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Useful Fictions

Frontiers of Narrative
seri es edi tor
David Herman,
Ohio State University

Useful Fictions
Evolution, Anxiety, and
the Origins of Literature

University of Nebraska Press

Lincoln and London

m ic hael aus t i n

2010 by the Board of Regents of the University of

Nebraska. All rights reserved. Manufactured in the
United States of America.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Austin, Michael, 1966
Useful fictions : evolution, anxiety, and the origins of
literature / Michael Austin.
p. cm. (Frontiers of narrative)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
isbn 978-0-8032-3026-2 (cloth: alk. paper)
1. FictionHistory and criticismTheory, etc.
2. FictionPsychological aspects. 3. Fiction
Appreciation. 4. Evolution in literature.
5. LiteraturePhilosophy. I. Title.
pn3352.p7a87 2010
Set in Linotype Electra.
Designed by A. Shahan.






Introduction: The Big Question


1 Scheherazades Stories and Panglosss Nose

2 Stories for Thinking


3 The Influence of Anxiety

4 Information Anxiety



5 The Problem of Other People

6 Sex, Lies, and Phenotypes



7 Deceiving Ourselves and Others



Notes 139
Works Cited
Index 165




1 Architectural spandrels at
the Library of Congress Building
in Washington dc 14
2 Office used by Brewer & Treyens
in 1981 schema experiment 32


To write at all is to exploit both the patience and the intelligence of

ones friends. A book like this onewhich forced its author to acquire
familiarity with several disciplines not his ownrequired even more exploitation than usual. The first inklings of an idea for this book came in
2005, during an honors seminar on human nature that I taught in collaboration with two other Shepherd University professors: Larry Daily
from the Department of Psychology and Tom Patterson from the Department of Sociology. Throughout this course, Larry introduced me
to the basics of evolutionary psychology, and Tom made sure that I understood why everything about it was totally wrong. Both improved my
own thinking immeasurably.
During the 20062007 school year, Larry continued to mentor me
and many other faculty members in a monthly discussion group entitled
Evolution, Cognition, and Culture. Other members of this group included Laura Renninger, Peter Vila, Don Patchel, Heidi Dobish, Ruth
Conley, John Sheridan, Laura Robertson, and Mike Raubertas. The year
that we spent reading and discussing work from across the disciplines
provided the background information that was necessary for me even to
think about writing this book. My thanks go to each of them and to one
other colleague from ShepherdDr. Burt Lidgerding, Dean of Math
and Science and Professor of Biologywho answered a daily stream
of Darwin questions during the entire time that I was writing Useful
When I first ventured into the somewhat murky waters of cognitive
literary studies, I found several extremely welcoming hands already extended. The first of these belonged to Lisa Zunshine, who has not only
written several major books in the field, but who also provided me with
constant encouragement, support, and, perhaps most importantly, reading lists as I was beginning work on this project. Lisa read and helped me

revise several of the early chapters of Useful Fictions and introduced me

to other people whose support has been invaluable. Nancy Easterlin also
read several chapters and invited me to be on an Evolution and Literature panel that she organized at a joint conference of the Popular Culture Association and the American Culture Association. Kathryn Duncan, another participant in that panel, has over the years stimulated my
thinking about evolution and literature through her thoughtful writing
and intelligent conversation on topics that we were both exploring.
Dennis Dutton published my first attempt at evolutionary criticism in
Philosophy and Literature, and his kind words about that article pushed
me ever so gently past a psychological tipping point and encouraged me
to expand my argument into a book. I am grateful to him and to Philosophy and Literature for permission to reprint material from that article
throughout this book. Joseph Carroll and Brian Boyd, who evaluated
Useful Fictions for the University of Nebraska Press, provided just the
right balance of encouragement and advice necessary to keep the project moving in the right direction. David Herman, editor of the Frontiers
of Narrative series, read the entire manuscript twice, both times with
extraordinary care and attention, and made suggestions both general
and specific that improved the final product significantly. His keen eye
and good advice also saved me from more embarrassing mistakes than
I deserved to be saved from.
Two other people read the entire manuscript in various stages of
completion: Tiffany Cunningham, my student assistant at Shepherd
University, proofread the first draft ably before submission; her careful
work made the entire publication process smoother than it would otherwise have been. Karen Austin, my wife and partner, read and edited
two versions of the manuscript; even more importantly, she served as
a touchstone and sounding board for nearly every idea in the book. I
could never have undertaken this project without her love and support.
My children, Porter and Clarissa, have not read the book yet, but I hope
that they will some dayand that they will forgive the too many hours
that it took their daddy away from his most important job of spending
time with them.

viii Acknowledgments


The Big Question

Almost all of the phenomena that are central to the humanities are puzzling
anomalies from an evolutionary perspective. Chief among these are the
human attraction to fictional experience (in all media and genres) and other
products of the imagination.

John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds?
The Big Question
Here are some of the questions that this book will try to answer: Why
do stories with sad endings make us cry? Why do we like scary movies
but not scary situations in real life? How is it that we can think of a fictional character as a friend whose triumphs thrill us and whose misfortunes cause us pain? Why will we continue to watch a movie or television show that we dont really like just to see how it turns out? Why
can a single summer blockbuster movie earn more than a billion dollars in worldwide box-office receipts and licensing fees? Why, in other
words, do we like stories so muchespecially fictional ones? That is
the big question.
On one level, of course, the big question has an easy answer: we like
stories because they give us pleasure. But this doesnt really settle the
matter; it just pushes it back to another level. Pleasure is a bribe for us
to engage in activities likely to enhance our chances for survival and
reproduction. Most of the things that give us pleasurefood, sex, playing with our children, the feeling of satisfaction that comes with solving a difficult problemare so clearly related to our genetic fitness that
there is no need to analyze them further. Some kinds of stories, too,
have a clear evolutionary value, such as the narratives that we use to
communicate accurate information. As Brian Boyd explains in On the
Origins of Stories, it is easy to understand the evolutionary advantage

of true stories, since human beings depend on reliable information for

almost everything that they do. But the more we gain from sharing the
information in true stories, the less need we would seem to have for the
false information of fiction.1
This is not a trivial problem. Some form of literature or oral storytelling plays an important role in every human culture. We devote enormous resources to the pursuit of fictional informationbooks, movies,
television programs, interactive video games, and just sitting on the
front porch bragging about things we have never donethat have no
obvious impact on our survival or reproduction. Daniel Dennett writes
in Freedom Evolves that any phenomenon that apparently exceeds the
functional cries out for explanation. We dont marvel at a creature doggedly grubbing in the earth with its nose for we figure it is seeking its
food; if, however, it regularly interrupts its rooting with somersaults, we
want to know why.2 Given the enormous effort required to compose
something like Remembrance of Things Pastwhose author died young
without contributing a single gene to the poolevolutionists might be
forgiven for seeing literature as the cognitive equivalent of a pig doing
Over the last few years, scholars in both literature and cognitive psychology have proposed a number of ingenious answers to the big question. I will summarize a number of these answers in Chapter One and
will draw heavily on several of them for the remainder of the book. But
since it is a big question it has room for many answers. My own answer to
the question relies on the concept of useful fictionsa fairly common
concept in philosophical discussions whose meaning must be tweaked
just a bit before we can use it in a discussion of the evolutionary origins
of literature.
The word useful will require only modest tweaking. We are used
to defining usefulness in reference to ourselves. Something is useful to
the extent that it helps us achieve our goals, which usually involve being wealthy, happy, healthy, popular, or the like. In evolutionary terms,
however, something is useful only to the extent that it helps an organism pass its genes on to other organisms. Nothing else matters. Natural
selection did not design us to be happy, and it doesnt care whether or
not we are emotionally fulfilled. It operates through a strict, methodical, and very simple set of rules: 1) organisms that survive and reproduce
x Introduction

leave copies of their genes behindincluding copies of whatever genes

constructed the physical or mental characteristics that helped them survive and reproduce; 2) organisms that do not survive long enough to reproduce leave no copies of their genes behind; so 3) over long periods
of time, genes that help organisms to survive and reproduce will tend to
dominate within a population. These are the terms upon which I will
base my judgments about what makes a fiction useful.
The word fiction is more problematic, as it has several distinct connotations that are relevant to this study. Literary critics often try to limit
the definition of the term to something like, in Dorrit Cohns words, a
literary nonreferential narrative text. As Cohn notes, however, at least
four other uses of the word have crept into literary discussions: fiction
as untruth, fiction as conceptual abstraction, fiction as in (all) literature,
and fiction as (all) narrative.3 For Cohn, these are all distractions that
divert our attention away from the kinds of fictional texts that literary
critics ought to be criticizing. For the most part, I agree with this sentiment. I am not interested in contributing to what Marie-Laure Ryan
characterizes as the postmodern destabilization of the borderline between fiction and nonfiction.4 I have no desire to show that what we
call fact is just another species of fiction, nor do I believe that we can
only have access to factual discourse through the narrative tools of the
fabulist. Truth with a capital T can rest safely for the remainder of
this book.
In attempting to trace the possible evolutionary basis of our attraction
to literary fictions, however, I do not limit my discussion of fiction to
the self-consciously made-up stories that Cohn sees as the most legitimate object of literary study. This kind of fiction developed too recently
to be the subject of the kind of evolutionary analysis that I am proposing. In my attempt to understand how such fictions became attractive
to human beings, I will need to consider at least two of Cohns alternate
and competing definitions of the term: 1) fiction as untruth, and 2) fiction as conceptual abstraction. I incorporate these other definitions, not
to advance a specific understanding of what fiction should mean in a
literary sense, but to address issues of counterfactuality and adaptation
that are crucial to the evolutionary argument that I am making.
Some of the most elemental fictions that I will examine are examples
of Cohns first definition, fiction as untruthor to revise slightly, fiction


as non-fact. This definition, which still retains great semantic force in

set phrases such as pure fiction or fact verses fiction, bears directly
on a central question of this book: why did natural selectionwith its
well-documented tendency to reward the use of factual information
design creatures who are universally attracted to non-facts? All kinds
of non-facts are relevant to this line of inquirymistaken beliefs, deliberate deceptions, convenient generalizations, counterfactual propositions, and, of course, novels and plays. But before we can understand
the evolutionary function of literature, we must first grapple with the
adaptive value of non-factual information generally. And it is from this
perspective only that I consider examples from this very broad definition of fiction.
My discussion also owes much to Cohns second definition of the
word, fiction as conceptual abstraction. These are the fictions created
by philosophers and mathematicians as thought experiments or theoretical placeholdersthings like negative numbers and pre-societal states
of nature. One of the best-known discussions of conceptual fictions is
Hans Vaihingers 1925 classic The Philosophy of As If. The consummate pragmatist, Vaihinger believed that human inquiryespecially
scientific inquirywas forever in the position of trying to know and describe the unknowable and indescribable. For Vaihinger, we all resort
to conceptual abstractions of one sort or anotherand then proceed
as if they were truebecause the alternative is complete cognitive paralysis. Jeremy Campbell aptly sums up both Vaihingers definition of
fiction and its relationship to Darwinian natural selection in his book
The Liars Tale:
Given [the] impossible aspirations of the intellect, Vaihinger suggested it would be better not to chase after absolute truth, but rather
to acquire knowledge by means of ideas we know to be false, but
nevertheless are of great practical usefulness in accessing reality.
These ideas he called fictions. . . . Vaihinger saw an intimate connection between these serviceable untruths and what Darwinism
calls useful illusions formed by natural selection. . . . The world of
such figments is just as important as the world of the so-called real
or actual, he stressed, and far more consequential when it comes
to ethics and aesthetics.5
xii Introduction

These serviceable untruths stand between non-facts and invented

stories. They are generally not narrative in content, and they are often
not even communicated to other people. Rather, they are propositions
that we use when accessing, storing, and processing the information that
we need to survive. We employ them as if they were true, even though
we know that they are notwhich distinguishes them from mistaken
beliefs, deliberate deceptions, and other things that are fictions only
under the first definition of the word.
For my purposes in this book, then, I shall define a useful fiction,
as any statement, proposition, narrative, or piece of information whose
adaptive function does not require it to be true. Useful fictions contribute to our chances of surviving and reproducing whether or not they are
accurate because their purpose is to do something other than convey accurate information. It is precisely this phenomenon that the well-known
evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson remarks upon in Darwins
Cathedral. Clearly, I need to accurately perceive the location of a rabbit to hit it with my throwing stick, he acknowledges. However, there
are many, many other situations in which it can be adaptive to distort
reality. . . . Even massively fictitious beliefs can be adaptive, as long as
they motivate behaviors that are adaptive in the real world.6

What Hath Thag Wrought

Useful fictions, I will argue, have been a basic component of hominid
cognition for millions of years and provided the cognitive scaffolding
upon which our well-documented love of fictional stories might well
have been built. To explore this concept further, I must now invoke a
(hopefully useful) fiction of my own: an intrepid Pleistocene huntergatherer named Thag, who lived some one hundred thousand years ago
on the African Savannah.7 Three stories from Thags life will illustrate
the concept of the useful fiction:
Scenario One: One morning some of the members of Thags group
inform him of an impending disaster: a sick hippopotamus has
died in the spring and is decomposing slowly in their only source
of fresh water. The water is undrinkable, and many of the children
are showing early signs of dehydration. What can they do? Thag
pauses for a moment and tells them a story: a week or so ago, he


was hunting over the far hill and saw several animals drinking at
a large watering hole. He tells the members of the tribe exactly
how to get to this watering hole, and everyone picks up their belongings and moves immediately. When they get there, they see a
fresh spring with more than enough water for everybody, and the
group is saved.
Scenario Two: That same night, Thag is lying in his cave, unable
to sleep. For several days he has been hearing a strange caw, caw
sound outside, and he remembers his mother telling him that the
spirit of death always comes with the sound of caw, caw to take
people in their sleep. Thag is terrified that death will come for
him in the night if he allows himself to go to sleep, so he has been
forcing himself to stay awake. He knows that this is starting to affect him during the day. He is running slower and hunting less,
and yesterday he almost fell off of a cliff while trying to walk back
to camp. In order to keep himself awake, Thag decides to take a
walk outside, and, as he is walking, he sees an unfamiliar black
bird flying out of a nearby cave. With enormous relief, Thag decides that the noises have been coming from this bird all along.
He goes back into his cave and, within seconds, is enjoying the
best sleep he has had in weeks.
Scenario Three: Two days later, Thag is out hunting by himself
again in an unfamiliar part of the savannah. As he is passing a large
bush, he hears an ominous rustling of leaves. He immediately concludes that it is a dangerous animal and sprints back to camp as
fast as he can move. He never finds out what the noise was, but he
is glad to be back home safe and sound.
In the first scenario, Thags narrative has survival value only if it is
true. If the water is where he says it is, then he and all of the members
of his group will survive to hunt and gather another day. If it is not, they
will all die, along with their children, removing their genes from the
human pool forever.
In the second scenario, the truth of the proposition is incidental to
its survival value. Thag needs to sleep so he can have the strength to
hunt, gather, and evade predators in the morning. Any proposition that
xiv Introduction

allows him to sleep has value, whether or not it is true. It could well be
the black bird making the caw, caw noise. But it could just as easily
be something else. It simply doesnt matter what is making the noise
(unless it really is the spirit of death); the only thing that matters is that
Thag find a way to get some sleep.
In the third scenario, there might actually be a negative correlation
between the probable truth of the proposition and its adaptive value.
The noise could be coming from a dangerous predator, or it could be
coming from a harmless animal. But Thag must choose immediately
whether or not to flee. Stopping to ascertain the truth could be fatal.
Even if the odds overwhelmingly favor a harmless animal, it is still a
good idea to run away. Lets suppose that, in Thags world, ninety-nine
percent of strange noises come from harmless animals like squirrels and
rabbits, while only one percent come from dangerous predators like lions and tigers. This means that Thag will be wrong ninety-nine out of
every one hundred times that he assumes danger and runs away. If he
were to make the statistically defensible assumption that every noise
he hears is a harmless animal, he would have the intellectual satisfaction of being right ninety-nine percent of the time; however, he would
also be dead one percent of the timewhich would be far worse for his
Darwinian fitness than running away from cute, harmless creatures every day of his life. A proposition that has a ninety-nine percent chance
of being true is, in this instance, far less useful to Thag than one that is
only a rounding error away from being one hundred percent false.
The second and third scenarios present clear examples of useful
fictions in action. They also introduce another important topic of this
book: the propositions and narratives that we generate in response to
anxiety. Anxiety is one of our deepest and oldest responses to the environment; its evolutionary roots precede the arrival of hominids by
hundreds of millions of years. In most organisms, anxiety most often
takes the form of a fight-or-flight response to potential predators. However, humans think largely in narrativeseven when faced with mortal
dangerso our anxiety always has a narrative component. Therefore,
so must its resolution. In this book, I will pursue the following chain
of reasoning in an attempt to illustrate the role of anxiety in the evolution of literature: 1) human cognition is inextricably bound up with
the creation of narratives that frame our sensory perceptions; 2) when


we experience anxiety we feel compelled to resolve it, and this resolution often involves the creation of a narrative; 3) the narratives that we
generate do not always have to be true in order to respond successfully
to anxiety in many cases counterfactual narratives work better than
the truth; 4) the useful fictions humans evolved to create in response
to anxiety were available to form part of the cognitive design space
in which fiction, storytelling, and other narratives we call literature
The first two chapters will set out the foundational assumptions of
this study. Chapter One surveys different theories of the adaptive value
of literature and situates them within a discussion of evolutionary spandrels, or tools created in the cognitive design space of other adaptations.
Chapter Two examines the role of narrative in cognitive functioning,
setting up the argument that storytelling and literary fictions evolved
in the design space provided by these more basic internal narratives.
The next three chapters explore the role of fictional narratives in resolving various kinds of anxiety: Chapter Three discusses the physiological
experience of anxiety and its core connection to narrative processing;
Chapter Four discusses anxieties over information deficits; and Chapter Five discusses anxieties caused by other people. The final chapters of the book deal with the fiction (in the non-fact sense of the
word) of deceptiona primary cause of anxiety in our interactions with
others. Chapter Six looks, not only at why we deceive others, but at why
we often derive some kind of benefit from believing, or at least accepting, communications intended to deceive us. Chapter Seven continues
this argument by examining the phenomenon of self-deception as an
evolutionary useful strategy.
Most chapters also contain at least one extended analysis of a literary text, usually in the form of a case study related to the central argument of the chapter. These analyses form a crucial part of my study for
two reasons. First, they demonstrate the connections between the kinds
of small, locally generated narratives that I am discussing in the chapter and at least one cultural narrative that has come to be considered
important. Since my purpose is to argue for the usefulness of fictions,
some demonstration of how a clearly acknowledged fiction can form a
useful case study strikes me as an imperative. But I also hope to show
with these analyses that an evolutionary approach to the origins of ficxvi Introduction

tions in general can open up interesting avenues for studying specific

fictions and specific authors.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasize the highly speculative nature
of trying to say anything about either human cognition or human evolution. We know very little about how the brain works today, and even
less about how it worked five hundred thousand years ago. The scholarly literature on evolution and literature, though still very young, is already crowded with books and articles attempting to explain the cognitive basis of all storytelling and literature. I have no such expectations
for the simple chain of assumptions in this book. Evolution has been
going on for a very long time, balancing an unimaginably large number of interrelated factors with each new generation. I would be very
surprised to discover that the human love of stories could be attributed
to a single evolutionary cause. And even if it could, I would be utterly
astonished if this cause could be rooted out once and for all by a literary
critic whose formal scientific training consists of a single gen-ed chemistry course taken in 1984.
I fully acknowledge that criticism is a consummate fictionand rarely a useful one at that. Nothing in this book will help you hunt, gather,
build shelters, find mates, produce offspring, or raise children to adulthood. I do believe, however, that the current work being done on evolution and human cognition in a dozen different disciplines is both exciting and importantexciting because it has the potential to provide real
answers to questions that have always been considered unanswerable,
and important because the answers to these questions may someday
help us solve problems that have always been considered unsolvable.
Before this can happen, several enormously complicated puzzles have
to be solved. My great ambition for Useful Fictions is simply that it will
contribute in some wayeither by being right or by being wrongto
that effort.



