Why Fiction Lies

Most religious activities make a lot of sense, especially in terms of group bonding.  It is religious beliefs that seem the most puzzling.  Many suggest supernatural beliefs are just a side effect of our having a theory of mind, and applying it liberally.  Back in 2001 I read and reviewed Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained.  Boyer noted 1) supernatural concepts tend to violate one ontological assumption each, making them maximally memorable, and 2) supernatural entities tend to know and care about human-socially-relevant info, and to punish humans who are not nice (i.e., cooperative).  I was puzzled that Boyer didn’t explicitly make what seemed to me the obvious suggestion:  we evolved a tendency to accept strange memorable group beliefs to create a high cost of leaving our group, and to show that we expect to be punished if we are not nice.

Our obsession with gossiping about each other makes a lot of sense, but more puzzling is our obsession with stories we know are not true, about unrelated people in strange worlds.  I recently finished literary-expert William Flesch’s Comeuppance, a literary expert’s evo psych account of why we like fiction (reviewed here and here).  Flesch says humans cooperate via a norm of celebrating cooperators and punishing defectors and those who violate this norm:

In narratives we … [are] disposed to want to see the cooperators triumph over the obstacles set up by defectors of various sorts.  …. [We] root for characters with a propensity for strong reciprocity, not because the judge them as like us or identify with them, but because  a disposition to reward cooperators and to punish defectors is itself a central aspect of cooperation. (p.126)

Social life is all about signaling our abilities and cooperativeness, and discerning such signals from others:

Understanding narrative at all requires understanding of signaling.  We monitor signals and the reliability of signals that others produce.  We take note of how others monitor signals, and what signals they produce in turn on receive signals that we also may receive.  One of the intricate pleasures of narrative … consists in keeping track of who knows what. We like to keep track of what other people are keeping track of. … Narrative relies on the psychological incentives to engage in such monitoring of how we respond to what we know about one another. (p.85)

Yes, we love to watch, and watching abilities serve us well, by why do we apply them so enthusiastically to false stories?  Why not just tell stories about real heros and villains?  One clue is that stories can signal things about authors and tellers:

Among the strong reciprocators to narrative events are the narrators of those events. … Gossip is a likely mode of altruistic punishment: the scandal monger punishes scandalous behavior. … Gossip … disciplines those who have violated whatever norms the gossipers are punishing.

But how is it altruistic to punish non-existent violators?  Only once does Flesch get close to the key: visibly consuming stories also signals things!

Vicarious feelings for others is therefore both a propensity for responding emotionally to the signals of others and itself a primary example of such a signal. … Our own monitoring of costly signals and our response to the response of others constitute our own costly and altruistic absorption in the interactions of others.  And of course we signal as well with the stories we love, a mode of signaling that can range from the simple desire to repeat them to the social capital of our own conspicuous cultural attainments.  Knowing a story and, still more, telling a story signals our own capacities for altruistic interest, affect, and punishment, capacities that the story will represent its characters manifesting in order to appeal to the audiences interest in monitoring these things.  (pp 123-124)

This explanation of fiction comes close to the above explanation of religious beliefs: both religion and fiction serve to reassure our associates that we will be nice.  In addition to letting us show we can do hard things, and that we are tied to associates by doing the same things, religious beliefs show we expect the not nice to be punished by supernatural powers, and our favorite fiction shows the sort of people we think are heroes and villains, how often they are revealed or get their due reward, and so on.

We don’t believe the stories really happened, but we do tend to believe these “social truths” about their characters. We love to tell associates about our favorite stories, and prefer them to love them too.

As with religion, the beliefs of ours that most reassure others are not necessarily the most accurate.  In fiction, relative to reality, people know more why they act and what they want, good and bad personal characteristics correlate more strongly, personal character matters more relative to circumstance or larger social forces, and there are clearer ultimate resolutions to complex events.  What other social lies does fiction tell, and why does it reassure others that we believe them?

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  • billswift

    Another reason for stories over history/reality is that stories are more clear-cut illustrations of whatever point you’re making without all the messy complexity of real world illustrations (this may also be a reason gossip is usually over-simplified).

  • Grant

    Excellent post; this is why I read OB.

    What other social lies does fiction tell, and why does it reassure others that we believe them?

