things, or made some sort of small contribution to human self-understanding. Then I got into graduate school, and at the time the academic humanities were still quite firmly in the grip of postmodernism.

I would go to work as a graduate student every day, and I was told by my professors that, okay, we'll read, we'll write, but it's all kind of hopeless. The odds of us ever understanding anything are vanishingly small. It's a dog chasing its tail forever. I was frustrated by that; I wanted to try to find something like more reliable and more durable answers to the questions that I was addressing because I thought they were important questions.

I started looking around and thinking about, how do we do this? What's a good model for generating more reliable knowledge? I didn't have to think about it very hard. I said, "Well, the sciences seem to do this. The sciences seem to do a nice job. They have their mistakes, they backslide, they go in circles now and then, but most people allow that over time there's a gradual improvement in our understanding of the universe that wasn't there before." The humanities, in large part, have trouble making the same claim.

My career, especially in the early part, was about seeing how far I could get applying a more scientific model to the sorts of questions that I wanted to ask about art, those questions about literature in particular.

When I was in graduate school I saw several problems with the business model in academic literary studies: bad theory, bad method, bad attitude, bad ideology.

On the bad-theory front, what we had was a domination by Freudian theories, psychoanalytic theory, and very rigid versions of social constructivism, this idea that everything is pure nurture and no nature. I knew those models were out of date, so part of what my work was about was updating the model—the theory—to make it consistent with the best thinking in the sciences of the mind.

The other problem was a problem that I discussed a little earlier, this idea of, okay, so you have better theory to guide your research, and you will come up with ideas, but how do you know if your idea is true? I wanted to see if there were ways of quantifying some of the questions that you approach in the humanities, and submitting them to statistical analysis, and scientific testing, and falsification, and all of that stuff.

In the early days—the late ‘90s, early 2000s—I was doing things like having teams of readers, students, and together we would content-analyze folktales from all around the world. We would get a corpus of folktales from maybe 100 different cultures, hundreds of tales from every culture. This would be much easier to do now because you would have the computer tools to automate a great deal of it. We had to go out in the libraries, get the collections, scan them laboriously, and we'd ask questions that were very, very simple, and very, very basic.

For example, a question: Are female characters underrepresented in literature? Are there fewer female characters in literature? At first glance, just from your normal reading, you say, "Yes, it seems that way." And then you would say, "Well, what about in, I don't know, Elizabethan plays, and what about in folktales? What about on TV? What about in films? What about in other cultures? What about in other centuries?"

The argument had always been, yes, female characters are underrepresented because of sexism in the West. We said, "How do we find out if that idea is true?" What we did is we got this big body of folktales, and we'd look to see if we'd find the same relationship. We had a couple different ways of looking to see whether or not females were underrepresented in those samples. One thing you could do, is to read tales, and have the coders literally code: Who is the main character? How many characters are there? How many males? How many females? We also had the computer count pronouns: he/him versus her/she et cetera. We found very, very little evidence for the sort of Western patriarchy argument because what we found basically all around the world was that female characters were underrepresented across the board. We did not find cultures where you had parity. We did not find cultures where you had more leading female characters than leading male characters.


Often times, with a very simple question like this, the response will be this is the humanities, this is about books, this is about words, and there is no way of ever knowing the answers to these questions for sure, so all we can do is argue about it forever. But this study showed that with a little bit of elbow grease and a little bit of ingenuity, there's a way to go out and get something like an answer to this question. 


The tension between the humanities and the sciences is old, and it's ongoing. So you have the "two cultures" clash that has been ameliorated in some areas, and people on the sciences side and the humanities side have all been trained to say the right things now, but the tension is still there. I'm in a somewhat interesting position to evaluate the arguments on both sides. People in the sciences are frustrated, and they think the people in the humanities are sort of thick skulled, and recalcitrant. People in the humanities think that the sciences are cocksure, and hubristic and intent on colonizing everything. They are afraid that what the sciences really want is to take over the whole shebang. They want their science building and they want the humanities building as well.

I do think that the people in the sciences, people in my camp even, could do a better job of talking about things, and dealing with some of the concerns. The humanities people are concerned with a feeling of evaporation—what science really does is it explains away magic. The humanities, and art, especially, can be viewed as the last bastion of magic, this unexplainable thing, this truly mysterious thing. We don't know how it works, we don't know why it works, we just know it works. Part of the reason humanities people haven't wanted science involved in this effort to understand art is this feeling that it would be explained, and if it's explained, it would be explained away.

Then there's a lot of misunderstanding, and it's basically an either/or mentality. You can either have scientific tools, approaches and methods, or you can have traditional scholarship where, of course, what's needed is a toolkit that has both things. You would have certain problems that would yield to this set of tools, and you had other problems that would be more appropriate for that sort of tool.

Another major concern in the humanities has to do with determinism and reductionism, the sense of reductionism, the idea, again, that something like Shakespeare would be dismissed as a drama of selfish genes, just boiled down to selfish genes. What's the answer to Shakespeare? "Oh, selfish genes." Part of what's going on there is a confusion about what the word "reductionism" means. The word has that sense of reducing—grandeur or greatness would be reduced—where that's not really what scientists mean by that. "Reduction" means explanation. It's not really such a scary concept. But I do think that there's been an effort from the science side possibly to conquer the opposition. And it hasn't gone very well. Probably a stronger diplomatic push is called for.

I was certainly in the warrior camp earlier on in my career. I wrote some angry things, "angry-young-man" type books, manifestos, and while I don't take anything back it was not a good strategy. People got their hackles up, and they got their claws out, too, and nothing really happened.

Was I too pugnacious in my earlier work? To some extent, yes, I was. The question is what do you hope to achieve? In my case what I hoped to achieve was a sea change. In the manifesto-type book that I wrote around 2008 I said that what I was aiming for was "totally disciplinary upheaval." I was going for a revolution. I argued the case just that boldly the whole way through, and with quite a lot of polemical strength. It was a very tough polemic. I'm proud of that book, but it didn't achieve much. It did not produce total disciplinary upheaval. What it did was strongly marginalize me within the field.

A few years later I wrote another book—my most recent book—about the same questions about the relationship between science and art and I just wasn't as aggressive as I was before. And it was fine. I got to make the same points, but people didn't see me as scary, people didn't see me as off-putting. I didn't sound like the type of guy that you maybe wouldn't want to have in your department because he was too aggressive. That book will do a lot more to push the sort of agenda that I'm interested in. Playing nice in that case seemed to have been a better strategy for getting what I wanted.


If I were to build my own English department from scratch, what would that department be like?

A lot of it would be very similar to how it is now. You would still read the great authors, and the new authors, and you would still have literary criticism, literary theory. But you would also have courses in human psychology. You would have courses that would address this big question: Why do we even have literature at all? Why do we have stories at all? Why do we care so much about fiction? These are the kind of things that are so big and basic, and so obvious that most people in literary studies don't even think about them. Or if they do think about them, it's in a vague sort of way.

I would have courses that were cross-listed with the math department: basic classes on statistics, basic classes on research methods for the social sciences. A lot of the questions that literary scholars are addressing are very basic psychology questions that can be addressed in a lab.

Just to give one more example, my colleagues and I, including Joseph Carroll and a couple psychologists, were interested in some questions about how people respond to literature. There's a whole field of literary studies called reader response literary studies. Reader response is what it sounds like. It's basically how do people respond to literature? What happens? What's going on in their heads? What's going on with them emotionally? The way that work has typically been done is by a scholar sitting in an armchair and telling you the answer. This is how people respond. But it's an empirical question, it's a lab question.

What we did was we asked people. In concert with this team of psychologists, we got people, avid readers, to tell us how they responded to these literary works. We were able to get a whole bunch of data, and answer a whole bunch of questions about this basic question, what is going on with people as they read and respond to literature?

One of the big questions revolves around the question I suppose of whether or not the author is dead. This is this famous mantra, this idea that the author is dead. One thing that the mantra suggests is that the author doesn't have very much power, that power resides with the reader. In most literary theory courses you learn that response to literature is highly idiosyncratic. It's going to strongly reflect your biases, whether you're a man or a woman, how old you are, what your background is, and so on and so forth. There's a lot of truth in that. And we did find that.

But for the most part what we found in a survey of maybe 600 people, was that the main story is by far uniformity. People agree on what's going on in a story, and they agree on what a story means. They have the same sort of emotional reactions to the characters, and they hate the same characters, they like the same characters.

If you have a big group of people all reading the same book, what you're seeing is not a diversity of response, a great deal of idiosyncratic response, what you're seeing is a mental and emotional attunement among those readers.

Now, from a common sense point of view I can see a lot of people listening to this and saying, "Well, of course, I knew this already." But we didn't know it already. This was a question that was very much in dispute, and most people in the academic humanities would have voted the other way, more towards idiosyncratic response. That would be one example.