Useful Fictions

Scheherazades Stories and Panglosss Nose
And Scheherazade perceived the dawn of day and ceased saying her
permitted say. Then quoth Dunyazad, O my sister, how pleasant is thy tale,
and how tasteful; how sweet and how grateful! She replied, And what is this
compared with that I could tell thee, the night to come, if I live and the King
spare me? Then thought the King, By Allah, I will not slay her until I hear
the rest of her tale, for truly it is wondrous.

Richard Frances Burtons translation of The Book of One Thousand Nights

and A Night

Scheherazades Gambit
We begin this studyas so many previous studies of storytelling have
begunwith perhaps the most impressive collection of stories in human history: The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, often called,
simply, The Arabian Nights. Though this collection contains hundreds
of individual stories, all of the stories are placed within the context of
a single frame tale: the story of Scheherazade and Shahryar. This famous tale begins three years after the great Sultan Shahryar vowed to
avenge his wifes infidelity by marrying a new woman each night and
executing her the following morning. Determined to put a stop to this
barbaric practice, Scheherazade forces her father, the royal vizier, to
allow her to marry the sultan, assuring her father that she has a plan to
end the bloody practice. Her plan is simple: every night Scheherazade
tells Shahryar a story, or a fragment of a story, that ends somewhere in
the middle of the action. Many of these stories are didactic, and some

are even thinly veiled allegories of Shahryars own situation, but Scheherazade aims to do more than simply rehabilitate the sultan with pedagogically sound morality tales. She weaves her stories together, often
using multiple frames and levels of embedded narrative, to make sure
that the night always ends in the middle of at least one story, and each
morning, the sultan postpones his death sentence for one day so that
he can hear the storys conclusion.
Over many centuries the story of Scheherazade became a platform for
introducing other stories that had filtered into the Muslim world from
Arabia, China, Western Europe, Africa, India, the Byzantine Empire,
and anywhere else that touched or was touched by the Muslim world.
At the height of Islams golden age, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca
brought together devoted Muslims from Samarkand to Spain to worship
but also to trade goods and storiesmany of which found their way back
to Baghdad and into the rapidly expanding text of The Arabian Nights.
Unlike other famous Medieval frame narratives such as The Canterbury
Tales and The Decameron, The Arabian Nights has no single author,
no fixed table of contents, no date of composition, and no standard version that can be considered authoritative. While many of the earliest
stories in the collection are clearly related to the story of Scheherazade
and Shahryar, as the collection grew the frame became a platform to
introduce stories gathered from all over the world and place them into
a somewhat coherent whole.1
In the current critical environment, The Arabian Nights has once
again become a platform, not for new stories, but for new interpretations
of the role of literature in society. The book itself offers contemporary
literary critics a nearly inexhaustible trove of narrative treasures that,
with amazing precision, incorporates most of the major concerns of
modern criticism: colonialism, Orientalism, patriarchal oppression, ambiguous gender roles, intertextuality, disputed authorship, complex narrative patterns, and so on. In this critical environment Scheherazade
the woman who saves her people with storiesoffers critics of all kinds
a way to explore the function and value of literature. For example, a
prominent Freudian introduces Scheherazade as a classic example of
a superego-dominated ego which has become so cut off from selfish
id that it is ready to risk the persons very existence to obey a moral
obligation. A well-known feminist critic sees her as a sexual being,

Scheherazades Stories and Panglosss Nose

who manipulates discourse (and men) through her body. One of the
worlds best known Marxist-historicist scholars of fairy tales sees Scheherazades stories as conveying the aspirations and wishes of a strong
middle class . . . who, like Sinbad and Junar, continually take risks to
make their fortune.2
From any perspective that we choose to view it, the story of Scheherazade speaks to a deep human need for stories. Scheherazades gambit succeedswith the Sultan and with readers everywherebecause
it taps into this need. Stories have been a source of pleasure for human
beings for a long timemuch longer than there have been writing systems to record them. During all this time, as Paul Hernadi writes, the
pleasure of succumbing to literary seduction has long served as a psychological reward for what was once and perhaps still is a biologically
advantageous thing to do.3 Scheherazades stories give Shahryar pleasuremore pleasure, arguably, than the sexual encounters that precede
them. In more than a thousand marriages (assuming Shahryar executed
his plan for three full years before Scheherazade), sexual pleasure never
entices the sultan to suspend his vow. With a vast empire full of potential wives he need never fear an end to such pleasures. However, the
pool of wives who can tell stories and bring another kind of pleasure to
the marriage bed is much smaller.
The pleasure of narrative alone cannot explain Scheherazades success; if it could, she would not have to end each night in the middle of
a story. Unlike the three characters in her first tale, Tale of the Trader
and the Jinni, each of whom trades the pleasure of a good story for a
portion of the traders life, Scheherazade would be unable to trade a
single days life for the pleasure that her stories afford the sultan. Her
plan depends on a different emotion produced by narrative: anxiety.
Scheherazades cliffhangers work on Shahryar for the same reason that
cliffhangers work on us today: we expect to find out what happens in a
story, and we experience tremendous anxiety when this expectation is
frustrated. Anxiety is as deeply rooted in our biology as pleasure. Most
of the things that produce anxiety in peoplelike snakes, spiders, fire,
high places, parental separation, contaminated surfaces, and unknown
social situationsconstitute real threats to our survival. Though knowing the end of one of his wifes stories will not help Shahryar survive
or reproduce (except possibly with Scheherazade), the anxiety that he
Scheherazades Stories and Panglosss Nose 3

feels when confronted with an incomplete narrative is similar to what

he might feel were a snake in his bed.
Shahryar is not unique in the way he responds to fictional stories, of
course. Almost everyone has at one time or another felt deep anxiety
and emotional distress over the plight of a fictional character. A growing body of psychological research suggests that both our minds and our
bodies respond to factual and fictional information in strikingly similar
ways. In one study, for example, Melanie C. Green and Timothy C.
Brock examined how labeling a story either fiction or nonfiction affects the readers engagement with the narrative. Subjects were asked to
read a graphic story entitled Murder in the Mall, which was adapted
from a bestselling work of nonfiction. Some of the subjects were told
that the story was true; others were told that it was fiction. With a survey
instrument designed to measure reader engagement (or, in the authors
words, transportation into a narrative), Green and Brock found that
the two different labels did not affect transportation, critical scrutiny, or
attitude change. Perceived verisimilitude, they conclude, appeared
to override the fiction label.4 In a later study, Green, Brock, and two
other collaborators found that, even though labeling a narrative as factual did cause heightened scrutiny among readers, the fact and fiction labels had no effect on a narratives persuasiveness.5
These and other experimental results simply confirm what Shahryar
and most other consumers of fiction have always known: human beings respond to fiction in a way that is remarkably similar to the way
they respond to facts. Not knowing how a fictional story ends can fill us
with anxiety, and seeing a beloved character die can cause us real grief
and pain. In more ways than we can count, fictional characters and invented situationsin books, movies, television programs, and wherever
else they may appearcan engage our interests, move our emotions,
and challenge our intellects every bit as much as their counterparts in
the real world.

Literature as Adaptation
The sociobiology of the 1970sonce on the ropes for its supposed racist
and sexist tendencieshas rebounded and served as an inspiration for
diverse and important areas of inquiry, such as evolutionary psychology,
Darwinian medicine, population demographics, cognitive neuroscience,

Scheherazades Stories and Panglosss Nose

and evolutionary anthropology. The early research by Leda Cosmides,

John Tooby, Robert Trivers, William Hamilton, and Robert M. Axelrod has now been explained and expanded in bestselling books by some
of this generations most gifted writers such as Stephen Pinker, Daniel
C. Dennett, Jared M. Diamond, Matt Ridley, and Edward O. Wilson.
Though literary critics and other humanists have not yet embraced the
new evolutionary synthesis wholeheartedly, increasing numbers have
succumbed to the siren song of the truth of scientific answers in a field
long governed by perpetual questions. They have begun to use this enormous body of evolutionary theory to try to answer some of our deepest
questions: Why do we respond to beauty? Why do we enjoy fictional
narratives? Why do feel compelled to make up stories?6
To the chagrin of those who practice cognitive literary criticism, some
of the brightest lights in the field of evolutionary psychology have labeled the creative arts as byproducts of other evolutionary adaptations. Steven Pinker, for example, famously argues that artistic pursuits
in music, art, and many forms of literature are pleasure technologies
(like drugs, pornography, and cheesecake) that are designed to defeat
the locks that safeguard our pleasure buttons and to press the buttons
in various combinations. Pinker has often been taken to task by scholars in these fields for callously devaluing their cherished subjects.7 He
responds unequivocally: It is wrong to invent functions for activities
that lack . . . design merely because we want to ennoble them with the
imprimatur of biological adaptiveness.8 At least partly in response to
Pinker, evolutionary-minded literary critics have proposed a number of
different functions for literary narratives that justify the classification of
literature as a specific evolutionary adaptation.
The logic behind these assertions is compelling: any behavior that diverts resources away from food production and mate selection must have
an adaptive function or it would have been eliminated by the ruthless
efficiency of natural selection. The fact that literature exists and appears
to be universal would therefore seem to prove that it must somehow enhance genetic fitness inherently rather than as an accidental byproduct of something else. As Dennis Dutton reminds us, however, simply
pointing to the continued existence of literature and storytelling does
not constitute an argument about their adaptive function. A thoroughScheherazades Stories and Panglosss Nose 5

going Darwinism makes a specific demand, he explains. Nothing can

be proposed as an adaptive function of fiction unless it explains how
the human appetite for fictional narratives acted to increase, however
marginally, the chances of our Pleistocene forbearers surviving and procreating.9 Some of the most common adaptive functions proposed in
response to this challenge are as follows:
knowledge transfer

One of the most obvious advantages to stories is that they help to preserve and convey information. Human beings inhabit an evolutionary
niche in which their success depends on their ability to gather and interpret information. However, as Michelle Scalise Sugiyama points out,
acquiring information firsthand can be costly, inefficient, and downright risky. . . . Moreover, it is extremely improbable that a single individual could acquire through experience all information necessary or
potentially useful to the multitude of fitness-related tasks encountered
over a lifetime.10 Scalise Sugiyama proposes a number of ways that stories might have contributed to the transfer of adaptively useful information among early humans: they encourage the sharing of information
within groups, they can preserve crucial information across multiple
generations, they are strikingly memorable and make the information
they contain easy to recall, and they create a rough simulation of reality from which people can derive useful content. Oral narratives can
preserve for posterity a store of communal knowledgethe records of
how previous generations solved problems relating to such vital areas
as gathering food, avoiding predators, curing illnesses, and dealing with
environmental fluctuations that occur at intervals longer than the
average human lifespan.11
Along with preserving information vital to survival, stories and narratives can also transmit a communitys expectations and values. Stories
can teach us that our culture expects men to be virtuous, like Odysseus
or Rama, and women to be virtuous and submissive, like Penelope or
Sita. Stories can tell us that sons must avenge their fathers at all costs,
as Orestes did or an entire community could end up suffering the fate
of Hamlets Denmark. Stories can explain the value that a community
places on ceasing to strive after worldly ambitions, of treating wounded
travelers kindly, or of submitting absolutely to a divine power. Stories

Scheherazades Stories and Panglosss Nose

can even illustrateas Scheherazades dothe value and importance

of telling stories. The values conveyed through stories might have real
survival value (When walking through the woods alone, dont stray from
the path) or they may reflect arbitrary cultural values (If your brother
dies while attacking the city, bury him, no matter what your uncle the
king thinks). Stories of either kind are valuable, the former for obvious
reasons and the latter because those who understand the values and expectations of their communities have a greater chance of surviving, and
a much greater chance of reproducing, than those who do not.
making special

In her books, What Is Art For? (1990) and Homo Aestheticus (1992),
Ellen Dissanayake advances the theory that the purpose of artincluding the literary art of poetry, narrative, and dramais to make certain
objects, ideas, and spaces special or to attach them to a conceptual
realm set off and elevated from normal day-to-day experience. At some
point in their evolution, Dissanayake argues, humans begin deliberately to set out to make things special or extra-ordinary, perhaps for the
purpose of influencing the outcome of important events that were seen
as uncertain or troubling. Art is one way that we create the extraordinary; two others are play, through which we exercise our imaginations
and engage in counterfactual pretense, and ritual, through which we
create communal responses to our deepest fears and anxieties. In play,
ritual, and art, she concludes, things [are] less real or more real than
everyday reality.12
The evolutionary payoff of the ability to make things special is social
cohesion. Ritual and art both unit[e] their participants and their audiences in one mood; consequently, everyone shares in the same occasion of patterned emotion and the hard-edges of their customary isolation from each other are softened or melted together or their everyday
taken-for-granted comradeship is reinforced. Though Dissanayake does
not make the claim that art and literature facilitate cohesion through
some kind of group selection, she does argue that the ability to mark
certain phenomenon as beyond the ordinary constitutes a behavioral
tendency that helped individuals who possessed it (and by extension a
social group whose members had it) to survive better than individuals
and groups who lacked the tendency.13
Scheherazades Stories and Panglosss Nose 7

proposition testing

Many scholarsincluding Pinker himselfhave proposed that literature

might have evolved as a way to test potentially useful propositions that
do not represent a current reality. Pinker proposes that the two Horatian
functions of literatureto delight and to instructmust be considered
separately: It is helpful, he writes, to distinguish the delight, perhaps
the product of a useless technology for pressing our pleasure buttons,
from the instruction, perhaps a product of a cognitive adaptation. For
Pinker, then, the poetic functions of literaturerhyme, meter, pleasant images, and the likeare evolutionarily unimportant, but the scenarios that literature creates may be adaptive because they allow us to
create a store of potential solutions to problems that we may someday
face. Life is like chess, Pinker argues, and plots are like those books
of famous chess games that serious players study so they will be prepared
if they ever find themselves in similar straits.14
Because stories can create worlds that in many respects look like our
own, they allow us to posit and manipulate different counterfactual problems to see how various solutions might work out. Modern computer
simulations are just sophisticated narrative builders designed for this
purpose; their essential function has been carried out by stories for thousands of years. I can still recall, for example, the elaborate plans I made
for bird-proofing my house after seeing Alfred Hitchcocks The Birds on
television for the first time during my junior year of high school. The
narrative in the film provoked my response and allowed me to see,
by following them through to their logical conclusions, which of my
plans might actually prevent my family from being killed by armies of
avian kamikazes. Though the exact scenario portrayed in Hitchcocks
film may never be encountered in the real world, the security plans it
inspired might be useful in any number of situationsfrom fending off
predators to saving money on my heating bill.
cognitive play

In his magisterial book On the Origin of Stories, Brian Boyd asserts that
art, and specifically fiction, should be viewed as a kind of cognitive
play . . . designed to engage human attention through [its] appeal to
our attention and to our preference for inferentially rich and therefore
patterned information.15 This definition, though simple, is remarkably