    Relative to reality, our social norms are found across a very broad range of story environments. Movies taking place in the past or in the future often have the characters behaving unrealistically like us, with our values and norms. This seems to jive with the theme of this post: we like to assure people and be assured that we will not defect even under any circumstances.

    Though I’m not sure the signaling is necissarily the story as much as how the audience reacts to them. We can signal loyalty to a norm by liking the (possibly tragic; the story doesn’t necessarily need to be unrealistic) hero character in a movie, or disloyalty by preferring the despicable villain. The story’s environment can be perfectly realistic and tragic as long as the audience can empathize with certain characters and signal their allegiance to those characters’ norms.

    Then why are some villains so popular? Do we create villains with certain traits that make them popular in order to draw a distinction between those traits and the ones which make them evil? But we don’t shun people who like the bad guy “defector”, we shun people who like “bad” stories (though I recognize there are motives of snobbishness involved in this as well).

  • Carl Shulman

    Imperfect deceptive abilities could mean that apparent religious beliefs would be an informative signal of actual beliefs, and so of cooperativeness. But the (known to be false) stories we choose to repeat seem like a more easily faked (and thus less informative) signal.

  • Cameron Taylor

    But we don’t shun people who like the bad guy “defector”, we shun people who like “bad” stories (though I recognize there are motives of snobbishness involved in this as well).

    Very good point Grant. We can’t accept people telling the other tribe’s story, with the other tribe’s identifying values!

  • “Yes, we love to watch, and watching abilities serve us well, by why do we apply them so enthusiastically to false stories? Why not just tell stories about real heros and villains?”

    A simpler explanation: There are many fewer true stories with the same entertainment value (for whatever you consider entertaining) than false stories, and so regardless of why we find stories entertaining or what our values are, false stories will always predominate unless you explicitly value realism. The fact of being true is a constraint upon the story; it’s another criterion you have to optimize for, and so you have to trade it off against another criterion (familiarity, morality, entertainment, availability). Even if our brains were addled tomorrow and we started seeking stories in which the largest possible number of people are tortured to death, the market would soon be dominated by fiction.

  • anon

    “literary expect”

  • Grant: “Movies taking place in the past or in the future often have the characters behaving unrealistically like us, with our values and norms.”

    Am I the only person who finds this really irritating, i.e. “historical” films where the characters are essentially early 21st century westerners wearing funny costumes? The recent Rome TV series, for all the liberties it took with history, at least got that right.

    One of the interesting things about studying history is that people from the past were not like us in many ways, and in many other ways were identical, and by looking at different cultures we can see what parts of human behaviour are universal human nature and what parts are culturally determined.

  • mitchell porter

    Attributing enthusiasm for fiction fundamentally to social psychology seems quite back-to-front. Immersion in fiction is first of all a matter of an individual mind immersing itself in a false reality. Would you also say that people daydream or masturbate in order to send social signals?

  • Abigail

    I think different explanations apply to why people like reading different things: pornography, women’s romantic fiction, the “canon” of classics- Walter Scott, Herman Melville etc- horror fiction.

    To escape reality. To picture a situation, and imagine how I might respond in it. To feel an emotional response to reality, in a safe environment, me alone with a book. To see an artist’s portrait of how people really are, how they really respond, and so to learn more about humanity. To enjoy a happy ending, and be reassured that happy endings are more likely than unhappy ones.

  • What Tom said.

  • Julian Morrison

    An activity mostly conducted solo and in private is not going to be a very effective signal.

  • Aaron

    I think the main “lie” fiction tells is that there is an underlying narrative to events, beyond on our own actions. In Lord of the Rings, for example, the main characters feel overwhelmed by events, but there is a sense that Fate and the Forces of Good were on their side, rigging things for them behind the scenes. In that sense, it’s very closely related to what religious stories are trying to describe.

  • Bill, yes, but then you have to be making a point, and the question is why we like stories that make points.

    Grant and Cameron, likeable villains say its not enough to be likeable to gain social approval. The same story can let different people identify with different groups and morals, depending on who they like.

    Carl, you know anyone who fakes what heros they admire?

    Tom and Abigail, the issue is to explain “entertainment value” and desires to “escape reality” and hear a happy ending. What do we get in trade for realism? Stories do not say how people really are and really respond; they say how we want others to think we think people are and respond.

