How stories shape us, and how we shape stories

AbstractHumans spend a great deal of time engaging with narrative fiction in the form of novels, picture books, films, television shows, podcasts, and video games. Television viewing alone accounts for over 5 hours per day—totaling over 76 days per year—for average American adults (Koblin, 2016). On the surface, this behavior is quite puzzling. Why should we spend so much time being involved with people who are not real and events we know have not occurred? The answer may lie in the fact that stories are not just an enjoyable escape from the real world but may help provide insight into the real-world. Stories often deal with uncomfortable and upsetting themes, for example, and these can prove enlightening (Gottschall, 2008). A reader may experience fear as a character walks through a dark forest at night or sadness over the death of an important character. The evocation of these rich emotions seems unique to narrative and separate from our experiences with exposition. Stories involve imagination, perspective-taking, and emotional engagement, which all allow us to be “transported” to another time and place (Gerrig, 1993). In this way, stories afford a rich and emotional simulation of the social world, and these simulations can be edifying (Mar & Oatley, 2008; Oatley, 1993; 1999).

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