Scheherazades Stories and Panglosss Nose

suggestive. It helps explain why stories are so pleasurable and may be

valuable. Physical play, which is common among adolescents in many
cultures, often helps the young exercise important adaptive skills such
as predator avoidance (hide-and-seek, tag) or intraspecies combat
(cowboys-and-Indians, war). In the same way, the cognitive game
of fiction reading might help humans exercise critical mental functionsespecially those that facilitate interactions with others. As Boyd
argues, the high intensity of pretend play and fiction and their rapid
switches of place, time, and perspective must make social cognition,
like any other well-learned and much practiced skill, faster, more efficient, and more accurate, and speed up the capacity to guide and redirect social attention.16
This notion of fiction as a cognitive workout is central to Lisa Zunshines argument in the crucial book Why We Read Fiction: Theory of
Mind and the Novel. Zunshine argues that literature trains us to use
verbal and nonverbal cues to infer another persons thoughts and feelings. To prosper in any social environment we must be able to understand other minds and use this understanding to predict behavior. Like
most human endeavors, however, reading other minds takes practice.
Literature allows us to practice interpersonal skills in an environment
that minimizes the consequences of mistakes. Misreading the intentions of a powerful multimillionaire in real life could have disastrous
results; misreading Mr. Darcys intentions in Pride and Prejudice allows
us to learn from our mistakes without suffering any real consequences.
Zunshine argues that fictional representations of reality allow us to encounter fictional minds so that we can get what Zunshine refers to as a
pleasurable and intensive work out for [our] Theory of Mind.17
sexual advertisement

In his 2000 book, The Mating Mind, psychologist Geoffrey Miller argues that sexual selection had a larger role in the development of human culture than what is commonly assumed. The creative arts, he suggests, function in the same way as the peacocks tail or the bowerbirds
nest: they advertise sexual fitness. The great challenge facing artists,
Miller argues, is to demonstrate their fitness by making something that
lower-fitness competitors could not make, thus proving themselves more
socially and sexually attractive.18 Millers argument does not require
Scheherazades Stories and Panglosss Nose 9

that artistic creations contribute to survival (though it certainly does

not preclude the possibility either). According to the peculiar, frustratingly circular logic of sexual selection, a trait can be sexually attractive
simply because it is considered sexually attractive. In fact, cumbersome
ornaments such as an elaborate tail actually slow a peacock down and
increase its chances of being caught by a predator. However, once members of one gender within a population consider an attribute of the opposite gender to be attractiveeven if they do so for reasons that are
random or based on erroneous perceptionsselection pressure to pass
that trait on to offspring will tend to distribute that attribute throughout
the entire population, thus increasing their sexual attractiveness.19
However, Miller makes more claims about storytellings ability to increases sexual attractiveness than he does about the other creative arts.
He arguesusing Edmund Rostands Cyrano de Bergerac as an examplethat a males ability to craft a good story demonstrates intelligence
and, therefore, the ability to acquire resources. Intriguingly, Miller also
argues that storytelling forms part of a female mating approach that he
calls The Scheherazade Strategy after the ubiquitous heroine of The
Arabian Nights. The Scheherazade Strategy arises in women as a response to the male tendency to lose interest in a mate after she has born
children. Such roguery makes eminent biological sense: after a man
has had several children with a woman and she is nearing the end of
her childbearing years, the man has a strong genetic incentive to find a
younger mate who can continue to bear children. Women, on the other hand, have a similarly strong incentive to keep men around to provide resources for them and their children. This requires that women
find ways to keep men sexually attracted to them over the long term.
Miller sees the story of Scheherazade and Shahryar as an extreme example of this conflict of interests, with storytelling becoming tactic to
keep a man sexually interested in a woman:
The pressures on Scheherazade were intense. Given a sexually
jaded despot obsessed with his paternity uncertainty and caught
in a pathologically short-term mating strategy, how could she elicit
the long-term investment in herself and her offspring? Her verbal
courtship ability proved her salvation. She invented stories that kept
him entertained, and which persuaded him of her intelligence,
creativity, and fitness.20

Scheherazades Stories and Panglosss Nose

mental organization

Finally, this proposed adaptive function of literature and storytelling is

one that has been advanced by some of the most well-known figures in
both evolutionary psychology and literary criticism, including John Tooby and Leda Cosmides. Tooby and Cosmides, whose work has formed
much of the foundation of the discipline, argue that the kind of truth
conveyed in art . . . consists of the increased mental organization that
our minds extract from experiencing art. Though they are skeptical of
the proposal that narrative is itself a cognitive adaptation, they suggest
that our minds might be hard wired to sequence the information that we
receive from others in a form that resembles individual experience.21
Because our experience of reality is sequential and (to our minds) purposeful, narrative structures provide a comfortable way to structure information that we receive from multiple sources. Deriving pleasure from
narrative, therefore, is a way to train humans to sequence information
in ways that allow the information to be used to enhance fitness.
Literary critics have expanded this argument to create stronger arguments for literature as an adaptation designed to help integrate radically dissimilar aspects of our cognitive architecture. The human mind
evolved over hundreds of millions of years and contains some of the
same instincts and reflexes as the minds of early primates, small mammals, reptiles, and other early living things. These instincts exist uncomfortably with some of the more complex cognitive traits that are unique
to humans. Joseph Carroll, an early pioneer of evolutionary criticism,
argues that an essential evolutionary function of literature is to reconcile the old and the new parts of the human mind:
Works of literature thus form a point of intersection between the
most emotional, subjective parts of the mind and the most abstract and cerebral. This feature of literature is not incidental to its
adaptive function. Literature provides imaginative structures within which people can integrate the ancient, conserved elements of
their natureelements conserved from pre-mammalian systems
of approach/avoidance, mammalian affectional systems, and systems of primate socialitywith the conceptual, thematic structures
through which they make abstract, theoretical sense of the world
in which they live.22
Scheherazades Stories and Panglosss Nose 11

None of these proposed evolutionary functions of literature exclude

any of the others. Natural selection almost always works on multiple factors and in multiple directions at the same time, and all of these functions contribute to an evolutionary explanation of literature that I find
extremely compelling. That said, it does not follow from any of these
proposed functions that literature and storytelling be seen as specific adaptations for literature and storytelling. As I argued in the introduction,
the universal presence of literature in human cultures requires an evolutionary explanation, but that is not the same as saying that storytelling
itself must be an evolutionary adaptation. There is, I believe, enough
room between specific adaptation and mere byproduct to carve out
a meaningful evolutionary rationale for the human love of stories.

Dr. Panglosss Nose

The tendency to see storytelling as a specific adaptation flows from a
compelling, though ultimately flawed, argument about the way evolution works: that any behavior that diverts resources away from food
production and mate selection must be an adaptation or it would have
been eliminated by the ruthless efficiency of natural selection. Literary
endeavors, therefore, must enhance genetic fitness in some way, so all
we need to do is figure out how. One of the greatest satires of this kind
of logic, Voltaires Candide, was published in 1759, exactly one hundred
years before Darwins The Origin of Species. In Candide the heros tutor,
Dr. Pangloss, argues consistently that despite unimaginable suffering the
world we live in must logically be the best of all possible worlds:
Since everything was made for a purpose, it follows that everything
is made for the best purpose. Observe, our noses were made to carry
spectacles, so we have spectacles. Legs were clearly intended for
breeches, and we wear them. Stones were meant for carving and
for building houses, and that is why my lord has a most beautiful
house. . . . And since pigs were made to be eaten, we eat pork all
the year round. It follows that those who maintain that all is right
talk nonsense; they ought to say that all is for the best.23
In a 1979 article, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin became
the first to apply Voltaires satireoriginally intended as a critique of

Scheherazades Stories and Panglosss Nose

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnizs philosophy of optimismto contemporary

debates in evolutionary biology. They criticize the Panglossian paradigm of contemporary adaptationist thinking which regards natural
selection as so powerful and the constraints upon it so few that direct
production of adaptation through its operation becomes the primary
cause of nearly all organic form, function, and behaviour.24 To combat what they see as the Panglossian excesses of some evolutionary biologists, Gould and Lewontin offer a metaphor from the world of architecture: a spandrel, or a triangular space created between an arch
and another arch or between an arch and a rectangular enclosure. In
the great Cathedral of San Marco in Venice, the spandrels are elaborately designed, so harmonious and purposeful that we are tempted to
view it as the starting point of any analysis, as the cause in some sense
of the surrounding architecture.25 Nonetheless, the space these elaborate designs inhabit is simply the consequence of putting a round arch
in a rectangular frame.
Though Gould and Lewonton have never presented it as such, the
evolutionary spandrel has often been considered something inferior, or
at least less functional, than a full-fledged adaptation. This, in turn, has
forced discussions of literature onto an unnecessary dichotomy, which
John Tooby and Leda Cosmides articulate in Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds? They insist that there can only be two evolutionary explanations for the creative arts: they must either be 1) the functional products
of adaptations that are designed to produce this engagement; or 2) an
accidental and functionless byproduct . . . of adaptations that evolved
to serve functions that have nothing to do with the arts per se.26 With
this dichotomy governing the debate, it is no wonder that literary critics
have felt compelled to posit specific adaptive functions for their craft.
But lets go back to the original spandrels of San Marco. The mosaics that Gould and Lewontin describe are not themselves spandrels;
they are beautiful works of art created in the space produced by an architectural design. The design space, not the design, is the spandrel,
and, therefore, the byproduct of something else.
We can get a better understanding of this concept by applying evolutionary logic to Dr. Panglosss nave optimism about noses and spectacles. Noses have been designed to perform a function that has obvious
survival valuejust think how many of our ancestors were saved from
Scheherazades Stories and Panglosss Nose 13

1. Spandrels at the Library of Congress Building in Washington dc. Photo by Einar

Einarsson Kvaran. Use authorized under the gnu Free Documentation License.

rancid food by their ability to smell. Spectacles enhance our ability to

see, thereby giving us important information about our environment.
For those who need corrective lenses, spectacles have a much greater
survival value than the noses they rest on. It does not follow, as Pangloss
believes, that noses were designed to hold spectacles; but spectacles are
not a functionless side-effect of nasal design or tactile cheesecake
that somehow tickle pleasure sensors on our faces. Spectacles were designed to exploit part of our facial architecture to serve a valuable function that, while not part of the faces original design, is no less adaptive
in the current environment than the nasal cartilage that holds them
up. Once invented, spectacles spread quickly by cultural diffusion to
become, within just a few hundred years, an important tool available
to nearly all humans.
So it is with the tools used by the mind. Humans did not evolve specific cognitive mechanisms for reading newspapers, computing quadratic
equations, or programming computers. The processes that allow us to

Scheherazades Stories and Panglosss Nose

do these things evolved to handle other tasks and solve other problems.
These activities are clearly adaptive in our current environment; they
are not byproducts of something else, even though the cognitive spaces they inhabit are. Storytelling and imaginative literature should be
placed into the same category as these activities. It is unlikely that our
propensity to tell and respond to stories evolved because of any adaptive value that these activities held for our ancestors. These propensities
simply developed too recently to be full-fledged adaptations. However,
it is highly probable that, once the capacity for simple forms of storytelling evolved, stories became useful tools for transferring knowledge,
building communities, attracting mates, and all the rest. Toolsboth
material and cognitivecan be remarkably useful and have tremendous
survival value without being specific adaptations.
By most accounts, the cognitive architecture of human beings had developed in its modern form by the Upper Paleolithic periodwhich led
to the cognitive revolution that produced such inventions as improved
stone tools, bone tools, hunting weapons, cave art, funeral ceremonies,
and probably storytelling. Like the other Upper Paleolithic inventions,
storytelling would have constituted what Dennett refers to as a good
trick, or an idea that clearly improves an organisms chance for survival
and therefore spreads rapidly through imitation and cultural diffusion.
Both imitation and cultural diffusion are Lamarckian processes that work
much faster than the geological time span required for natural selection
to work.27 Once natural selection had created minds with the cognitive
horsepower necessary to tell and respond to narrative, storytelling (like
stone tools and wheels) only had to be invented once to become universal. Useful tools spread like fire (also a useful tool). Like most other
tools, storytelling was constructed in a design space made possible by
other adaptations.
What might these other adaptations be? What Panglossian nose might
have supported the spectacles of literature? Almost anything could work;
a clever engineer could design a pair of spectacles to fit over any bit of
bone or cartilage that natural selection could place in the vicinity of a
face. I suspectas do many who study cognitive narratologythe answer lies somewhere in the rudimentary temporal and spatial sequences
that the mind generates to process and structure sensory and perceptual information. However, stating that complex stories have been built
Scheherazades Stories and Panglosss Nose 15

on simple narrative sequences simply states the obvious, or at least the

very easy to deduce. It doesnt really answer the question of what narrative might be built upon. To know where narrative comes from we must
look further into our evolutionary history, past even the emergence of
the human species, into areas of cognitive design space that may not
have been originally designed for the production of narratives. Natural
selection builds upon features and functions that already exist. Though
only human beings wear spectacles, many species have noses; similarly,
while only human beings tell stories, many species must have bits and
pieces of the cognitive architecture that makes storytelling possible.
In the following pages I will propose several evolved cognitive operations that might have served as the design space for storytelling and literature. In doing so, I do not intend to diminish the power and beauty
of stories. Whatever evolutionary forces may have been behind the human love of narrative, stories are an integral part of what humans have
become. This, I believe, is the most basic lesson that we can learn from
Scheherazade. Though the obligatory happy resolution has been tacked
onto most published versions of the Arabian Nights, the original frame
presents stories themselves as both an urgent and an infinite element
of the human experience. To be human is to tell stories, to experience
pleasure in their construction, and to feel anxiety at their interruption;
and, like Scheherazade, we will cease to exist as a species the moment
that we have no more stories to tell. Any theory that presents itself as an
account of human nature must come to grips with the immense power
and urgency of stories.


Scheherazades Stories and Panglosss Nose

Stories for Thinking
Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is
like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field:
Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the
greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come
and lodge in the branches thereof.
Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto
leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the
whole was leavened.
All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a
parable spake he not unto them.

Matthew 13: 3134 (King James Version)

Fiction, particularly narrative fiction, is an irreducible dimension of the
understanding of the self. If it is true that fiction cannot be completed other
than in life, and that life cannot be understood other than through stories we
tell about it, then we are led to say that a life examined, in the sense borrowed
from Socrates, is a life narrated.

Paul Ricoeur, Life: A Story in Search of a Narrator

Describing Heaven
In the Book of Matthew, nine of the seventeen parables told by Jesus begin with the words: the kingdom of heaven is like. . . . As it turns out,
the kingdom of heaven is like a number of very different things, including people (a sower, a king, a merchant, and two different household17

ers), food (a mustard seed and leaven), and several inanimate objects
(a fishing net and a buried treasure). None of these comparisons gives
a clear picture of the kingdom of heaven, but how on earth could they?
For those of us stuck on earth, heaven is an ineffable concept. There is
no reference pointno point of common understandingthat Jesus
could use to explain heaven. Using a series of conceptual comparisons
to describe aspects of the whole is the best way for Jesus to explain heaven. Like a mustard seed, it begins as something small and grows to immense size; like leaven, it exists among other things but changes their
natures; like a fishing net, it will draw in many that have to be sorted
out and thrown back; and so on. None of these similes gives a complete
picture of the Kingdom of Heaven, but their author hopes that they will
inspire a mental picture when taken collectivelyalbeit a fragmented
and imperfect picture.
When talking about heaven, necessity forces Jesus to speak only in
parables. But this is not always the case. Many of the parables in the
New Testament could be converted into simple declarative statements
such as God loves everybody and His happiness when one person is
converted does not mean that He loves others less (the Parable of the
Lost Sheep) or in a significant theological context, a neighbor consists
of anybody who cares enough to help people in need (the Parable of
the Good Samaritan). These statements have approximately the same
meaning as the parables, but they have nowhere near the effect. Jesus
knows that stories almost always resonate more deeply with human beings than complicated arguments or simple declarations do. The reason for this resonance, I suggest, is that stories present information in a
way that closely resembles how the mind works.
In The Literary Mind Mark Turner argues that parablewhich he
defines as the projection of storyis a mental device that is basic
to human thinking. The human mind is always at work constructing
small stories and projecting them, he writes, which gives humans the
ability to generate new concepts from the combination of familiar ones.
The Literary Mind begins with an analysis of Arabian Nights. Turner focuses on one of the two stories that Scheherazades father tells her before
she marries the king: the cautionary tale of the Ox and the Donkey.
In this tale the farmer overhears the donkey telling the ox to feign sickness in order to avoid work. As a consequence, the donkey is forced to

Stories for Thinking

pull the plough in place of the ox. The moral of the storywhich the
vizier clearly expects his daughter to understandis that good intentions usually backfire. Turner argues that the way this story functions in
the larger narrative captures the essence of parable by combining two
of our most basic mental operations: story and projection. The Vizier
creates a compelling narrative and expects his daughter (and the reader)
to understand the possible future of [Scheherazade] by projecting it
onto the story of the ox and the donkey. The literary genre of the parable, in other words, follows inevitably from the nature of our conceptual systems.1
The parable is just one example of this phenomenonalbeit a very
important example for Turners argument. The larger argument of Turners book is that the human mind is governed by many of the same strategies for packaging and manipulating information that structure literary texts. We imagine realities and construct meaning, Turner writes.
The everyday mind performs these feats by means of mental processes
that are literary and that have always been judged to be literary.2 What
we now call literaturebroadly defined to include myths, folktales,
oral histories, epics, plays, poems, novels, scriptures, histories, memoirs,
movies, television shows, interactive video games, and anything else
that foregrounds a story as an intentional actis of fairly recent invention. People have been telling stories for a hundred thousand years at
most, but like so much of our current cognitive makeup, the ability to
construct these narratives depends upon older and more basic mental
traits that have been shaped by evolution.
The conventions that govern the narratives we call literaturethe
parables of Jesus, the stories of Scheherazade, the plays of Shakespeare,
the songs of African griots, and all the restoriginate in our evolved
structures for processing and sequencing information necessary to our
survival and reproduction. Certainly, cultures and societies shape narrative conventions to meet their own needs, but there are some universals. Nearly all narratives from all cultures have a recognizable beginning and conclude with a deliberate attempt at narrative resolution and
closure. Most narratives also follow clearly defined temporal sequences
that, while often interrupted by clearly labeled flashbacks, progress in
order from the beginning to the end. In all cultures, storytellers have
the responsibility to explain casual relationships within a narrative, and,
Stories for Thinking 19

often, between the narrative and the outside world. Nearly every narrative attempts to compress its story by presenting important facts and
omitting superfluous details. While there certainly have been daring
experimentalists willing to create narratives without these elements,
their experiments are considered daring precisely because they flout
nearly every assumption about the way that narratives behave. The fragmented stories of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf do not disprove
the claim that human narratives are temporally sequenced any more
than the paintings of Picasso disprove the claim that human noses are
located somewhere near the center of the face.3