    Mitchell, daydreaming mixes realistic imagining and unrealistic story-telling.

  • Julian: but then we go talk about it. Your office water cooler discussion is about what happened on whatever show or sporting event the night before. Your Facebook page lists your favorite movies and books so that you can see who is part of your tribe. People actually care about which movie had the top box office return, and we line up to be one of the first to sit quietly in a dark room while it plays. I recall my bemusement on visiting a friend who was watching a sporting event on television: he put on a team jersey and was cheering, alone. Public tribal activity internalized?

    I am one to talk. My blog is just book reviews.

    Fictional allusions are great signals of social bonds. My wife and I note that our conversations frequently have low cognitive content, instead being packed with references and happy noise. Here at OB, Eliezer signals his tribal affinities with assorted sci fi and anime references. Commenters trade references and quotes not just because they are good examples, but because we show our tribal colors and recognize compatriots. When making allusions, I sometimes ponder whether or not to hyperlink: doing so helps others get the point, but not doing so adds an esoteric layer for the in-group and signals that I think I am among tribal members who will get it without explicit reference.

  • Aaron

    I guess the flip-side question is what point does horror serve, or other tales with no happy ending (like the early fairy tales, which often had un-“fairy tale” endings). And why read Kafka?

  • Will Pearson

    I agree with Billswift, mainly. I’ll try and expand on his point.

    Stories are ways of passing information between people, mainly down the generations.

    Personally I think we tell fictional stories because we do not want associate good and bad traits overly with people.

    Let us say we are a storyteller in a hunter gatherer setting and we want to tell the young ‘uns a tale of betrayal so that they don’t overly trust people of other tribes they come across.

    Now we could tell a tale about Bob (a member of the tribe) that when he was young stole some meat when it was left out, or some other untrustworthy activity.

    As we treat people telling stories about X being bad as evidence for X being bad, people if told this story would tend to increase the P(untrustworthy|Bob). However he was punished and has reformed and hasn’t done anything bad since, so it would be bad for the tribe to reinforce the stereotype that he is untrustworthy causing discord, etc.

    So we need a fictional person to stand in for Bob. The parents who are around may recognize that Bob is the fictional person if the activity stays the same, so we need a fictional betrayal as well. Hence fiction.

  • “Tom and Abigail, the issue is to explain “entertainment value” and desires to “escape reality” and hear a happy ending.”

    The issue of why we find Lord of the Rings entertaining is complicated and interesting, but I think it should be considered as a separate question from why people read more fiction than history.

  • frelkins


    tales with no happy ending

    Perhaps as Robin says, to display “a high cost of leaving our group.” A fine example is the Little Mermaid. That’s what you get for daring to leave the merpeople! So don’t you get uppity, either.

    why read Kafka

    Or Beckett or Joyce or. . .? As Robin quotes, “the social capital of our own conspicuous cultural attainments.” Thus the best-seller status of this book.

  • Will, yes stories simplify to allow clearer morals, but passing info between generations is a public good, which we all want done but prefer that others do. So we are more likely to attend to any personal benefits from telling stories.

  • Nick, in your critique, you combine utilities derived from different utility functions.

    For me, that is simply an illegal operation – there is no general way of combining utility from different utility functions – as though utility were some kind of probability. Each utility function may have its own scale and units – you can’t necessarily take utilities from different utility functions and combine them.

    As far as it not being clear to you how a utilitiarian version of Kantianism would work: what exactly is the problem?

    Utilitiarianism is like a Turing machine of moral systems – if a morality is computable, and finitely expressible, you can represent it by some function – which describes the action to be taken – a utility function. If a morality is not computable, or requires some infinite system to express it, in practice, other moral agents can’t make much use it either.

  • Constant

    Utilitiarianism is like a Turing machine of moral systems – if a morality is computable, and finitely expressible, you can represent it by some function – which describes the action to be taken – a utility function.

    That makes an large assumption about what sort of thing a morality must be.

  • Will Pearson

    Robin, there might be another side to the story of avoiding bias from stories. Listeners also do not want to get biased one way or the other. And assuming the story teller gets some payment from telling the story that satisfies the listener/listeners parents, that gives an incentive for the story teller to give the people what they want.

