Stories Are Like Religion

Small children (age 4-6) who were exposed to a large number of children’s books and films had a significantly stronger ability to read the mental and emotional states of other people. … The more absorbed subjects were in the story, the more empathy they felt, and the more empathy they felt, the more likely the subjects were to help when the experimenter “accidentally” dropped a handful of pens… Reading narrative fiction … fosters empathic growth and prosocial behavior. …

Fiction’s happy endings seem to warp our sense of reality. They make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is. But believing that lie has important effects for society — and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place. (more)

People who mainly watched drama and comedy on TV — as opposed to heavy viewers of news programs and documentaries — had substantially stronger “just-world” beliefs. … Fiction, by constantly exposing us to the theme of poetic justice, may be partly responsible for the sense that the world is, on the whole, a just place. (more)

Psychologists have found that people who watch less TV are actually more accurate judges of life’s risks and rewards than those who subject themselves to the tales of crime, tragedy, and death that appear night after night on the ten o’clock news. That’s because these people are less likely to see sensationalized or one-sided sources of information, and thus see reality more clearly. (more)

Imagine that all you know about someone is that they have zero interest in stories. Not movies, not novels, not nothing. They prefer instead to stay focused on the real world. The only “stories” they want are accurate histories of representative people. What do you think of this person?

You might want to hire this person. But would you trust them to be loyal? Would you date them? Marry them? Most people feel a little wary of such story-less people, just as they are wary of atheists. People fear that atheists will violate social norms because they do not fear punishment from gods and spirits. Similarly, people fear that story-less people have not internalized social norms well – they may be too aware of how easy it would be to get away with violations, and feel too little shame from trying.

Thus in equilibrium, people are encouraged to consume stories, and to deludedly believe in a more just world, in order to be liked more by others. This is similar to how people have long been encouraged to be religious, so that they could similarly be liked more by others.

A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

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