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.

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment

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?

Expand full comment

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?

Expand full comment

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)?

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment

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?

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment


"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.

Expand full comment

"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.

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment