By Somdev Chatterjee
HUMANS are not only compulsive information hunters, we are also avid pattern-seekers and puzzle solvers. We see people and objects in the arrangement of stars in the night sky. We see faces in random marks on the wall. If a crow sits on the branch of a tree and immediately a fruit falls, we infer that the action of the crow caused the fruit to fall.
We are driven to seek patterns and meaning in the information we gather about the world, and if there are no patterns, we often impose them. Pattern seeking and pattern recognition have obvious survival advantages. Being able to recognize a hidden lion from just a few spots of yellow behind green foliage may mean the difference between life and death. Being able to correlate changes in the seasons with cycles of animal movements can give you a predictable source of food. The better you are at detecting patterns and drawing useful inferences from them, the more opportunities you are likely to have for gainful action. But this instinct can also go too far, and create a cognitive bias, which is called a narrative bias or narrative fallacy. Once we have hit upon a narrative to explain a set of events, we tend to interpret new information to fit that narrative. And whatever information cannot fit in is usually ignored. An everyday example of this bias at work is in the way we create post-facto explanations for events we could never have predicted. History for example, is often presented as a grand narrative leading to an inevitable conclusion rather than a chaotic mishmash of random events that led to unforeseeable consequences. As Daniel Kahneman points out in Thinking Fast and Slow, if history actually had as neat an order as it seems to have in most books, why can’t historians ever predict the future? Stock market pundits are as good at explaining yesterday’s market movements as they are hopeless at predicting what will happen tomorrow. And yet, we are drawn to the ‘analysis’ of these pundits, instead of sifting through the raw data ourselves – and admitting that there is no discernable pattern.
In life this tendency can lead us horribly astray, and in his book Kahneman offers advice on how to counter this bias, but for our purposes the important insight is this – narratives are seductive because they create an illusion of understanding of the world. They are so powerful that we often prefer them to unfiltered reality. This might explain why structure and plot are so important in narrative. In his Poetics, Aristotle assigned primary importance to plot (mythos) and considered it the very “soul” of a tragedy. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster famously illustrated the difference between story and plot:
Story: The King died and then the queen died.
Plot : The King died and then the queen died of grief.
It is the causal connection of the plot that gets us hooked. We want to understand why.
No wonder narratives which have a well-defined causal link between events and an end that rewards the reader/audience with a deeper understanding of the story-world are usually preferred to ones that present a world of random events without causal links or clear resolution.
Stories offer opportunities to exercise our capacities for pattern detection at multiple levels. We detect personality traits from patterns of action and speech. We infer psychological states and conflicts from variations and inconsistencies in those patterns. In my favourite scene from the 2005 film Pride and Prejudice Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet insult each other in the rain right after she refuses his proposal for marriage. She says she hates him and he is the last man she would consider marrying. But then her eyes go down from his eyes to his lips. He makes a small movement towards her mouth and she reciprocates but then with visible effort, both stop themselves and Darcy says a cold goodbye. The tension in the scene is electric and we are fascinated because we detect at least two patterns – a pattern of speech signifying hatred and anger, and a second, conflicting one of gestures and looks, signifying attraction. As in music or poetry, in story too patterns create expectations which can then be subverted or contrasted with other patterns. This allows the audience to draw deeper, more subtle inferences – and continuously derive pleasure from the very act of successful pattern detection.
There are patterns of action – plots and counterplots by protagonists and antagonists. There can be patterns in the rhythm of speech not only in dramatic verse but in the work of many dramatists or screenwriters writing in prose. There are patterns in the design of the story – exposition, conflict, rising action, crisis, climax, resolution, etc. There are patterns in the design of characters – how they contrast with or set-off each other. There are patterns in the use of themes, or motifs. There are patterns that we immediately grasp without any effort, and there are patterns which can be discovered by audiences or teased out by critics years or even centuries after a novel or play has been written.
Complete absence of pattern is boring – there is no meaningful inference to be drawn from it. A completely predictable pattern is boring too – it does not repay the effort invested in continuing to pay attention. A pattern with the right degree of unpredictability is fascinating – there is reason to continue to pay close attention and new, rich inferences to be drawn at every moment. Once more, everything becomes relevant.
Excerpted from Why Stories Work: The Evolutionary and Cognitive Roots of the Power of Narrative
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