Cognition and Narrative

One of the most important common grounds for cognitive scientists and
literary critics has been the proposition that human beings use stories as
the basis for much of their conscious thought. In 1991 the well-known
psychologist Jerome Bruner offered humanists an introductory handshake by publishing The Narrative Construction of Reality in Critical Inquiry, one of the leading journals of literary theory and criticism.
In this article Bruner asserted that we organize our experience and our
memory of human happenings mainly in the form of narrativestories, excuses, myths, reasons for doing and not doing, and so on.4 The
linguist Leonard Talmy also devotes the last chapter of his two-volume
Toward a Cognitive Semantics to this same connection between narrative and cognition. He writes that
the mental faculty for the generation and experiencing of broadly
construed narrative constitutes a specific cognitive system in its own
right. This narrative cognition system would generally function to
connect and integrate certain components of conscious content
over time into a coherent ideational structure. More specifically
. . . this is a system that ascribes entityhood to some sequential portion of experienced phenomena, that imputes continuity of identity to that entity, that integrates contents associated with that continuing identity into an ideational whole, and that fixes a feeling
of attachment to that complex.5
Talmys description of the narrative-building function as a specific
cognitive system in its own right comes very close to the definition of

Stories for Thinking

a module in evolutionary psychology. According to the modular theory of mental operation, the mind is not the blank slate envisioned by
Locke and accepted by several generations of behavioral psychologists.
Rather it comes preloaded with content-rich subroutines designed to
perform specific tasksmuch like computers often come loaded with
specific software, like a word processor, designed to handle basic computing needs. A word processor imposes some constraints on the content
of a document: it must use a known character set, specified fonts, margins that correspond to the size of the paper in the printer tray, and so
on. Within these constraints, the word processor can display just about
anything. Indeed, when the word processor is first opened, it looks exactly like a blank slate, even though it contains thousands of lines of
computer code working in the background.
Mental functions commonly described as modules include the
mechanisms for acquiring language, imputing causality, and understanding the thoughts and motivations of other people (the so-called
theory-of-mind module).6 These modules dictate content only up to
a point; nobody is born with the capability to speak Portuguese, but almost everybody is born with the facility to learn whatever language they
are exposed to during childhood. Of course, the phrase mental module is a parable itself. It compresses an extremely complex relationship
among millions of neurons and neural pathways into the same spatial
narrative that I use to describe the furniture in my living room.
In suggesting the possibility of a narrative-building module, I do
not mean to argue that narratives are constructed and processed in a
certain brain region that we could take out and replace with a module
for, say, curing bacon. This is the point at which the analogy with computer software breaks down. What I do suggest, however, is that the human ability to construct narratives relies on a series of interrelated cognitive predispositions that evolved to allow us to use information more
effectively. Porter H. Abbott has argued that, if narrative theory is going
to be useful to the overall project of evolutionary psychology, the first
order of business is to cut through an array of extensively theorized, yet
at bottom culturally learned, embellishments of narrative . . . to get to
those basic components parts without which narrative shrinks or disappears entirely.7 These basic, pre-narrative tools do not require tangible
stories that we write down or tell other people. These tools do not even
Stories for Thinking 21

require languageor other people. Defined very broadly, a narrative is

a pattern-forming cognitive system that organizes all sequentially experienced structure.8 The tools that allow us to create narratives are the
same tools that allow us to structure, process, evaluate, and act upon
the massive amounts of information we collect with our senses.
Perhaps the most basic of these narrative-forming tools is the ability
to sequence events in time and space. Turner proposes that the basic stories we know best are small stories of events in space. The wind
blows a cloud through the sky, a child throws a rock, a mother pours
milk into a glass, a whale swims through the water. These stories constitute our world, and they are completely absorbingwe cannot resist
watching the volley of the tennis ball.9 David Herman insists with some
justification that Turners proposed paradigm overextends and to some
extent trivializes the concept of story and sometimes conflates sequence with story. Herman is undoubtedly correct that a simple event
sequence cannot be considered a story unless we stretch the definition
of the word story beyond the point that it makes an analytically useful
distinction.10 But Turners analysis makes perfect sense from the evolutionary perspective. Though it may be too much of a stretch to call a
brief temporal sequence a story, it is much more plausible to argue that
the human propensity to form spatial sequences, and the pleasure humans receive from doing so, are keys to the evolution of the narrativebuilding mind.
Spatial sequencing is adaptive (and therefore likely to produce pleasure) because it allows us to orient ourselves in our immediate environment by perceiving or inferring spatial and temporal connections;
it also allows us to make predictions about where things will be in the
future. It may seem obvious that an item falling out of a tree will very
quickly reach the ground, or that an arrow shot directly south will land
somewhere along its current trajectory, but as the Swedish psychologist Dirk Kerzel has written, despite how effortless it seems, visually
tracking such objects is actually a complex task because their future
trajectories must be predicted. Cognitive scientists refer to the mental
facilities that we use to calculate trajectories and object motions as nave physics and have designed a number of experiments to show how
these facilities can be tricked (in a famous example that Kerzel cites,
people tend to predict that a ball coming out of a spiral tube will have

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a curved trajectory). But spiral tubes do not grow in the wild. With our
innate, if nave, physical intuition, we can build good enough sequential models that, in most cases, allow us to make functional predictions
about what comes next.11
To go further along these lines, Steven Pinker makes the intriguing
(if qualified and tentative) suggestion that we take the logic of spatial
relationships with us as we create more abstract conceptual categories.
When we say that a meeting went from 3:00 to 4:00, that the inheritance finally went to Fred, or that a light went from red to green, we
are taking the spatial concept of motion and using it to describe other
kinds of relationships. We do this, Pinker argues, not just to co-opt
words but to co-opt their inferential machinery. He goes on to suggest
that much of our language of thought was originally copied from primate spatial reasoning and co-opted for more abstract reasoning tasks.
Suppose ancestral circuits for reasoning about space and force were
copied, he proposes, and the copys connections to the eyes and muscles were severed, and references to the physical world were bleached
out. The circuits could serve as a scaffolding whose slots are filled with
symbols for more abstract concerns like states, possessions, ideas, and
Though an understanding of spatial sequences is not itself sufficient
to produce conscious thought, such an understanding is absolutely necessary for its execution. Without understanding connections between
objects in space, we cannot understand connections in time or relationships in character. Over one hundred years ago, Edwin A. Kirkpatrick,
one of the first American psychologists to advocate an adaptationist approach to his discipline, emphasized the evolutionary necessity of spatial sequencing: the ability to perceive space relations, he wrote, gives
animals possessing it an advantage over those without it in the struggle
for existence, for it is evident that any organism that is to survive must
have a tendency to so move in response to stimuli as to secure those that
are advantageous and avoid those that are destructive.13
The ability to sequence events in space closely relates to the ability to
sequence them in time. Temporal sequencing forms the foundation of
what Merlin Donald has labeled episodic culture, which he describes
in his analysis of the temporal cognition of non-human primates:
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If apes are taken as the starting point, how might their overriding
representational strategy be described? Despite their formidable
skills, they lack language, and they also lack much of the nonverbal
knowledge evident in humans who have been stripped of language.
Their behavior, complex as it is, seems unreflective, concrete, and
situation bound. Even their uses of signing and their social behavior are immediate, short-term responses to the environment. In
fact, the word that seems best to epitomize the cognitive culture
of apes (and probably of many other mammals as well, although
this is tangential to the argument) is the term episodic. Their lives
are lived entirely in the present, as a series of concrete episodes,
and the highest element in their system of memory representation
seems to be at the level of event representation.14
Many animals seem to form and remember these concrete episodes.
Many also have the ability to learn sequential narratives through operant conditioning: a rat learns that if it presses a lever food comes out of
a shoot, and a dog learns that if it does its business on the carpet it gets
a whack on the nose. However, these animals do not appear to understand the passage of time; they have simply learned that a specific action elicits a certain response. Human narratives, on the other hand,
traverse comfortably through the temporal realms of past and future. In
a provocative and much-quoted article, Thomas Suddendorf and Michael C. Corballis argue that the cognitive ability that lies at the heart
of human consciousness is mental time travel. Unlike apes and other mammals, they reason, humans make persistent reference to events
that are not limited to the present. Events as remote as the crucifixion
of Christ exert a profound influence on large numbers of people, they
argue, and we even tackle questions about the extent of time itself by
developing religious or scientific concepts such as genesis, Judgment
Day, or the big bang.15
The ultimate payoff of sequential narratives is that they allow us to
reason about cause and effect. There is nothing more basic in human
life than cause and effect, Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner write in
The Way We Think. A great deal of our cognitive architecture appears
designed to facilitate causal reasoning. Such reasoning has a clear adaptive value, as our ancestors have typically been in situations where they

Stories for Thinking

needed to be able to recognize, in a flash, the potential integrated event.

. . . In short, it is evolutionarily advantageous to be able to unite cause
and effect in our understanding. Its good to see potential effects in a
cause, and its good to see potential causes in an effect.16 If anything,
this is an understatement. Reasoning about causality is vitally important to everything from finding food and avoiding predators to attracting mates and raising childrennot to mention creating cities, roads,
novels, poems, and plays.
Causal reasoning also plays a vital role in the cognitive process of
neutralizing anxiety. Very simply, we experience anxiety whenever we
encounter effects that dont appear to have causes. If I were to walk into
my house one day and see a ham sandwich spinning in the air, I would
get very little sleep until I could explain why something I normally eat
for lunch appeared to be moving on its own. I would be unable to focus on anything else until I could discover the truth or could generate
some kind of plausible narrative to explain the phenomenon. University of Pennsylvania brain scientists Andrew B. Newberg and Eugene G.
dAquili argue that the mind possesses a casual operator that compels
us to generate a narrative whenever we are presented with an anxietyproducing situation:
Imagine . . . a prehistoric hunter making his way home through
unfamiliar woods. His mind wanders as he travels, and he is only
absently aware of the ambient noises of the forest, but when a twig
snaps in the underbrush, his mind is instantly, involuntarily focused. This intense mental alertness results from the sudden activation of the amygdale, the ancient limbic watchdog that monitors
all incoming sensory information for signs of danger and opportunity. When the amygdale detects the unaccounted-for auditory
impulses caused by the sudden noise, it rivets the hunters mind
upon it. . . . In the same split second the hunter first hears the suspicious sound, the cognitive imperative is driving the casual operator to discover what it might mean.
The hunter in this scenario shares something of Shahryars anxiety:
he has heard the first part of a story (the snapping of a twig) and is in
a state of heightened anxiety until he discovers how it ends. If a resoluStories for Thinking


tion does not appear, or if he cannot safely determine a cause, the hunter
will create one from previous experiences and plausible speculation.
Newberg and dAquili frame this reasoning process in terms that draw
a straight line connecting anxiety and narrative. This process is automatic, they conclude, uncertainty causes anxiety, and anxiety must
be resolved. Sometimes resolutions are obvious and causes are easy to
spot. When they are not, the cognitive imperative compels us to find
plausible resolutions in the form of a story.17

The Blind Men and the Elephant

In his nineteenth century verse rendering of an ancient Eastern tale,
John Godfrey Saxe writes of six men of Indostan / To learning much
inclined / Who went to see the elephant / (Though all of them were
blind). Each blind man puts a hand on a different part of the elephant
and, in turn, declares the whole animal to be very like whatever he happens to feel: a rope, a spear, a wall, a fan, a snake, or a tree. Each man
gets a part of the story right, but none of them can fathom the whole
elephant. The purpose of this particular version of the story is to criticize the various disputants in religious conflicts who assail each other
with their versions of a god they have never seen. But the basic cognitive mechanism that the men employ is roughly the same one that Jesus uses in the kingdom of heaven parables, with the major difference
that Jesus presumably had some experience of the entire indescribable
thing he was attempting to describe. Nonetheless, since Jesus had no
way to communicate this vision in its entirety, he had to resort to fragmented similes with the hope that they could collectively communicate
a more coherent vision.
Jesus relies on useful fictions in order to make the kingdom of heaven
accessible to his listeners; in the same way, the blind men of Indostan
rely on useful fictions to understand the concept of an elephant. Both
the blind men and Jesus require some kind of definition in order to proceedto talk about elephants or to work toward a heavenly reward. Yet
an accurate and complete definition lies beyond their reach and always
will. Blind men will never be able to picture an elephant, and Jesus will
never be able to explain heaven to mortals completely. Rather than simply give up, however, both do the best they can with the resources they
have. According to Hans Vaihinger, human beings find themselves in

Stories for Thinking

similar circumstances every day; we are compelled by a logical imperative to comprehend things in their totality, but this logical imperative
is at odds with the fundamental incomprehensibility of most things we
encounter. As Vaihinger writes,
with an instinctive, almost cunning ingenuity, the logical function succeeds in overcoming these difficulties with the aid of its
accessory structures. The special methods, the by-paths, of which
thought makes use when it can no longer advance directly along
the main road, are of many different kinds, and their explanation
is our problem. They often lead through thorny undergrowth, but
logical thought is not deterred thereby, even though it may lose
something of its clearness and purity. It is relevant also to remark
here that the logical function, in its purposeful instinctive ingenuity, can carry this fictive activity from the most innocent and unpretentious beginnings on through ever finer and subtler developments
right up to the most difficult and complicated methods.
The mental constructs that Vaihinger describes can be extremely
useful, even if they are incomplete or downright inaccurate representations of reality, because, as Vaihinger concludes, the object of the
world of ideas as a whole is not the portrayal of reality . . . but rather to
provide us with an instrument for finding our way about more easily in
the world.18 Below I will examine several of Vaihingers important accessory structuresadapting them, when necessary, to the requirements
of my own argument and supplementing them with more recent findings from disciplines important to this study. Each of these constructs
is a highly adaptive reasoning strategy that might have formed the cognitive scaffolding for the human love of fiction.

In his essay The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, Jorge Luis

Borges describes an ancient Chinese encyclopediawhose existence
has never been documentedcalled the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. One passage in this otherwise-unknown essay has attracted the attention of such luminaries as Michel Foucault and George
Lakoff and has become a standard starting point for arguments about
Stories for Thinking 27

the nature of classification schemes. In this passage, Borges describes a

classification system for animals that consists of fourteen categories: (a)
those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are
trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs;
(h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble
as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very
fine camels-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the
flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.19
Like Jesus, Borges chooses parable over straightforward argument to
make his point. Had he chosen the latter strategy, however, the result
would have sounded much like Vaihingers own argument about the
fictional nature of classifications systems:
As a substitute for actual reality, in this case for a group of objects
with a common constitutive complex of characters, we find one
arbitrarily selected character. This selected character cannot, of
course, be anything but unreal. . . . Thus, in place of the highly
complicated reality, we obtain a simplification which is substituted for it. Phenomena in all their variety are then arranged according to this character as though it were the real and adequate
principle. . . .
The botanical system of Linnaeus is the most famous example
of this method.20
Vaihinger, like Borges, uses biological taxonomy as a prime example
of a classificatory fiction. He does not argue against Linnaean taxonomy being based on real, experimentally verifiable phenomena. Rather, he insists, our error consists in regarding such logical instruments
as ends in themselves and in ascribing to them an independent value
for knowledge, whereas they are . . . only logical devices for the attainment of purposes which we have already frequently enumerated. Who
among us has not occasionally thought that whales and dolphins share
at least as many qualities with fish as they do with cows? How many
people today still consider Pluto a planet? The selection and exclusion
of traits to form the basis of a classification system constitutes a fiction,
but a necessary one if we are to use the information in any meaningful way. The same, Vaihinger argues, is true for all other categories

Stories for Thinking

by means of which discursive thought is conducted; the whole and its

parts, cause and effect, the general and the particular. These are all only
conceptual logical fictions which give rise to no knowledge whatever in
the strict sense of the term.21
information compression

In much the same way that we create classification systems in order to

make information manageable, we often compress complicated information into manageable pieces by ignoring less important pieces of information and then pretending that we are dealing with something in
its totality. Vaihinger refers to such mental structures as abstractive or
negative fictions, which are necessary when material is too complicated and confused for thought to be able to break it up into its component elements, and since the casual factors sought are probably of
a too complicated nature for them to be determined directly, thought
makes use of an artifice by means of which it provisionally and temporarily neglects a number of characters and selects from them the more
important phenomena.22
We can make a useful comparison between this kind of mental fiction and the way that digital information is handled by computers. The
information revolution that we are currently experiencing was made possible, not just by the ability to digitize text, pictures, audio, and video,
but by the ability to compress these digital packages into much smaller
files that can be distributed through the Internet and stored on relatively inexpensive devices. Without compression formats such as jpeg
(photographs), mp3 (audio), or mpeg (video) the Internet would still
be an almost exclusively text-based phenomenon. Processing and storage devices can only handle large amounts of information once it has
been compressed.
Our minds have the same kinds of limitations on processing speed
and storage capacity that our computers do, and every scene we encounter presents us with more raw information than we can process.
As I write this paragraph, I am looking out the window at a mid-sized
apple tree in my backyard. I am close enough to count all of the leaves
and branches, determine how many of its apples are ripe, take a rough
measurement of its height and width, and catalog the songs of the birds
that are nestled in its leaves. After only a few hours of mental labor, I
Stories for Thinking


could file all of these facts away in my memory and go on to the apple
trees in my neighbors yards. Of course, if I were to do this, I would use
much of my time and almost all of my long-term memory cataloging
unimportant details about apples. If I tried to increase my focus to take
in plum or pear trees, I would soon find myself overloaded with information and beset by information anxiety.
Fortunately, narrative can act as a kind of information-compression
algorithm. By their very nature, narratives cut out unnecessary information and focus on the details necessary to their objectives. In order
to pick edible apples from my backyard tree, all I really need to store in
my memory is a brief spatial sequence (the apple tree lies in between
the deck and the fence), a simple temporal sequence (the apples get
ripe in October), and perhaps a cautionary causal story (the last time I
ate an apple from this tree in September I got a horrible stomachache).
Through the process of generalization (also a compression device), similar stories can merge into each other in all but their differentiating elements. I do not need to remember the precise location of the apple
tree that produced the apple that, when eaten in September, gave me a
stomachache. In my memoryand in my decision-making functions
this one apple tree acts as a stand-in for all apple trees.23
A great deal of content is lost in such a generalization. It is not true
that all apples are ripe in October. I know that I can eat apples bought
at the grocery store during any time of the year, and, if I think about
it, I also know that some of the grocery stores apples had to be picked
in September. September must be the perfect time for picking apples
somewhere. However, I will probably never go to a location where apples should be picked in September. If I do, it probably wont be in September, and even if it is, I probably wont pick apples. Therefore, my
proposition that apples picked and eaten in September will give me a
stomachache does just fine for all of my apple-picking needs. Of course,
if I were an apple grower or a grocer, I would need to store more details
about apples; however, I would probably have to compress other information not useful to growers and grocerssuch as, perhaps, theoretical
speculation about the potential adaptive advantages of generalization.

