Why do we tell stories?
When you think about it, storytelling is a weird activity: Rather than engage in ‘productive’ tasks (such as acquiring money, resources or status), individuals choose to spend much of their time listening to and telling stories which seem to serve little purpose other than to entertain and enthrall. This fascination with stories is not confined just to our society. All known human populations engage in storytelling, often holding stories – and skilled storytellers – in high esteem.
Working among the Agta – a population of Filipino hunter-gatherers – we found that stories serve a social function to organise behaviour, and can even increase levels of helping towards others. This means that stories can have a tangible impact on how we treat one another and may act like a ‘social glue‘ which binds communities together.
Stories may be important to how societies function, and imagination is central to the art of storytelling. By imagining scenarios beyond our immediate experiences, stories can transport us to completely novel worlds and situations. Importantly, this allows us to imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes, including individuals whose thoughts and beliefs differ from our own (and, interestingly, research has shown that reading fiction may enhance empathy).
Below, The Atlantic journalist Ed Yong talks about our work.
Once upon a time, the sun and moon argued about who would light up the sky. They fought, as anthropomorphic celestial bodies are meant to do, but after the moon proves to be as strong as the sun, they decide to take shifts. The sun would brighten the day, while the moon would illuminate the night.
the very act of storytelling arose partly as a way of cementing social bonds and instilling an ethic of cooperation
This is one of several stories told by the Agta, a group of hunter-gatherers from the Philippines. They spend a lot of time spinning yarns to each other, and like their account of the sun and moon, many of these tales are infused with themes of cooperation and equality. That’s no coincidence, says Andrea Migliano, an anthropologist at University College London.
Storytelling is a universal human trait. It emerges spontaneously in childhood, and exists in all cultures thus far studied. It’s also ancient: Some specific stories have roots that stretch back for around 6,000 years. As I’ve written before, these tales aren’t quite as old as time, but perhaps as old as wheels and writing. Because of its antiquity and ubiquity, some scholars have portrayed storytelling as an important human adaptation — and that’s certainly how Migliano sees it. Among the Agta, her team found evidence that stories — and the very act of storytelling — arose partly as a way of cementing social bonds, and instilling an ethic of cooperation.