True story: Narrative as an adaptation for the communication of social survival information

Rayn Epremian, Jonas Nölle, Christine Cuskley and Matthew Spike

Storytelling is nearly as universal and central to human cognition as language. Narrative has been identified as the way humans process experiences (Wilkens et al, 2005), store memories (Nelson, 1993; Schank & Abelson, 1995), and form personal identities (Young & Saver, 2001; Yuval-Davis, 2006). Gottschall (2012, p. 65) proposed that mental rehearsal through story prepares us to react to similar events in the future. Zipes (2006, p. 11) argues that stories survive transmission over generations when they contain information that helps to preserve a community, and this information is largely social (Zipes, 2006, p. 22; Gottschall, 2012, p. 67). Social information survives cultural transmission because it is a kind of survival information, helping individuals learn to thrive in a social context, thereby bolstering survival and fitness.

Previous studies have used iterated learning to examine the role of cultural transmission in the evolution of language (Smith, Kirby & Brighton, 2003; Kirby, Cornish & Smith, 2008; Kirby, Griffiths & Smith, 2014), and other transmission chain studies have revealed content biases for social and survival information in the transmission of narratives (Bartlett, 1920; Stubbersfield, Tehrani & Flynn, 2014; 2017). This experiment combines the transmission chain paradigm with task-based experiments (Bahrami et al, 2010; Bjørndahl et al, 2014; Thompson et al, 1993) to test whether exposure to social survival information in the form of narrative will improve performance in a social task, providing experimental evidence that stories function as ‘problem simulation[s]’ (Gottschall, 2012 p. 63). Participants undertook a social task: a role-playing game in which they had to learn a set of novel, arbitrary social customs to succeed. In the first generation, participants learned by choosing behaviours during play without any prior input, but received feedback on their behaviour throughout the game. In two conditions, they then wrote either a story or list, designed to memorably communicate the social customs to thenext player (see demo here: Subsequent generations of players then received the story or list of the previous player prior to play, which was otherwise identicalto the first generation. Participants were scored on their performance during play based on whether they chose the “correct” behaviours. Scores in the social task improved over generations, supporting the hypothesis that narratives effectively communicate social survival information, with score increasing by a mean value of 1.02 points (SE =±0.24, t=4.2) per generation across conditions. Qualitative analysis showed that the narratives produced by participants were highly creative, exhibiting a range of communication strategies and narrative elements (e.g.,. causality, setting, and agency).

Taken together, our findings support the hypothesis that narratives effectively communicate social survival information in transmission, a result which is compatible with Dunbar’s (1997) social brain hypothesis, the ‘problem simulation theory of storytelling’ (Gottschall, 2012 p. 63), and previous experimental work on content biases (Stubbersfield, Tehrani & Flynn 2014, 2017). We provide a novel experimental paradigm which can be adapted to target more specific questions about the evolution of narratives.


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