Humans build generic temporal and spatial templates to store large

amounts of information in relatively small spaces. These templates are
30 Stories for Thinking

sometimes called schemas or scripts and provide much of the background information that we need to process and store new perceptions.
When I go into a grocery store I have been in beforeor even one that
looks a great deal like one I have been in beforeI already have a good
sense of what it looks like: the fresh produce is usually on one side of the
store, the milk is on another, and in between are various assortments of
canned and packaged goods whose order rarely changes. I also have a
script of what to do if I want to go into the store and buy a can of tuna: I
walk to the aisle, select the tuna, take it to the cashier aisle, pay for the
tuna, and so on. I do not need to devote time or cognitive space to remembering the rules or processing the results of any single trip to the
grocery store. As one pair of cognitive psychologists puts it, some episodes are reminiscent of others. As an economy measure in the storage
of episodes, when enough of them are alike they are remembered in
terms of a standardized general episode.24 Vaihinger links schematic
fictions to abstract fictions but argues that they represent a separate category, because in the case of the abstractive fictions a certain portion
of reality is cut off and set aside, and only the remainder taken into consideration, in the case of schematic fictions a scaffolding . . . is erected
and thought proceeds in relation to this bare picture which is devoid of
many of the features of reality.25
Scripts, according to Roger C. Schank and Tamara R. Berman, lessen the burden of understanding new events and therefore help us to
use our minds more efficiently.26 However, some very compelling research has shown that the use of schemas can lead to false or misleading
memories. In William F. Brewer and James C. Treyenss famous 1981
Office Study, the researchers brought subjects into the office pictured
below for periods of less than a minute. Subjects were told that this was
a graduate student office and were allowed to remain inside for about
thirty-five seconds. Afterward they were tested to see what they recalled
about the office. Almost all subjects remembered seeing things such
as desks and chairs, which are standard in office schemas. However, a
third of the subjects remembered seeing books, also part of the standard schema but absent in this instance, and only about 25 percent of
the subjects remembered seeing a bulletin board or a skull. Other research has shown even greater failures to process phenomena that are
not part of an expected schema, including one study in which 65 perStories for Thinking 31

2. The office used in Brewer & Treyenss 1981 schema experiment. Reprinted from
William F. Brewer and James C. Treyens, Role of Schemata in Memory for Place,
Cognitive Psychology 13.2 (April 1981), with permission from Elsevier.

cent of subjects did not register the image of a woman plunging to her
death in the center of a picture of an urban hotel, and another study in
which half of the participants did not notice the presence of a person
wearing a gorilla suit in a video in which they were asked to keep track
of other things.27
Schemas and scripts are pre-constructed narratives into which we
place much of our perceptual experience so that we do not have to keep
track of a lot of repetitive detail. In effect, schemas say to us, in the words
of Philip K. Dicks 1966 novella, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. These experiments in spatial memory and inattentional blindness
demonstrate that much of what we call memory is itself a fiction and
can be horribly unreliable. We must keep in mind, however, that these
experiments were designed by very smart people devoting their intellect
and their universitys resources to the task of tricking peoples cognitive
mechanisms into giving false information. All they really tell us is that
the value of compressing information outweighs the value of getting all
of the information right. In most cases, our schema-driven memories do
what we need them to do. Schematic memories are fictions, but they
are useful fictions that give us a functional level of recall while allowing our brains to preserve processing power and storage space for other
necessary tasks.
concept integration

A final type of fiction that Vaihinger discusses in relation to the human

thought process is the symbolic or analogical fiction. Such fictions
occur when we attempt to process the properties of a thing by attributing to it the properties of another thing with which we are familiar, as
in ostrich meat is a lot like very lean beef or the kingdom of heaven
is like a mustard seed. Such comparisons are fictive in that one thing
is never completely like another thing, but they are useful in that they
give our minds a way to grasp an unfamiliar concept through a familiar
comparison. Vaihinger anticipates some of the most significant arguments of contemporary cognitive theorists when he writes that all cognition is the apperception of one thing through another. . . . The only
ideational constructs by means of which existing things can be apperceived are either corresponding general perceptions or other concrete
objects. But since these are in their turn inconceivable, all these analogies only give rise to apparent understanding.28
Stories for Thinking 33

Work on analogy by Mark Turner, Gilles Fauconnier, and other scholars has done much to flesh out Vaihingers point. At the center of their
work lies the vital cognitive mechanism that they label conceptual
blending, the process by which two or more mental imagesthey can
be people, places, physical phenomena, words, phrases, or anything else
that the mind can represent as a discrete somethingare combined to
produce new concepts. Conceptual blending allows us to understand
something as alien as the talking mule in The Book of One Thousand
and One Nights because we take the familiar concept of a talking creature (a human being) and combine it with the equally familiar concept
of a non-talking mule to produce an original concept that, despite not
existing anywhere in the world, can be easily understood by almost every
reader.29 Conceptual blending lies at the heart of literary devices such
as metaphor, simile, analogy, symbolism, and irony, but it also facilitates thousands of basic cognitive operations only tangentially related to
imaginative storytelling. For example, blending makes causal reasoning
possible by allowing us to connect causes with effects, and it facilitates
language by integrating certain sounds and grammatical structures with
denotative and connotative meanings.30 Vaihinger explicitly recognizes
the importance of this cognitive operation to the development of literature. A new intuition, he explains, is apperceived by an ideational
construct in which there is a similar relationship, an analogous proportion to that existing in the observed series of perceptions. In such cases
relationships constitute the apperceiving power. This is also the formal
origin of poetry.31
The connection between conceptual integration and poetry that
Vaihinger refers to is only the tip of the iceberg. All of the information
organization and compression strategies that he examines as facilitators of human cognition are crucial to the creation of formal literature.
A poets livelihood depends on his or her ability to create innovative
blends of apparently unrelated concepts; writers of fiction rely regularly on schemas and scripts in the forms of stock characters, stereotypes,
and familiar settings; and storytellers of all stripes must regularly compress all of the possible information their stories could contain into a
manageable number of relatable details. This should not surprise us at
all; creating information packets for storage and retrieval is essentially

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the same activity as creating stories for external consumption. They are
simply different types of narrative construction.
Cognitive psychologists generally agree that we store some information in our memories in narrative form, though there are disagreements
about how much. Early researchers, led by Canadian neuroscientist Endel Tulving, theorized that the human brain has two different systems
for processing fact-based information: semantic memory and episodic
memory. Semantic memory includes facts that we know without reference to any specific eventthat apples and bananas are food, that
snowy days are cold, or that the letters c-a-t refer to a type of furry animal. Episodic memory, on the other hand, is indexed to specific events,
such as the time that a friend slipped on a banana or the time that we
saw a three-legged cat next door.32 According to these early theories,
episodic memories are stored in narrative form, while semantic memories are stored simply as facts. More recent work, though, suggests that
even the general facts we store in our memory banks contain a large
narrative content. This is not surprising, writes Catherine Emmott,
since semantic knowledge is formed from an accumulation of specific
occasions. If, for example, an individual has only flown in an aeroplane
once, his/her script for air flights will be colored by this one experience.
Even when he/she has flown dozens of times, with many of the details
having become condensed together, salient deviations from the standard script are likely to be retained distinctly.33
In a 1995 article Roger C. Schank and Robert P. Abelson advance the
thesis that virtually all human knowledge is based on stories constructed around experiences.34 Nearly all information in human memory,
the authors argue, is stored in narrative form. These story-memories are
not stable. When humans tell storiesto themselves or to othersthey
shape them in their minds; they add or subtract details to facilitate the
immediate needs of the telling. When humans shape these stories, they
argue, they alter the information that is stored in their memoriessimilar to the way that a word processor saves edits to a document over the
previous version. What we store inevitably becomes what we retrieve:
In our desire to tell a story in the first place, we resort to certain
standard story telling devices. Those devices are part of our cultural
norms for storytelling and they reflect what is considered to be a
Stories for Thinking 35

coherent story in a culture. Since, in telling ones story to others,

one wants to be coherent, one has to structure ones story according to these norms. This means, in effect, that one has to lie. Nothing in life naturally occurs as a culturally coherent story. In order
to construct such a story we must leave out the details that dont
fit, and invent some that make things work better. . . . The danger
here is that we may come to believe our own stories. When our
stories become memories, and substitute for the actual events, this
danger is quite real. We remember our stories and begin to believe
them. In this way, stories shape memory profoundly.35
The operation described here demonstrates the deep connections between the various definitions of fiction presented in the introduction.
On one hand, the standard story devices that Schank and Abelson refer
to are the strategies of the intentional literary narratives that Cohn privileges in her discussion. They are also devices found in all kinds of literature and in all formal narratives (Cohns third and fourth definitions).
The memory-structuring process described is an example Vaihingers
conceptual shortcuts for processing information (Cohns second definition), and while Vaihinger may be correct that we initially employ such
strategies as if they were true while retaining some awareness of their
fictional nature, evidence now suggests that we often lose this awareness
and introduce patent untruths (the first definition) into our memories.
In every relevant sense, then, the conversion of experiences into stored
memories involves the creation of fictional narratives.

From Darwin to Derrida

Some literary critics have embraced Darwinist theory as a force capable
of wresting the study of literature out of the hands of obscurantist French
critical theory and placing it on the firm ground of scientific truth. The
often contradictory coalition of literary theories known as postmodernism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction have been the flashpoint
for much of the debate between empiricists and humanists. One of the
few unifying ideas of these theories (which, for the sake of simplicity,
I will refer to as postmodernism, fully aware that this is a fictional
conflation of terms and concepts) is that traditional categories of absolute truthbe they religious, philosophical, political, or scientificare
36 Stories for Thinking

actually relative, historically conditioned, and dependent upon individual and cultural perspectives.
Scientists have been especially hard on postmodern critiques of knowledge (especially scientific knowledge), labeling them with such colorful
epithets as unalloyed twaddle, pseudophilosophical posturing, and
hermeneutic hootchy-koo.36 Some literary critics, upon adopting more
empirical approaches to their subject, are nearly as damning. Robert F.
Storey takes literary studies to task for its misguided models of the human being, while Frederick Turner castigates the simplifications of
[Jacques] Derrida and all the sad reductions of contemporary political
reading.37 Nobody has been harder on postmodernism than the literary critic Joseph Carroll. In his 1995 book Evolution and Literary Theory, often seen as the first real manifesto of Darwinian literary criticism,
Carroll makes clear his desire to reconfigure literary scholarship as an
experimental science:
If criticism can undertake disciplined investigation of testable general hypotheses, and if it is hypothetically capable even of predicting literary eventsand I think it isthere is no reason to suppose
that literary study cannot be a form of systematic knowledge that
is consistent with the broader body of established knowledge, that
is grounded in empirical evidence, that is susceptible to rational
evaluation, and that is capable of development in a way that increases our positive knowledge about the subject of study.38
In many ways Carrolls dream has already come true. Many scholars
from both the sciences and the humanitieshave been able to replace
the contingent, relative, fragmented, and incomplete narratives used
to study literature with rigorous and testable scientific approaches. We
have learned much more about the cognitive aspects of narrative than
we knew in 1995. The main thing we have learned, however, is that narratives are contingent, relative, fragmented, and incomplete. It turns out
that the radical distrust that postmodernists feel toward totalizing narratives is not entirely inconsistent with the scientific reasoning that has
been proposed as its replacement.
As early as 1993, Ellen Spolsky argued that postmodernism and cognitive science were not incompatible, and, in a 2002 article entitled DarStories for Thinking 37

win and Derrida, she refers to a single moment of epiphany when

she realized that Darwins theory of evolution is significantly homologous to the post-structuralist critique of representation. Skepticism,
in Spolskys view, is what unites the two theories. Both postmodernism
and cognitive science are skeptical of the idea that narratives can convey coherent truth. Postmodernists locate their distrust in the nature of
language, which they see as imprecise, self-referential, and subject to
inevitable gaps between the signifier and the signified. Cognitivists, on
the other hand, distrust the ability of consciousness to form a coherent
whole. As Daniel C. Dennett famously writes, human consciousness
is not the coherent stream of thought we imagine it to be; it is gappy
and sparse and doesnt contain half of what people think is there.39
Dennett also devotes much of Consciousness Explained to making
a conspicuously postmodern argument about totalizing narratives. He
argues that, while most philosophers have rejected Cartesian dualism,
they retain an implicit belief in what he calls the Cartesian Theater,
or a single region of the brain where all sensory input is edited and correlated into a single narrative that our conscious minds then experience.
Instead of a central theater, he insists, we process the same information
through several channels at once, updating and revising as necessary,
producing multiple drafts of narratives but never a finished product.
Since these narratives are under continual revision, he argues, there
is no single narrative that counts as the canonical version, the first edition in which are laid down, for all time, the events that happened in
the stream of consciousness of the subject.40
Postmodernists often use the terms transcendental signifier and
metanarrative to describe the same thingmore or lessthat Dennett calls the single narrative that counts as the canonical version of
a story. The arch postmodernist Jean-Franois Lyotard defines postmodernism simply as incredulity toward metanarratives, which in
turn precipitates the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on [them].41 For most of human history, Lyotard argues, human beings have depended on grand
totalizing narratives to make sense of their world. Metanarratives have
included God, democracy, the scientific method, historical dialectic, the will of the people, and psychoanalysis, to name only a few.
The postmodern condition of radical skepticism toward these meta38

Stories for Thinking

narratives makes it impossible to fix any absolute standard for arbitrating competing truth claims. The postmodern position that there is no
truth, however, should not be confused with the popular caricature of
that position, there is no reality. As Richard Rorty forcefully argues in
Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity,
we need to make a distinction between the claim that the world
is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the
world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common
sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes
which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not
out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there
is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and
that human languages are human creations.42
The great orthodoxies of postmodernism are 1) the rejection of absolute narratives; and 2) the insistence that, without such narratives,
we do not have access to a truth that can be separated from human
language and human consciousness. We do have what Lyotard calls
petits rcits (little stories according to most translations, but also white
lies). These small narratives may not be absolutely true, but they dont
need to be. According to these key postmodern thinkers, utilitynot
truthis the criteria by which we should measure the value of a narrative. Absolute truth is not possible within the linguistic and narrative
structures that constrain our existence. Our narratives are messy, gappy,
biased, and highly subjective. But these messy, gappy, biased, and highly
subjective stories are still our stories, and they do everything that we
need narratives to do. These stories do not operate perfectly, but they
are good enough to get the job done, which is all that natural selection
ever asked. A belief can still regulate action, Rorty insists, can still
be thought to be worth dying for, among people who are quite aware
that this belief is caused by nothing deeper than contingent historical
We must not, of course, overstate the case. Postmodern theory and
cognitive science are only compatible up to a certain point. Postmodernism cannot, by its own terms, grant a privileged epistemological position to scientifically tested hypotheses. Scientists cannot concede the
Stories for Thinking 39

postmodern view of science as just one of many metanarratives with

no special claim to the truth. Spolsky acknowledges this and reasons
that the evolutionary argument . . . compromises the absoluteness of
the deconstructive claim but also, crucially, affirms the gradience of
the claim.44 But we fall into the same error that we attribute to postmodernism when we reject all of the gradients of a position because
we cannot accept it as an absolute. Postmodern theorists have developed ways to read narratives skeptically, and the more we learn about
the way that humans build narratives, the more defensible their skepticism becomes. According to postmodernists, the stories upon which
we build our lives and base our decisions are fragmented, incomplete,
unreliable, perspectival, and contradictory. They are, in other words,
useful fictionswhich is very close to the way that cognitive scientists
describe them as well.


Stories for Thinking

The Influence of Anxiety
One thing is certain, that the problem of anxiety is a nodal point, linking up
all kinds of most important questions; a riddle, of which the solution must
cast a flood light upon our whole mental life.

Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

These things may seem ridiculous to others, even as ridiculous as they were
in themselves, but to me they were most tormenting cogitations. . . . Besides,
I thought, as I have already hinted, that my sin was not within the bounds
of that pardon, that was wrapped up in a promise; and if not, then I knew
assuredly, that it was more easy for heaven and earth to pass away, than for me
to have eternal life.

John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners

Anxiety and Cognition
In the twenty-fifth of Sigmund Freuds Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, first delivered in 1917, Freud acknowledges that anxiety is a
riddle. Though he offers no real definition of the term anxiety, he does
flatly reject the value of examining it physiologically. I know of nothing less important for the psychological comprehension of anxiety, he
writes, than a knowledge of the nerve paths by which the excitations
travel.1 In Freuds updated New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, he still rejects the value of biochemical inquiry, but feels that he is
in a much better position to explain the origins of anxietyat least in
males. Freud begins with the proposition that anxiety must always be

based on a concrete, external fear. Yet his clinical observations showed

that anxiety in male patients was connected to their oedipal feelings for
their mothers, making the root cause of anxiety moral and, therefore,
internal. Freud resolved this apparent contradiction by deducing the
real threat that lay beneath the Oedipus complex:
We have, however, not yet said what the real danger is that the
child fears as a result of his being in love with his mother. It is the
punishment of castration, the loss of his penis. . . . It is not primarily a matter of whether castration is really performed; what is important is that the danger is one that threatens from without, and
that the boy believes in it.
There you have it! The root cause of anxiety can be reduced to a
basic and universal human narrative: a boy feels sexual desires for his
mother and fears that, as a consequence of this desire, his father will
cut off his penis. These thoughts are so terrible, the boy represses them
deep into his subconscious and, later in life, begins to project them
onto other things that cannot rationally cause the anxiety he feels. This
anxiety continues, shifting from one putative cause to another, until
he seeks psychoanalysis and confronts his real fears. This theory is not
a perfect fit, Freud acknowledges, as it does not account for anxiety in
women (and, presumably, in orphans or in children of single mothers).
Yet Freud feels entirely justified in labeling fear of castration one of
the most frequent and one of the strongest motive forces of repression,
and therefore of the formation of neuroses.2
Contemporary literary critics generally speak of anxiety from a Freudian perspective, one that sees anxiety as the result of either repressed
fear of castration or repressed oedipal guilt. Some critics acknowledge
this influence directly, as Harold Bloom does in his 1973 book, The
Anxiety of Influence. In Blooms text, poets take the role of sons locked
in an oedipal struggle with their poetic fathers. The poetic fathers are
the great poets whose works have nurtured and sustained the poet sons,
but whose influence threatens to overwhelm (that is castrate) the sons
and keep them from maturing into their fathers poetic equals.3 Many
other critics have simply absorbed Freudian ideas about anxiety from
the larger culture: that it has roots in the unconscious mind, that sur42

The Influence of Anxiety

face effects usually hide deeply repressed causes, or that everything is

motivated by sex. I have no objection to critics who use the concept of
anxiety in this way; we are all entitled to define our terms. However,
my use of the term will rely on characterizations generally accepted by
those currently researching and treating anxiety. For better or worse,
these characterizations have little to do with castration or oedipal guilt
and much to do with the maligned nerve paths by which the excitations travel.
Current psychological literature describes anxiety in human beings
as an unpleasant state of uneasiness or apprehension involving at least
three different response systems: the cognitive (what people think), the
physiological (what people feel), and the behavioral (what people do).
Anxiety can begin in any of these systems and involve the others almost
immediately. Anxiety-producing thoughts, for example, can trigger the
same chemical response in the brain as real physical danger. These biochemical processes can misfire and produce anxiety for no apparent reason, causing the cognitive facilities to create a reason. Simply engaging in
behaviors that normally produce anxietysuch as pacing up and down a
hallway while looking at a watchcan trigger the physiological and cognitive response systems even if no other stimuli are present.4 Researchers
believe that all three anxiety-response systems are coordinated by a part of
the limbic system known as the amygdala. Sometimes referred to as the
hub in the wheel of fear, the amygdala receives sensory and perceptual
information from other areas of the brain and combines it with contextual
information and long-term memories. After collecting this information,
the amygdala triggers the physiological and behavioral responses typically
associated with anxiety, such as elevation of heart rate and blood pressure, release of adrenaline, perspiration, and either aggression or flight.
In both humans and other animals, damage to the amygdala interferes
with the ability to be conditioned to learn a fear response.5
The amygdala, in combination with the hippocampus, also appears
to have a vital role in the construction and retention of narrative; patients who have sustained damage to this region of their brain manifest
difficulty creating new narratives or recalling old ones. In their article
The Neurology of Narrative, Kay Young and Jeffrey L. Saver identify
two different kinds of dysnarrativia (inability to produce and structure
narrative) in patients with damage to the amygdalo-hippocampal region.
The Influence of Anxiety 43

All the patients surveyed for the article suffer from amnesia. Patients
with one kind of dysnarrativia also suffer from arrested narration, and
are able to frame coherently their life leading up to the injury but not
beyond. Patients with the other kind of dysnarrativia exhibit unbounded narration, which the authors define as relentlessly fabricating narratives that purport to describe recent events in their lives but actually
have no relationship to genuine occurrences.6 Along with inhibiting
the fear response, damage to the amygdalo-hippocampal region of the
brain can either shut down the mechanisms that humans use to generate narratives, or it can throw them into permanent overdrive.
Anxiety can cause us profound discomfort, to be sure, but at least some
of the time it makes us uncomfortable with things that should make us
uncomfortable, and it activates behavioral responses that can save our
lives. In an article titled What Good Is Feeling Bad? The Evolutionary Benefits of Psychic Pain, evolutionary psychologist Randolph Nesse
sums up the generally accepted evolutionary rationales for fight-or-flight
The strong, rapid heartbeat that accompanies panic anxiety brings
extra nutrition and oxygen to muscles and speeds the removal of
wastes. Muscle tension prepares for flight or physical defense.
Shortness of breath induces rapid breathing, hyperoxygenating the
blood. Sweating cools the body in anticipation of flight. Greater
production of blood glucose also helps bring more nutrition to the
muscles. Secretion of adrenaline into the blood makes it clot faster, should injury occur. Blood circulation shifts from the digestive
system to the muscles, leaving a cold, empty feeling in the pit of
the stomach and a tense readiness in the muscles.
To these physical advantages, Nesse adds several psychological advantages. For example, according to Nesse, anxiety helps us focus on
the danger at hand and keeps us in a constant mental state of readiness
for action.7
The most salient characteristic of anxietyas anybody who suffers
from it can confirmis that it causes so much discomfort that we will
do almost anything to make it go away. The extreme discomfort that
anxiety produces becomes a powerful motivation to neutralize its cause.

The Influence of Anxiety

The drive to neutralize anxiety is just as adaptive as anxiety itself. If we

did not experience anxiety, we would be in great danger from predators,
snakes, spiders, water, high places, and many other dangers that anxiety
motivates us to pay special attention to. However, if we could not neutralize anxiety after we began experiencing it, we would suffer an emotional paralysis that would prevent us from doing anything other than
worrying about things that have ceased to be dangerous. Throughout
most, if not all of human history, functioning effectively in our environment has required a daily, delicate dance with anxiety.

Bunyans White Bear

Despite its lofty title, grace does very little abounding in John Bunyans
classic spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.
Anxiety, on the other hand, abounds everywhere as Bunyan expounds
on and explains his deep and painful anxieties about the salvation of his
soul. He describes several different versions of this anxiety in rapid succession: that he does not have faith adequate to salvation, that he is not
among the elect, that the day of grace should be past and gone, that
he is a great sinner, and that the Bible is wrong and some other religion
is correct.8 Each of these incidents follows the same four-part pattern:
1) A thought enters his head; 2) he obsesses over the thought, falling
deeper and deeper into despair and hopelessness; 3) he compulsively
scrutinizes the Bible for a verse or passage that allows him to construct
a narrative that relieves his anxiety; and 4) he feels relieved and happy
again until another thought enters his mind unbidden.
Though he successfully neutralizes each of these anxieties and assures
himself that he is among the elect, the ironclad assurances of Calvinist
theology give him only brief periods of comfort. Reflecting on a passage
in Matthew, Bunyan concludes that, having secured his position in the
company of the elect, he can forfeit his heavenly status only by committing the unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.9
Bunyan recounts his struggle to avoid this one unforgivable transgression, which, in his mind, he would commit if he allowed the phrase I
sell Christ (or words to that effect) to pass through his mind in an unguarded moment. Despite heroic efforts to suppress such a thought, it
inevitably crosses his mind, causing himin his judgmentto commit
the only sin that cannot be forgiven:
The Influence of Anxiety 45

But to be brief, one morning, as I did lie in my bed, I was, at other

times, most fiercely assaulted with this temptation, to sell and part
with Christ; the wicked suggestion still running in my mind, sell
him, sell him, sell him, sell him, sell him, as fast as a man could
speak; against which also, in my mind, as at other times, I answered,
no, no, not for thousands, thousands, thousands, at least twenty
times together. But at last, after much striving, even until I was almost out of breath, I felt this thought pass through my heart, Let
Him go, if He will! and I thought also, that I felt my heart freely
consent thereto. Oh, the diligence of Satan! Oh, the desperateness of mans heart!10
We can now say with some confidence that Bunyan could not have
avoided having this blasphemous thought once he had identified the
possibility of thinking it. Psychologists call this the White Bear Phenomenon after a passage in Dostoyevskys Winter Notes on Summer
Impressions that reads: Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of
a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind
every minute.11 In 1987 Daniel M. Wegner and his collaborators took
up Dostoyevskys challenge. The researchers placed subjects in an isolated room with a microphone and instructed them to say everything
that came into their minds during a five-minute period. Then they instructed the same participants to repeat the experiment but to make sure
to avoid thinking about a white bear. In case the participants could not
follow the instructions, they were given a bell to ring each time they did
think of a white bear. The subjects rang the bell an average of six times
in five minutes and mentioned white bears on other occasions without
ringing the bell. Some subjects became obsessed with white bears and
rang the bell fourteen or fifteen times. Thought suppression, the researchers concluded, is impossible, and attempting suppression greatly
increases the chance that a stray thought will turn into an obsession.12
Bunyan, lacking the resources of modern psychology, continued to
believe he had lost his soul. He recounts that he spent the next two and
a half years of his life trying to come to grips with his status as a selfconfessed Holy Ghost denier. He considers his sin to be far worse than
Davids adultery and murder or than Peters thrice-repeated denial of
Christ (39). As he puts it, O! methoughts, this sin was bigger than the

The Influence of Anxiety

sins of a country, of a kingdom, or of the whole world, no one pardonable, nor all of them together, was able to equal mine, mine outwent
every one of them (43). With almost diabolical precision, Bunyan lays
a white bear trap for himself and comes away holding his prey.
As crazy as all of this may sound to modern readers, literary critics
have long resisted assertions by the likes of Josiah Royce and William
James that seem to reduce the events recounted in Grace Abounding to
the Chief of Sinners to an episode of insanity on the part of the author.
Consider, for example, Michael Daviess attack on psychological interpretations in his recent, excellent book on Bunyan, Graceful Reading:
Such an approach ultimately culminates, of course, in a psychological analysis of Grace Abounding which . . . effectively cripples
any humane and imaginative (not to mention doctrinal) response
to the text. . . . At a most basic level, such a response reflects a fundamentally poor interpretive practice, a lack of sensitivity to the
words on the page. . . . At the same time, such readings do not further our understanding of the text in any real or effective way.13
In rejecting psychological readings, Davies presents psychology as
something wholly incompatible with religion and incapable of taking
Bunyans religious claims seriously. Those who insist on pathologizing
Bunyans experiences do so because their hidden cultural agenda considers religious conversion to be synonymous with mental and nervous
One may certainly argue, as Davies does, about the ability of psychological criticism to produce valuable insights into a text; however, it is
simply incorrect to attribute all psychological interpretations of Grace
Abounding to the Chief of Sinners to secular academics hostile to religion. Many of them are, but some of the richest and most useful psychological interpretations of the text and its author have come, not from
the ranks of academic Freudians trying to psychoanalyze Bunyans religious impulses, but from pastoral counselors trying to help people who
suffer from a well-known form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (ocd)
called scrupulosity.15 Like Bunyan, those suffering from scrupulosity
become obsessed with thoughts of blasphemy and other grave moral
offenses that they imagine themselves to have committed. These indiThe Influence of Anxiety 47

viduals attempt to relieve their anxiety through confession, prayer, reading sacred texts, or other religious-themed rituals. Religious counseling
materials have long presented scrupulosity as a spiritually destructive
state of mind rather than as a genuine concern for ones salvation. This
is especially true in the Catholic Church, where experience with confession has resulted in a large body of literature about parishioners with a
scrupulous conscience.16 During the twentieth century, this traditional
Catholic understanding of scrupulosity merged with the clinical definition of obsessive-compulsive disorder as clinicians began to discern the
same pattern of irrational fear of contamination, combined with compulsive rituals, in both the obsessive hand washer and the compulsive
confesser. Further research has demonstrated a high degree of correlation between religious scrupulosity and other ocd behaviors such as
checking and hoarding.17
Counselors and clergy members who work with scrupulosity ocd
are often struck by how closely Bunyans experiences in Grace Abounding mirror those of their patients and parishioners. Joseph W. Ciarrocchis 1995 book, The Doubting Disease, the first book-length treatment
of scrupulosity as a form of ocd, devotes an entire chapter to Grace
Abounding as a way to introduce scrupulositys symptoms. Ciarrocchi, a
professor of pastoral counseling at Loyola University, explains that Bunyans spiritual autobiography touches every aspect of scruples. We see
all the major issues displayed: scrupulous obsessions with undoing compulsions (thoughts, acts), the need to resist, the pervasive nature of the
obsessions, the resultant anxiety and depression, the notion that some
thoughts are dangerous, the limited relief from sharing with fellowsufferers, and the insidious nature of the obsessions which defy logic or
the persons value system.18 Similar conclusions about Bunyan have
been drawn by, among others, Judith L. Rapoport, in her groundbreaking
study of ocd, The Boy Who Couldnt Stop Washing; by Ian Osborn, in
Tormenting Thoughts and Secret Rituals; and by John Sneep and Arlette
Zinck, in Spiritual and Psychic Transformation, their recent study of
Bunyan for the Journal of Psychology and Christianity.19
These recent psychological interpretations of Grace Abounding confirm Daviess assertion that we should not label Bunyan insane. Scrupulosity is not insanity. While those suffering from schizophrenia and
related disorders cannot distinguish between their irrational beliefs and

The Influence of Anxiety

external reality, those with scrupulosity and other forms of ocd know
how irrational their fears are. As Ciarrocchi puts it, they know their
ideas are senseless, yet feel enormously controlled by them.20 Bunyan
expresses this clearly when he acknowledges that his fears may seem
ridiculous to others, even as ridiculous as they were in themselves, but
to me they were most tormenting cogitations (47). On one level Bunyan completely understands the irrationality of his own thought process.
On another level he must believe that his fears are true or that there
is a chance his fears are true, thereby giving a reason for him to act as
though they are. Bunyan seeks to be absolutely certain of his own salvation, which may be what attracted him to a strict predestinarian theology in the first place. The successive resolutions described in Grace
Abounding attempt to repair potential fissures in the salvation narrative
that he has accepted. This search for absolute certainty is a common
feature of ocd, and it provides a compelling window into the way that
the human mind translates anxiety into narrative.

Anxiety Disorders and Narrative Dysfunction

Freud speculates that the condition he calls obsessional neurosis can
actually turn people into criminals by compelling them to commit
crimes to which they attach their irrational anxiety, as if it was a relief
to be able to fasten this unconscious sense of guilt on to something real
and immediate.21 Psychologists now know much more than Freud did
about the cognitive experience of obsessions and compulsions. Rather
than blaming irrational anxiety on an unresolved oedipal complex, as
Freud does, brain scientists today are more likely to attribute irrational
anxiety to a neural short circuit that prevents the normal anxiety response
from shutting down. However, Freuds central insight in this case was
remarkably prescient: in many cases of ocd, feelings of anxiety do precede obsessive thoughts.
People with ocd do not have irrational thoughts because they are
irrational people; rather, because they are rational people they require
good reasons for anxious thoughts when they have them. As irrational
as it might seem to believe that ones hands are dirty after an hour of
washing, or that one must recheck a door over and over again to prevent burglary, it is even more irrational to think that intense feelings of
anxietyexactly the same feelings that have accompanied real threats
The Influence of Anxiety 49

and dangers in the pastoccur for no reason at all. If I were to see

lights turning on and off in the empty house next door to me, it would
be very difficult to accept that this was happening for no reason, since,
in my experience, lights dont turn on and off by themselves. Because
what happens next door has an immediate impact on my well being, I
would begin creating and testing alternative narratives of causality, beginning with the most probable: realtors have been showing the house,
the owners installed time switches to give the illusion of occupancy, or
neighborhood kids have been using the house for their secret club meetings. If I could definitely eliminate all of the rational narratives and the
lights kept turning on and off, I would probably start to consider irrational narratives involving satanic cults, ghosts, or aliens. I would certainly
appreciate the irrationality of such narratives, but would also be faced
with the equally irrational prospect of lights turning on and off for no
reason at all. When the neural mechanisms that produce anxiety activate for no apparent reasonas often happens in those with ocd and
other anxiety disordersperfectly rational people can be driven to entertain patently irrational beliefs.
In his book Brain Lock, ucla brain scientist Jeffrey M. Schwartz examines the neural mechanisms that produce anxiety in ocd patients.
Normal anxiety, which helps to protect us from danger, produces both
extra energy and intense discomfort. When the danger is neutralized,
something akin to an all clear alarm sounds in the brain, and the
anxiety dissipates. Schwartzs brain-scan research shows that in people
suffering from ocd this all clear mechanism fails to sound correctly,
and the brain gets stuck in gear and cant shift to the next thought.22
They continue to feel that they must wash their hands, check their doors,
hoard resources, confess their sins, or engage in some other compulsive behavior to ward off the disaster that their anxiety tells them must
be imminent. Since ocd anxiety is generated by a chemical release
inside the brain, it cannot be neutralized by rational actions the way
that normal anxiety can. When one narrative is made untenable (that
is, my hands are dirty and I must wash them), an alternative narrative must be found to justify the persistence of anxiety (that is, I must
wash them again because I might have missed a spot under my fingernails where germs are likely to hide). When anxiety persists despite
repeated attempts to neutralize it, the mind must generate increasingly
50 The Influence of Anxiety