The question, "why fiction?" has very much been on my mind lately, and it's one of these things that, again, is so big, and so obvious that most people just don't think about it. It seems obvious to people that human beings love stories. But if you think about it, it's not at all obvious that human beings should love stories, especially fictional stories. If you imagine us, as hunter-gatherers out on the savannah, life is very hard, narrow margins, and you would think that you're better off going without story. It's a lot of time and a lot of energy spent on story.

What might the benefit be to outbalance the costs? There are a whole bunch of different competing theories for this idea, and not a lot of data yet to help us decide between them. The main thing about these different theories for why we have fiction is that they are largely compatible with each other, it's not an either/or situation. If you ask yourself, "What's my hand for?" You would say, "My hand is a tool I use to grab stuff; it's a tool I use to communicate; it's a tool I use to reach out and caress people; it's a tool I use to reach out and punch people. It's a multipurpose tool; it does a whole bunch of different things." The same is probably true of story. Story has probably been shaped by different evolutionary pressures to do different things.

One of the ideas that I've been thinking about a lot is whether you can develop a hypothesis about one likely function of fiction by focusing on the form of fiction. What is fiction like formally? One of the most interesting things to me about stories is that we think of stories as a wildly creative art form, but within that creativity and that diversity there is a lot of conformity Stories are very predictable. No matter where you go in the world, no matter how different people seem, no matter how hard their lives are, people tell stories, universally, and universally the stories are more or less like ours: the same basic human obsessions, and the same basic structure. The structure comes down to: stories have a character, the character has a predicament or a problem—they're always problem-focused—and the character tries to solve the problem. In its most basic terms, that's what a story is—a problem solution narrative.

Why are stories that way? On one hand, it may be obvious to you that stories are that way, that they're problem focused. That's the first thing you would learn in your first day of creative writing class. You get there, your teacher would say, "Hey, your story has to have a problem, a crisis, a dilemma, otherwise no one's interested." But if you think about it, it's not at all obvious that stories should be that way. You might really expect to find stories that really did function as portals into hedonistic paradise. Paradises where there were no problems and pleasure was infinite. But you never, ever find that.

Why are stories so trouble-focused? You have quite a bit of convergence among scholars and scientists who are looking at this from an evolutionary point of view, and what they're saying is that stories may function as kind of virtual reality simulators, where you go and you simulate the big problems of human life, and you enjoy it, but you're having a mental training session at the same time. There's some kind of interesting evidence for this, that these simulations might help people perform better on certain tasks.

So in the same way that children's make believe helps them hone their social skills, it seems to be true of adult make believe, too. If adult make believe is novels and films, it seems they're entering into those fictional worlds and working through those fictional social dilemmas actually does, as hard as it may be to believe, enhance our social skills, our emotional intelligence, our empathy. That's kind of a neat finding. Maybe stories have a function as a simulation of the big problems of life that helps us cope better with those problems when we do experience them.

What about stories that are an exception to this rule? You will find them, but you will have to scrape your brain to find them, to find examples, and they will be very much exceptions that prove the rule. They will be extreme statistical outliers. You will find stories that don't have that structure, that character facing a problem and attempting to solve it.

You will note, though, that most of those examples, the things that will spring readily to mind are not the things that most people consume. Stories that depart from that basic structure have a tremendous amount of difficulty finding audience. They typically find an elite academic-style audience. For instance, Joyce's Finnegans Wake or something, it explodes the structure of story. But Joyce, of course, was setting out on purpose to explode the structure of story. A lot of 20th century writers realized, "Holy cow, I'm working inside a prison, I'm working inside the prison of this structure, and I'm going to blow it up, and I'm going to make everything new." These were interesting as artistic experiments, and I adore some of them, but they're exceptional, and importantly, they do not do a very good job of seizing human attention and riveting human attention. People read them when their professors force them to read them.


I have two daughters, and the question is what would I advise them if they wanted to pursue study in the humanities? I would be for it. The more interesting question for me is, and I get this question in my e-mail box a couple times a week, from some student out there who asks, "I like your work, I'm impressed by your work and I want to do the same thing. I want to tie together humanities work and scientific work. I have these questions about literature, or about painting, or about music that I'd like to pursue from a scientific point of view. Where do I go? Where do I go for a good undergraduate degree? Who can advise me in a PhD program?"

Those are sort of heartbreaking letters to get because there's not many very good places to send them. Typically I have to say with regrets that there's a couple people I can mention, but after that, I have to say that if you are in between the humanities and the sciences, the best way to go is to go to the sciences because you will not get pushback on this path of inquiry from people in cognitive science, or people from neuroscience, or people from psychology. But you will face quite a bit of resistance probably if you try to go at this from an academic humanities program.