Stories and folk psychology

Stories. I was thinking about stories, earlier. Stories, narrative, interpretation, explanation; and science, evidence, testing. I forget what started the train of thought, but it was about the way stories give us explanations of why people do things that are peculiarly satisfying, and that science can be irritating when it tells us a story is wrong.

The thing about stories is that they give us permission to make unquestionable claims about what people think, and what their motivations are. We can’t do that in real life, you know. If we’re sharing a bit of gossip about Eleanora or Archibald, we don’t tell it the way a storyteller does. We narrate facts or reports, what we’ve seen or what others say they’ve seen; we don’t announce what the protagonists thought. That’s because we don’t know. Stories have opposite rules – in telling stories it’s just normal to say what everyone thinks. Homer did it all the time.

That’s interesting, isn’t it. In real life we don’t know what other people think, we just infer it from how they behave, and often we’re aware that we don’t have a clue. In reading or hearing stories, we enter an alternate world where we can be told what everyone thinks.

Why is that so peculiarly satisfying? Probably partly because we can’t do it in real life; we can’t have that comfortable sense that we understand exactly why everybody does everything. Probably also partly because it’s explanatory. There just is something satisfying about a good explanation – “good” in the sense of being a good fit and making sense of something that was a puzzle or a jumble.

I suppose I’m talking about folk psychology. I’m thinking that stories probably have a lot to do with where we get our folk psychology. I’m also wondering if they trick us into thinking we understand other minds better than we really do.


  1. katkinkate says

    “I’m also wondering if they trick us into thinking we understand other minds better than we really do.”

    Ya, I think so. I’ve caught myself thinking narratively about others and finding I’ve been totally wrong. Stories are fun, but as a good guide to real life they are not all that useful. They often are a crappy guide though, but many people don’t notice as they feel satisfied by the story and never look any further.

  2. otrame says

    I took an Anthro 400 course once* in which, for the first three weeks, we studied the function of folk tales in a culture. The prof pointed out that such stories were mostly limited to film and TV these days, but since they needed to be popular to make money, they could still function appropriately. He felt that function was to tell us what is a good man? what is a good women? what is a hero? what behavior is bad? what are villains? Changing values of “good man” and “good women” on tv reflect changes in our society.

    * the professor was an interesting man. He had been a Catholic priest who left the priesthood to marry. After his divorce he decided he didn’t understand women, so, being an academic, he started reading a whole bunch of feminist literature. I have no idea if that helped him understand women better, but he was a damned good teacher. As an example of how he approached life, he never wore a suit and tie to class –too authoritarian–and wore pastel colors because he thought that was less threatening.

  3. barrypearson says

    “I’m also wondering if they trick us into thinking we understand other minds better than we really do.”

    I wonder if they trick us into thinking we understand our own minds better than we really do?

    I’m pretty sure that, a lot of the time, the story I tell myself about why I did something is just that, a story. Such stories create a myth that there is a conscious and coherent “me” in control. There isn’t actually a coherent “me” at all.

  4. Daniel Schealler says

    “I’m also wondering if they trick us into thinking we understand other minds better than we really do,” she said.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    As an English teacher, I find this is an interesting theory (should I say I finid it an interesting story?) I’m not sure I’m convinced, though. After all, drama has always been popular, and at least since the days when the soliloquy fell out of favor, it’s shown us what people do but made us infer what they thought.

    On the other hand, revelatory dialogue — the place in the play where people put their true feelings out on the table for all to see — is probably more common in drama than in real life. So maybe that doesn’t disprove the theory after all.

  6. says

    Stories on film and tv are different though, because except for the few that have a voiceover narrator, they can’t tell you what people are thinking any more than real life can. Or maybe they can a little bit more, via selection and camera angles and the like, but still mostly we’re watching other people behave rather than having an omniscient narrator telling us what they’re thinking and why they’re doing what they’re doing.

    Of course some narrators imitate the camera and just report externals, and some imitate the self and give just the I pov, and some give just one character’s pov but in the third person.

  7. says

    Heh. I was typing while you posted, bruce. Quite so. I was taking “stories” to include the novel but not drama (including movies and tv), but I didn’t spell that out.

  8. Rinus says

    I’m pretty sure that most of the time, we barely understand our own thoughts all that well. Our intentions, feelings and motives may seem obvious at the time, and perfectly rational, but hindsight paints a different (usually far less flattering) picture.

    Occasionally we may recognize certain behaviour in other people, and it’s tempting to compare it to something similar we’ve been through and reason they must therefor also have similar motivations. Usually it just doesn’t work that way, though, because there doesn’t seem to be such a thing as a ‘normal’ human mind.

  9. F says

    I wonder if they trick us into thinking we understand our own minds better than we really do?

    Our brains trick our brains into thinking our brain processes understand our brain processes better than they really do. It’s part of what brains do.

  10. rrede says

    Also English teacher, but one who teaches creative writing!

    I think that the folk psychology (although I may not understand that term) is more what caused the kind of stories we now have–I mean, writing is a very recent (historically) creation, let alone the new media we have to tell stories.

    But I think we were sitting around the caves, hopefully with nice toasty fire, telling stories about the world and our place in it from the very start (and those cave paintings…..aren’t they now arguing that some may have a narrative pattern? Sequential art/narrative)?

    And while in our oral narratives we do not have the complete sweep of an omniscient narrator (and really, even an omniscient narrator usually is limited, selectively, to only some characters, not all, and not all to the same extent), it’s not at all uncommon to hear people claim they know the intent of the person the story is about (and intent is pretty close to what they are thinking).

    Did Homer really talk that much about what people thought? It’s been a while (I teach more contemporary stuff), but when I think back to the major epics, I am not remembering too much about what people thought–or about what everybody except the HERO thought.

    But I agree–especially in the idea that there are cultural narratives that are so pervasive, it can be nearly impossible for scientific proof to make even a dent.

    *goes to check out some Homer*

  11. rrede says

    I was wrong: I see a lot of the omniscient narrator (helped along by Muse!), reporting on what characters feel.

    It still strikes me as….fairly flat in contrast to the narrative conventions of the novel (all heteroglossic, and all, compared to what Bakhtin called the more single-voiced epic).

    It all seems to come down to how we define thinking….*goes off to brood a while.*

  12. ismenia says

    Homer very rarely says what a character is thinking. The only example I can think of is when Nausicaa is too embarrassed to mention the subject of marriage explicitly to her father in book of the Odyssey and I remember that one because it’s highlighted as unusual. The style is generally very visual and it sometimes mean’s that a character’s behaviour seems very mysterious.

  13. Bill Openthalt says

    Jonathan Haidt’s rider/elephant metaphor is quite useful. The rider is th “conscious” part of our mind, the elephant all those processes that keep us alive because they’ve kept us (and other animals) alive for aeons.

    The rider acts as a lawyer for the elephant – putting the best possible explanation on the elephant’s behaviour without really knowing what caused it, often based on less information than the other parties have.

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