Fictional Stories Reveal Human Biases: How a Preference for Tales of Resourceful Heroes Sheds Light on the Evolution of Language
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Storytelling, both factual and fictional, is a universal, cross-cultural phenomenon, largely characterised by one or more intentional agents interacting with unexpected events. Frequently, the protagonist achieves his or her goal, resolving the tension created by the unexpected event. The form of the story—both in conversational event reporting and fictional literature—has undergone cultural evolution to attract attention from others, and as such reflects human cognitive biases. It has been hypothesised that language evolved in part to advertise biological relevance through narrative style event reporting. Thus, it is conceivable that human language and intelligence evolved out of a need to advertise and recognise resourceful individuals. Evolutionary theories of Machiavellian intelligence in early humans support this position. The present study partially replicates Mesoudi et al.’s (2006) transmission chain study, which showed that participants more accurately remember stories about social interactions than stories about individual agents. It was concluded that humans have an evolved bias for social information, but not specifically gossip-like information. The present study hypothesised that the individual information did poorly because its protagonist failed to achieve her goal, while she was unexpectedly successful in the social narratives. While there was no significant difference discovered between successful and unsuccessful individual stories, there was also no clear distinction in recall accuracy between social and non-social stories, and gossip was recalled with far greater accuracy than the social story. These results suggest that while humans most likely do have a social bias, other narrative factors such as unexpectedness and high-stakes vs. low stakes scenarios also come into play.