    Giving lots of (one sided) real world examples is a sure tool of a demagogue/self-aggrandizer. So maybe it is safer for the listeners to avoid all real world examples for foundational ideas.

    I don’t buy the stories we like or propagate necessarily promoting positive characteristics about ourselves. I’m thinking of ancient myths mainly, they don’t have people/gods thinking coherently or all being paragons of good or bad. When people told of Odin often tricking people (including his own son), was the teller trying to make people think he would often trick them?

    Maybe it is more important in modern days to signal our moralities?

  • In the old days, the main way of consuming fiction would have been in a group, listening to a story teller. Some people would enjoy this and eagerly participate, while others would be less interested and wander off. So there would be plenty of opportunity to observe and know who loves to consume fiction and who does not.

    My instinct is that sexual selection plays a role here. Being a good story teller is sexually attractive, and to a lesser degree so is being an avid story listener. That is how I feel, anyway. But I can’t see a connection to reproductive fitness, which you’d expect for a sexually attractive trait.

  • Alan Gunn

    Some things aren’t about signaling. I read a lot of fiction; when I was a kid, I preferred reading to social activities. Most of my friends don’t read any fiction at all, so far as I can tell; I feel lost without a novel or two in progress. The signaling explanation could perhaps explain why people would pretend to like fiction, or why they might read it even though they didn’t enjoy it, though the argument seems strained. But how is it an explanation for enjoying fiction? For enjoying some kinds of fiction more than others? For why I re-read Cozzens a couple of times a year (and have never mentioned this to anybody before today)?

  • Hal, we prefer as associates those we think will be nice to us; shouldn’t it be a reproductive advantage to be seen that way?

    Alan, you think the reason you really enjoy something can’t be signaling?

  • Will Pearson

    Robin, if fiction story telling is all about signalling, why not signal directly (giving gifts, telling flattering truths about oneself)?

    That is: why is fiction production and consumption preferred over other types of signalling?

  • billswift

    John Derbyshire has a review up of a Denis Dutton’s book “The Art Instinct” that addresses these types of problems, that is evolutionary psych arguments about the arts including fiction.


    One of the primary uses of stories by Denis Dutton’s theory is teaching “mind reading” skills. Both by the author putting you into the mind of the characters and less directly learning to read the author’s mind as to why he wrote/said what he did.

  • Bill, yes, that review is relevant:

    The Art Instinct is at its best in its discussion of fiction. Yes, fiction is instructive: we all know a lot about nineteenth-century Russia, though none of us has been there. Yes, it helps us strategize our social lives, as Pinker argued. Dutton adds another dimension: fiction hones our mind-reading skills. … fiction lets us explore other minds ­ the minds both of imagined characters and, at one remove, of authors. That all three of these features are adaptive, is highly plausible.

    IMHO, these explanations don’t get very far at explaining why we are interested in fictional worlds with such alien settings, and such different social behavior in those settings.

  • Robert

    Obviously this doesn’t explain lots of literature where deviators are not punished, or punished but ambivalently. The Outsider comes to mind. From my favourite films as well: American Psycho, The Talented Mr Ripley, Clockwork Orange, American Beauty, Three Kings, Match Point.

    Admittedly among some people I am embarrassed to admit I like some of these films where the evil are fetishised. Is this a more modern phenomenon? Do antiheroes exist in folk stories?

    Have you seen Funny Games? Surely the ultimate example of a movie where the criminals succeed and the good all lose. And horrible to watch for that reason.

    • andrew

      Robin is talking about standard hollywood drivel. The movies you list aside form three kings and funny games are social commentary. The main characters are fighting a corrupt evil system so we “sympathize” with their brutal behavior. Kinda like War movies where we pick a side and enjoy the carnage which is also disturbing.
      Three kings is a reluctant hero movie where I think they sacrifice the money for the lives of the refugees.

      Funny games is different all together. Michael Haneke films are known to be disturbing. I agree that they break the narrative mold they are more meditations that wander without structure to often senseless violent places.

  • Robert, if you can show your friends you are horrified by a plot where the bad guys win, that works also to show your cooperativeness. If you want to show that you cooperate with a particular group, instead of with the wider world, a story where people help their friends but hurt outsiders can signal your attitudes well.

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