complicated narratives to, in the words of two other researchers, [dismiss] actual evidence on the grounds of going beyond surface reality to
a deeper reality, and finally inferring that a completely fictional narrative is a remote probability.23
Clinicians and researchers have recently begun using ocd treatments that specifically acknowledge the narrative component of obsessive thoughts. In an important 2002 article, Richard S. Hallam and Kieron P. OConnor argue that ocd does not stem from a defect in logical
reasoning but from overidentification with internally constructed narratives. Hallam and OConnor suggest that therapists should stop simply
confronting ocd patients with the irrationality of their beliefs; rather,
they should teach them how to undermine the authority of the narratives supporting those beliefs. Drawing explicitly on Mikhail Bakhtins
Problems with Dostoyevskys Poeticsa book whose influence has largely
been confined to literary studiesHallam and OConnor label this the
dialogical approach:
If obsessions are a persuasive engaging one-sided conversation or
dialogue, obsessional neutralization behaviour would be dictated
by the power of the narrative, rather than from abnormal bias or
misinterpretation of the exaggeration of danger. A strong enactment
built up by an imaginary narrative that hands are dirty would necessarily impose hand-washing as a response. This would not be a
case of mistaken perception but rather of irresistible involvement
in a script. Hence, dialogical therapy would not be concerned with
confronting the rationality of discrete appraisals or beliefs, but with
exposing and identifying with the person the processes by which
narratives are constructed.24
In Beyond Reasonable Doubt, OConnor, Frederick Aardema, and
Marie-Claude Plissier expand this view of ocd by blending clinical observation with the narrative theories of Bakhtin, Paul Ricoeur, Kenneth
Burke, and others. In the process they create models of how narrative
functions in cognition generally and in the minds of those who suffer
from ocd specifically. Starting with Ricoeurs insistence that human
existence is storied because of the way we need to understand actions
organized in time, OConnor et al. assert that human existence is acThe Influence of Anxiety 51

tually composed of numerous, potentially contradictory stories so that

humans can understand and analyze possible explanations that may or
may not be true. Even the act of rejecting a narrative requires the mind
to consider it conditionally true long enough to evaluate its likelihood.
Living in reality is a matter of degree, they conclude, and normal cognitive functioning requires us to exist in a gradient of awareness where
the plausibility of different possibilities is associated with distinct senses
of reality.25
One of the most important insights in Beyond Reasonable Doubt is
that ocd sufferers do not usually believe irrational narratives as facts;
rather they perceive them as possibilities, which are by nature immune
to factual rebuttal. Facts come from the outside world, while possibilities come from the imagination, which constantly generates counterfactual possibilities in order to assess their probability. When all of the
cognitive processes function correctly, the mind creates multiple, potentially contradictory narratives that can exist in a sort of dialogue with
each other. This leads to at least a tentative resolution that produces
rational, fitness-enhancing behavior. Resorting once again to the work
of Bakhtin, OConnor et al. theorize that obsessions represent unresolved dialogue between these different narratives. Clinically, this view
of ocd translates into narrative therapya form of counseling that
has much in common with postmodern literary criticism:
Narrative therapy then largely involves increasing insight into the
role of narrative and language in creating emotion. In particular,
the dialogical nature of language can explain how different monologues drawn from different sources may conflict or overlap, and
that such polyphonic events are normal. People can learn that
creating or continuing their own stories using narrative devices to
modify terms of reference, can accommodate apparently conflicting beliefs or identities. Thinking and inferring, then, are always a
product of joint action in relation to another person or activity:
thinking does not speak for an inner self but for a social self.26
Treating contradictory beliefs as part of an unresolved dialogue may
allow practitioners to get around one of the biggest challenges of irrational obsessions: that they are often almost impossible to distinguish from
52 The Influence of Anxiety

rational beliefs. We often act as if a low-probability scenario were true,

invoking the maxim that it is better to be safe than sorry. For example,
people often get shots for rabies when bitten by unknown dogs, even
though the percentage of dogs with rabies is vanishingly small. There is
nothing irrational about this, since even a small chance of contracting a
fatal disease justifies the relatively minimal investment of a vaccination.
It is not rational, however, for a person to get a rabies shot after simply
touching a dog or a tetanus shot after touching a door. Similarly, it is
completely rational to wash ones hands for fifteen seconds before eating a meal; it is completely irrational to do so for fifteen minutes. But
where is the line between cleanliness and obsession? Thirty seconds?
A minute? Rational people may come to different conclusions even
though almost everybody would agree that, at some point, continued
hand washing indicates a mental disorder.
Drawing the line becomes even more difficult in an evolutionary
context. Each of the major ocd symptom groupswashing, checking,
hoarding, and even worrying about social behavior and moral issues
could be considered a rational response to normal anxiety. Dirty hands
really will spread contamination and disease, burglars and wild animals
really do come in through unlocked doors, saving food really can make
the difference between life and death, and behavior that a community considers immoral really does impact social relations and mating
opportunities. The line between normal and obsessive anxiety has
changed dramatically as humans have gained more control over their
environments. Just a few hundred years ago, a man who checked his
yard a few dozen times a day for signs of bears might very well save the
lives of his entire family; today, such a man would almost certainly be
diagnosed with ocd and instructed by therapists to confront the irrationality of his bear-checking obsession. Yet nothing in the basic human
cognitive makeup has changed in the last four hundredor even the
last forty thousandyears. With these thoughts in mind, we now turn
to the work of the evolutionary psychologist Randolph M. Nesse, whose
famous Smoke Detector Principle suggests that modern anxiety disorderssuch as ocdmay simply be the far end of a spectrum of adaptive behavior intensified by living in a relatively safe world with cognitive mechanisms designed for much more dangerous environments.27

The Influence of Anxiety 53

Smoke without Fire

The maxim where theres smoke theres fire is false. Many of the
things that produce smokecigarettes, exhaust pipes, barbecued chickendo not signal fires, though they often set off fire alarms. Small
amounts of otherwise harmless smoke can lead to large-scale evacuations of schools, office buildings, or sporting events, often resulting in
inconvenience, lost instruction time, and thousands of dollars wasted
on false alarms. Yet schools, colleges, and places of business still install
more and more sophisticated smoke detection equipment and still act
as though every alarm signaled a raging infernoas they should. Even
though we know that most smoke alarms do not signal dangerous fires
and that most building evacuations end with everybody trudging impatiently back into the building, we would still be foolish not to respond
to a smoke alarm because the consequences of not responding when
there is a real fire are much greater than the consequences of responding when there is not a fire.
In a key 2001 article entitled The Smoke Detector Principle, Nesse
uses the logic of the smoke alarm to explain the evolutionary basis for
anxiety. He begins with one of the most basic choices that an organism
faces: whether or not to run away from a potential predator. When an
animal hears a rustle behind a bush, he writes, it cannot tell for sure
whether this is a predator or not, yet it must instantly decide whether
or not to flee. In such cases, the logic of the smoke detector (assuming
the worst) becomes much more compelling than the logic of probability (calculating the most likely scenario).
Consider a prehistoric hunter who hears a baby squirrel in the bushes,
imagines it to be a hungry tiger, and sprints back to camp as fast as his
prehistoric legs will carry him. The hunter will incur minimal charges
to his Darwinian fitness account: the calories burned during the long
sprint, the lost opportunity to kill and eat a baby squirrel, and, if anybody else finds out, whatever social ostracism attaches to people who
run away from harmless baby rodents. These costs are negligible when
compared to the cost of being eaten by a tiger, which, in terms of Darwinian fitness, is so enormous that the benefits of escaping a single tiger
outweigh the cost of running away from a thousand squirrels. If a hunter
encounters rustling in the bushes multiple times over the course of his
life, the chances are very good that one of the encounters will be with

The Influence of Anxiety

a predator. Therefore, as Nesse concludes, a relatively inexpensive defense, like flight, should be expressed if there is even a small chance of
catastrophic harm.28
In most cases, assuming the existence of a predator based on flimsy
evidence is a better survival strategy than attempting to ascertain the
truth. It takes much more time to ascertain the facts about a situation
than it does to create imaginary scenarios. If the thing behind the bushes
is a predator, taking the time to discover the truth may give the predator
the edge, so organisms are not likely to experience selection pressure in
favor of discovering the truth. Rather, evolution will favor organisms
with a tendency to assume a danger and engage in a defense. In their
book, Why We Get Sick, Nesse and George C. Williams report the results of a 1992 experiment by the biologist Lee Dugatkin that confirm
this assumption. In the experiment Dugatkin was attempting to ascertain the potential costs of predator inspection, a behavior common in
some fish species in which one member of a school attempts to gather
information about a potential threat and communicate that information to its shoalmates, who remain at a safe distance. For such a behavior to occur, some members of the species in question must be bold
(willing to approach and inspect a potential predator), while others can
be timid (disposed to flee at any sign of danger). Dugatkin separated
guppies into three equal groups, based on their willingness to confront
a smallmouth bass. Nesse and Williams report that after sixty hours,
40 percent of the timid guppies and 15 percent of the ordinary guppies
were still there, but none of the bold guppies survived.29
Anxiety causes organisms to act as if every wisp of smoke signaled a
fire and every faint rustle signaled a predator. Even if these things turn
out to be untrue most of the time, natural selection will favor creatures
that express a flight defense all of the time. For nearly all animals, this
anxiety is an automatic response to a stimulus: rustle equals run.
However, in human cognition, which is inextricably connected to narrative construction, reactions to potential threats necessarily include an
additional step: rustle equals tiger and tiger equals run. Converting the sound that we hear into a very simple sequencea tiger
who wants to eat me is over thereengages our cognitive capacity for
creating narratives, in this case, what-if scenarios expanded by our storytelling capacity.
The Influence of Anxiety 55

In a tense situation the amygdala receives input from several different sources. The sensory cortices feed it visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and gustatory information directly from the environment. But the
hippocampus also helps to transfer stored memories that allow the sensory information to be placed in a contextthis is the key to the development of a narrative.30 Imagine the mental process of our prehistoric
hunter when he hears the snapping of a twig behind a tree (the fact
that we can imagine the mental processes of an imaginary prehistoric
hunter is quite remarkable in itself). The hunters auditory cortex sends
a message to the amygdala registering the snapping of the twig, the cry
of birds, and something that sounded like a growl. His visual cortex adds
that the tree is fifty feet away and that there is nothing else in the area
that could provide shelter, and his olfactory cortex signals the smell of
a rotting carcass nearby. While this is enough information for a simple
narrative, the most exciting parts come from long-term memories which
remind the hunters amygdala that another hunter was killed by a tiger
near the hunters current location last week, that all of the other hunters in the tribe had been avoiding this location ever since, and that the
last tigers lair he visited also smelled of rotting carcasses. With all of
this information at the amygdalas disposal, it can direct a response that
is deeply influenced by a fully embodied narrative.
When we face a potentially threatening situation, our entire limbic
system conspires to create a narrative that can guide our response. It is
not important that this story be true; in fact, fictional narratives are in
many ways more adaptive than true ones. This does not mean that any
story will do. Nesses smoke detector principle formula predicts that natural selection will favor some specific strategies for building narratives
in the face of possible dangers:
1. Exaggeration will prevail over understatementbecause the cost of
underestimating a danger far outweighs the cost of exaggerating it.
2. Exciting narratives will prevail over unexciting onesbecause
one of the purposes of a narrative response is to produce adrenaline and prepare the body for either fight or flight.
3. Speculation will prevail over truth seekingbecause seeking accurate information takes time, which often exposes the organism
to unnecessary danger.
56 The Influence of Anxiety

Of course, exaggeration, excitement, and speculation are universal

elements of fiction and storytelling. Exaggeration is a hallmark of storytellers the world over, fiction is speculative by definition, and unexciting stories tend not to be repeated or remembered. These qualities have
been built into our idea of what a story is supposed to be and are therefore very difficult to historicize, but this idea came from somewhere. Our
narrative-building mechanisms evolved to accomplish adaptive tasks,
such as staying alive. Many of our narrative expectations come from
these ancestral predispositions, and once the mechanisms were in place
they were available as a cognitive design space for the narrative tools
that have shaped our cultures.

Babys First Fictions

As Shahryar discovered so long ago, narrative and anxiety are joined together at the core of our psyches. Mounting evidence suggests that the
cognitive connection between predation anxiety and narrativespecifically with fictionbegins at a very young age. Most parents, in fact,
know this very well. When parents get down on all fours, roar, and say
Im going to get you and eat you up, a child will squeal with delight
and crawl away giggling. At some point, the child will probably assume
the role of the pursuer and expect the parent to pretend to be frightened. The child, in other words, is able to understand at a very young
ageabout eighteen months according to a seminal article by Alan M.
Lesliethe difference between the fictional proposition (mommy is
a dangerous animal who is chasing me across the floor) and the true
proposition (mommy is just playing a game with me; as soon as she
is done she is going to feed me and change my diaper like she always
does).31 Parental chase play puts children in an inherently anxietyproducing situation (being hunted down and devoured by a trusted
adult), but the use of a deliberate fiction overrides the emotional defense system while still eliciting the physical response.
Not only is chase play a human universal; it appears to be a mammalian trait common in both predator species and prey species. The wide
distribution of this kind of play strongly suggests an adaptive function;
the three most obvious candidates, as explained by Michael J. Boulton
and Peter K. Smith, are to train children how to 1) hunt actual prey, 2)
avoid actual predators, and 3) fight actual competitors in their own speThe Influence of Anxiety 57

cies for resources and mating opportunities.32 Of these three, predator

avoidance seems to be the most likely adaptive function for the earliest
chase games that parents play with their children. Most young children
do not need to know how to hunt or to fight over mates; such knowledge
is important mainly to post-adolescent males. However, in the ancestral
environment, everyoneyoung and old, male and female alikeneeded to know something about avoiding predators. This adaptive function
of chase play forms the basis of a 2001 article by Francis F. Steen and
Stephanie A. Owens, in which they argue that
young animals of all species are favorite targets for predation, precisely because they lack the advanced motor skills and defensive
behaviors that allow adults to escape. While repeated encounters
with the predators may improve the relevant skills, each encounter,
even as it has pedagogical value, carries the highest possible risk,
that of death. . . . The continuing pressure of predation combined
with leisure sets up a unique adaptive problem and opportunity.
The evolutionary solution, as Aldis (1975) was first to note, has
been play in which peers become substitute predators, prey, etc.
(158). Such pretense appears designed to lower the cost of training
by allowing it to take place in the absence of a real threat.33
It would be difficult to explain this level of complexity without at least
considering Steen and Owenss argument that in our evolutionary past,
the ability to engage in pretense was reliably correlated with improved
chances of survival.34
The phenomenon of chase play shows us how to connect basic biological function and the enjoyment of literature. The connection begins
at the fight-or-flight reflex, an automatic behavioral subroutine common
throughout the animal kingdom. Practice can improve the effectiveness
of this defenseespecially at an early age when automatic cognitive
processes are still being formed. Therefore many mammals, including
early hominids, evolved training strategies for their children that did
not involve encountering real predators. As it often does, nature used
pleasure as a reward for those who adopted the training regime; Imgoing-to-get-you-and-eat-you-up became a game enjoyed by parents
and children alike. As children grow older, they continue to engage in

The Influence of Anxiety

chase play; later they engage in what psychologists call rough-and-tumble play with their parents; later still they engage in adolescent games
that simulate dangerous, fight-or-flight situations.35 The dramatic narratives involved in these games are often carried over directly into the
more elaborate narratives that children consume, such as books with
characters who must evade and outwit dangerous opponents, movies
with elaborate car chase scenes, and interactive video games that simulate predation or combat.
Chase play also provides us with a good example of a useful fiction.
Children who believe that their parents really do want to capture and eat
them will derive little benefit, and no pleasure, from chase-play games.
Children who do understand the fiction of the game can practice crucial predator-avoidance strategies with very little risk to their lives or
well being. At the same time, the children can practice people-reading
skills by learning what verbal and contextual cues signal the presence of
irony. In this way natural selection supports the predisposition to derive
pleasure from narratives that are designed to do something very different
than communicate the truth, or at least a straightforward account of the
truth. Our first fictions, it seems, have the same evolutionary purpose
as our deepest anxietiesthey keep us from being eaten. There should
be no great surprise here; one can hardly imagine a more fundamental
evolutionary function than staying alive. And the connections between
anxiety and literature go much deeper than the first fictions of infants;
they are fundamental to the fight-or-flight reflex that we share with most
other animals.

The Influence of Anxiety 59

Information Anxiety
Neanderthal man listened to stories, if one may judge by the shape of his
skull. The primitive audience was an audience of shock-heads, gaping round
the campfire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth or woolly
rhinoceros, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next? The
novelist droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next,
they either fell asleep or killed him.

E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

A Strange Footprint
The turning point of Robinson Crusoe occurs precisely halfway into the
narrative when Crusoe, after fifteen years of presuming himself the only
inhabitant of his island, discovers a single footprint on a sandy beach.1
Before this incident, Robinson Crusoe tells the story of a solitary individual and his relationship with nature, God, and himself. Afterward,
it becomes a political novel full of battles, colonial aspirations, social
contracts, and an expanding cast of charactersincluding cannibals, excannibals, mutineers, Spaniards, and English sailors. For the two years
after Crusoe discovers the footprintan interval of time that requires
a mere ten pages of text to describehe remains alone on his island,
accompanied only by his anxieties and the narratives that he creates to
try to resolve them:
After innumerable fluttering thoughts, like a man perfectly confused and out of myself, I came home to my fortification, not feel61

ing, as we say, the ground I went on, but terrifyd to the last degree,
looking behind me at every two or three steps, mistaking every bush
and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man; nor
is it possible to describe how many various shapes my affrighted
imagination represented things to me in, how many wild ideas were
found every moment in my fancy, and what strange, unaccountable whimsies came into my thoughts by the way.2
Crusoe initially responds to the crisis of the footprint with the perfectly
sound strategy of running away as fast as he can. He even acknowledges
that he acts like a fleeing animal, saying, never frightened hare fled to
cover, or fox to earth, with more terror of mind than I to this retreat.3
But once he reaches safety he begins to act less like a rabbit escaping a
predator and more like Bunyan agonizing over his salvation. His sense
of well-being has been destroyed by something he does not recognize,
so he develops several possible scenarios in his mind, each one producing more anxiety than the one before. He first believes that the footprint
belongs to Satan, but decides that the devil could devise better torments
for him than a single footprint. He then reasons that it must have been
savages of the main land . . . who had wandered out to sea in their canoes.4 This thought consumes him until he develops yet another possible
narrativereasoning that it was his own footprint left at an earlier date.
Yet when he returns to the beach to measure the footprint, he discovers
that it cannot be his own, which, he reports, filled my head with new
imaginations, and gave me the vapors again to the highest degree.5
Crusoes anxiety, like Bunyans, persists for more than two years. Also
like Bunyan, he reads the Bible compulsively looking for reassurances
that God will protect him. But Crusoes principal strategy for neutralizing his anxiety is to build fortifications. Every time that he feels anxious about who else might be on the island, he builds another wall or
plants more thick trees until he constructs a nearly impassible fortress.
Crusoe does all of this purely from [his] apprehensions on the account
of a print of a mans foot.6 Everett Zimmerman has pointed out that
Crusoe responds to nearly every threat he experiences by building fortifications, yet he never actually uses these fortresses defensively, despite
many opportunities to do so. Crusoe builds walls, not to create usable
defenses, but to restore his psychic equilibrium.7

Information Anxiety

Restoring psychic equilibrium is precisely the same reason that people

with ocd wash their hands and check their doors. However, Crusoes
actions do not stem from imaginary threats; the danger of cannibalsas
Crusoe soon discoversis quite real. It does not follow, however, that
the actions he takes in response to this threat are rational. Most people
presented with a situation that requires them to act, but presents no
obvious course of action, will experience an anxiety that closely mirrors the symptoms of ocd.8 In such situations, people often engage in
ineffective actions that create what psychologist Ellen Langer, in a famous set of experiments in the 1970s, labeled the illusion of control.9
A well-known example of this is the redundant pushing of a lit button
while waiting for an elevator. Most people, if asked, will say that it does
no good to push the button more than once. Under experimental observation, however, a significant portion of subjects will still push the lit
button repeatedly while waiting for the elevator.10 We know that it does
no good, but we push the button anyway because we are spurred on by
our anxiety to do something, and redundant button pushing seems better than complete inaction. Researchers acknowledge that the illusion
of control can be adaptive when it protects people from detecting that
important outcomes are uncontrollable, which, in turn, may protect
them from depression.11
Crusoes anxiety ultimately stems from a failure of narrative imaginationhe cannot conceive of a narrative capable of explaining a single
footprint in the sand. Visiting cannibals might account for dozens or
even hundreds of footprints, but leaving a single footprint with no other
traces of human presence whatsoever would be a pretty neat trick even
with twenty-first century technology; how it came thither, Crusoe
admits, I knew not, nor could in the least imagine.12 In other words,
Crusoe cannot fit the footprint into any plausible narrative, and this
causes him more anxiety than he would feel with any scenario that he
fully understood. The inability to account for a key element of a narrativesuch as the agency by which an act is accomplishedcreates
more anxiety than any scenario one could construct to worry about.
Crusoe suggests something like this himself when he reflects that we
find the burthen of anxiety greater, by much, than the evil which we
are anxious about.13
The footprint is the first trace of other people that Crusoe finds on
the island. The second occurs two years later when he stumbles into
Information Anxiety


an area littered with skulls, hands, feet, and other bones of humane
bodies. This sight would appear to confirm one of his worst fears about
the footprint: that cannibals have been visiting his island for some time.
However, rather than making Crusoe even more anxious, as we might
imagine, this site fills him with relief and unqualified joy. I looked up
with the utmost affection of my soul, he reports, and with a flood of
tears in my eyes, gave God thanks that had cast my first lot in a part of
the world where I was distinguished from such dreadful creatures as
these.14 He goes on to construct a new narrative that completely relieves his former anxiety:
I observed that these wretches never came to this island in search
of what they could get; perhaps not seeking, not wanting, or not
expecting any thing here; and having often, no doubt, been up
in the covered woody part of it, without finding any thing to their
purpose, I knew I had been here now almost eighteen years, and
never saw the foot-steps of humane creature there before; and I
might be here eighteen more, as entirely concealed as I was now,
if I did not discover myself to them.15
Crusoes argument to himself here is extraordinarily weak. Nothing
that he has seen proves the negative premise with which he begins (that
cannibals never came to the island looking for anything), and he proceeds to speculate about motives that he cannot possibly know. He can,
however, imagine them, and this is the crucial difference between the
bones and the footprint. In terms of informational content, most people
would be more disturbed by a pile of half-eaten human body parts than
by a stray footprint (poll your friends to see which one they would rather
find in their backyard). However, while the footprint fills him with fear
and anxiety, the cannibal site fills him with relief precisely because he
can generate a plausible narrative to explain everything that he sees
he can infer an agent (cannibals), an act (feasting on human flesh), a
scene (the island), an agency (boats to bring them to the island), and
a purpose (eating captives after a battle).16 With all of this information
sequenced into a narrative, Crusoe can assign a motive and determine
his next course of action, bringing closure to the scene and eliminating
the uncertainty that causes him anxiety.

Information Anxiety

In a senseand I acknowledge that it is a very limited oneRobinson Crusoe inhabits the same cognitive space in this passage that
Shahryar does the first time that Scheherazade interrupts a story to
go to bedboth men experience anxiety brought on by the shape of
a narrative. By shape, I mean the formal elements of a narrative that
are unconnected to the content. The shape of a narrative includes its
length, its organization, and its level of detailall of which can cause
anxiety that has nothing to do with content. Nothing about the actual
content of Scheherazades first storyThe Tale of the Merchant and
the Jinnicauses Shahryar any discomfort. Instead, his anxiety stems
from its shapea sequence of embedded narratives presented once a
day in unfinished installments. While we initially assume that Crusoes
anxiety upon reading The Story of the Footprint stems from his fear of
the content of that narrative (the possibility of cannibals on the island),
his joy upon finding incontrovertible proof of that content demonstrates
that his initial fear had to do with its shape (the trace of an action that
cannot be explained by any rational narrative).
Because we inhabit a cognitive niche, our survival depends on our
access to information. Information deficitssuch as the location of the
bear that went in the cave an hour agocan be fatal, but so can information patterns that obscure relevant facts and contradictory information that impedes our ability to make decisions. Even correct information presented in an unusable shape can be dangerous. This chapter
will make three overall assertions: 1) that problems in the shape of a
narrative can threaten our survival and, therefore, produce anxiety; 2)
that the best way to neutralize the anxiety caused by the shape of a narrative is to construct another narrative; and 3) that narrative does not
need to be true in order to neutralize information anxiety.

The Sense of an Ending

Human beings want stories to end; this is true in life as well as in fiction.
As long as we consider a narrative to be open it will always command
a part of our attention and, therefore, a portion of our resources. Writers and storytellerswho have an interest in keeping our attention
understand this principle very well. By perpetually denying closure to
Shahryar, Scheherazade forces him to treat their marriage as an open
narrativeone that cannot be brought to a conclusion because too
Information Anxiety


many of its elements remain unresolved. This is also why Dickens ended
each installment of his serialized novels with characters in precarious
positions, why early movie moguls began every show with a brief cliffhanger serial such as The Perils of Pauline, and why an entire generation of television fans spent eight months on pins and needles wondering Who shot J.R.? We are all like Scheherazades husband, writes
E. M. Forster, we want to know what happens next.17
It is not difficult to imagine an evolutionary rationale for anxiety in
the face of an incomplete narrative. If I saw two bears going into a cave
near my house an hour ago, I am going to want to see the story end
with both of them coming out again, and I am probably going to feel
very anxious until they do. Similarly, if my daughter has had a high fever, I will feel extremely anxious about her health until the event comes
to some kind of resolution, hopefully by her temperature returning to
normal. In cases such as these, anxiety has an important adaptive purpose: to ensure that we keep paying attention to unresolved problems.
A cognitive predisposition to feel tension about incomplete or missing
information makes sense in an environment full of predators and natural perils, where learning the rest of the story could make the difference between finding a good meal and becoming one.
When one considers the evolutionary value of completing tasks, the
anxiety produced by incompleteness may have an even deeper value.
Starting projects and not finishing them wastes resources; furthermore,
many of the things that we choose to start doing have survival benefits
that can only be realized upon their completion. A fishing pole is a good
thing to have in survival situations, but half a fishing polesay a bamboo stick without a line or a hookis worse than useless, since the time
required to make it could have been used for other things. This creates
pressure to finish what one has started and creates nervousness about
leaving projects incomplete. Some cognitive psychologists see the failure to complete any activity as a major cause of anxiety. For example,
Isaac M. Marks and Randolph M. Nesse argue that many behavioral
sequences are best completed to their functional end; if left unfinished,
time and energy are likely to be wasted. Tension motivates persistence
until closure is effected.18
The desire for closure is the subject of a well-known psychological
principle known as the Zeigarnik effect, named for the Soviet psycholo66

Information Anxiety

gist Bluma Zeigarnik, who demonstrated in a series of papers between

1927 and 1938 that people have a better memory for unfinished tasks
than they do for finished ones. She and her mentor, the well-known psychologist Kurt Lewin, noticed that waiters could frequently remember
everything that a customer had before a bill was paid, but could recall
very little about a customers order after the meal was paid for. Zeigarniks research demonstrated that unfinished tasks are remembered approximately twice as well as completed ones because of what she calls
an unsatisfied quasi need to bring the tasks to completion. This quasineed, she argues, corresponds to a state of tension whose expression
may be seen not only in desire to finish the interrupted work but also
in memorial prominence as regards that work.19
From its initial home in the annals of Gestalt psychology, this research
has become important to the study of marketing strategies. Advertising
executives define the Zeigarnik effect as a psychological device that
creates dissonance and uneasiness in the target audience. Because of
this, advertisers reason, it has proven to be consistently more successful
than any other method in generating ad headlines and copy that produce the desired response in readersnamely recall and sales.20 The
Zeigarnik effect also has an impact on the way that content is packaged
in ad-supported media. Television producers know that we are more
likely to continue watching a channel through the commercials if each
segment of the television program ends with a mini cliffhanger. Similarly, radio station programmers know that we are more likely to listen
to advertisements and songs we dont like if they are part of a countdown to a #1 that we dont want to miss. The cognitive principle that
underlies the Zeigarnik effect is both simple and powerful: we have been
designed to pay attention to things until we enter them into our minds
as complete, after which we give ourselves permission to stop thinking about them and move on to other things.
The cognitive craving for closure provides one of the most obvious
meeting places between the simple narratives that we use to process
information and their more elaborate narrative descendents. There is
no particular reason that a novel, play, or story should come to a decisive conclusion that resolves the major issues addressed by the plot.
Theoretically, a narrative can conclude at any point by saying the end
whenever the writer or storyteller chooses to stop. But the overwhelming
Information Anxiety


majority of stories in all cultures close with a dramatic resolution that

produces a sense of finality, even if it does leave open the possibility of
a future installment. One might have a difficult time even imagining a
Hamlet that ended right when Hamlet fails to kill Claudius in the confessional, or a Star Wars in which Luke Skywalker escapes from his first
encounter with the Death Star and then flies off into the galaxy to see
what he can see. These stories drive toward end points that have been
emplotted in the narratives from the very beginning. Even The Arabian
Nights, a narrative which avoids closure throughout, ends in almost all
extant versions with Shahryar formally pardoning Scheherazade, now
the mother of his three children, and proclaiming her his wife for as
long as they both shall live.
Literary critics have long been interested in the way stories end. A
number of well-known scholars have addressed this issue, several in
book-length studies such as David H. Richters Fables End, Frank Kermodes The Sense of an Ending, Barbara Herrnstein Smiths Poetic Closure, William M. Thickstuns Visionary Closure in the Modern Novel,
Marianna Torgovnicks Closure in the Novel, and D. A. Millers Narrative and Its Discontents.21 In The Sense of an Ending, perhaps the most
influential of these studies, Kermode insists that the drive toward closure
has exercised a tremendous influence on the way that fictional narratives
have evolved. Men, he writes, rush into the middest, in medias res,
when they are born; they also die in medias rebus, and to make sense of
their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give
meaning to lives and to poems.22 For Kermode, then, fictional narratives are part of an existential project that also includes poetry, art, religion, and philosophyto give meaning and structure to the collection
of random facts that constitute our lives. Kermodes insights correspond
nicely with what we have learned in the last forty years about how the
human mind processes information. The human need to understand
origins proceeds from a cognitive imperative to understand causes, while
the need for endings grows out of an equally strong imperative to stop
devoting resources such as time and attention to issues that have ceased
to be relevant to survival.
Other critics have noted that endings are crucial to the way that we
process information. Torgovnick, for example, argues that we need stories to end so that we can analyze them and absorb the information that

Information Anxiety

they contain. We value endings, she explains, because the retrospective patterning used to make sense of texts corresponds to one process
used to make sense of life: the process of looking back over events and
interpreting them in light of how things turned out.23 In other words,
we cannot make stable inferences about an event or a story while important questions are still open. This is the reason that Robinson Crusoe
spends two years in a state of heightened anxiety after coming across a
single footprint whose presence he cannot explain. Until Crusoe can
bring some closure to the incidentas he does when he discovers the
human remainshe cannot draw inferences from it that help him decide how to act in the future.
David Herman, a recent narrative theorist with a more self-consciously cognitive inclination, argues that narrative endings serve another important psychological functionone closely related to the neutralization of anxiety. Closure, he argues, appears to be built into the way that
narrative works, owing such a connection to the role of stories in our
processing of grief and pain. In coming to a conclusion, Herman explains, tellings mark even the most painful or disturbing experiences
as endurable because finite. In such contexts, narrative is a tool for representing events not as over and done with, but as reaching a terminus
that imposes a limit on the trauma-inducing (and cognition-disrupting)
power of the events at issue.24 Being finished, in other words, is one
of the primary things that stories are supposed to do because we need
reassurance that our own storiesespecially the tragic oneswill also
come to an end.
Like other cognitive adaptations, this anxiety about incompleteness
can become maladaptiveespecially in an environment that is very different from the one in which it evolved. In addition to washing, checking, hoarding, and other concerns broadly related to safety, ocd patients
often report feeling an overwhelming sense of incompleteness or a nagging feeling that something is just not right. Some ocd patients become
obsessive about organizing things in just the right way or achieving symmetry or balance in their sensory perceptions. For example, an ocd patient trying to achieve symmetry might, after inadvertently blinking the
left eye, feel a tremendous urge to blink the right eye in order to bring
a sense of completeness to his or her kinesthetic awareness. AdditionInformation Anxiety


ally, a person who has developed an elaborate ritual before leaving the
house every morning (knocking three times, whistling once, and clapping twice, for example) might become irrationally fixated on completing this ritual if interrupted by a neighbor. Psychologists have adopted
the acronym njre (Not Just Right Experience) to describe this phenomenon in ocd patients.25 Laura J. Summerfeldt has proposed the
overall phenomenon of incompleteness as one of two core dimensions of obsessive-compulsive behaviors, distinct from the more commonly cited (and previously discussed) harm-avoidance dimension.
The distinguishing characteristic of this incompleteness
is not avoidance of harm but rather the drive to correct profound
feelings of imperfection regarding the need for experiences to conform to exact, yet often inexpressible criteria. This subjective experience of conditions being not just right can be manifested
through any sensory modality, including the visual (e.g., appearance of belongings or documents), auditory (e.g., preference for
sameness in ambient noise), tactile (e.g., checking of textures by
touching or tapping), and proprioceptive (e.g., needing to even
up actions). It may also apply to more complex experiences that
do not readily fall into the sensory category, such as cognition (e.g.,
expressing ones thoughts unambiguously, in the best words).26
Like other anxiety disorders, however, ocd based on completeness represents an extreme case of an adaptive cognitive biasa bias in this case,
toward narrative closure.
I believe a cognitive approach to narrative must take into account
the way that human beings have evolved to process information. As humans make decisions, we benefit greatly by paying attention to crucial
narratives kept open; however, once the narratives have been resolved
we benefit more by considering them closed and moving on to other,
more relevant issues. Because human capacity to create internal narratives evolved, at least partially, to facilitate the perception of closure and
resolution, these characteristics became part of the narrative templates
that human brains responded to, making it a good bet that any external
narratives humans eventually developed would evolve along the same

Information Anxiety

The 59.6 Million Faces of Anxiety

At the time that I was writing this chapter, a basic Google search for
information on anxiety yielded approximately 59.6 million pages. Assuming that I only take one minute to evaluate each page, and that I
never stopped to eat or sleep, it would take me about 111 years just to
glance at all of this data. A more focused search for anxiety and narrative yielded a mere 1.8 million pages of informationa much more
manageable amount that I should be able to examine relatively thoroughly (as long as I do nothing else but eat and sleep) by about the
time I retire. As many composition students in the Internet age have
already discovered, too much information is precisely the same as no
information at all.
Too much information about anything can produce anxiety. This is
partly because of natural limitations on the brains storage space, processing power, and switching speed. We can only handle so much information, and the world that we live in produces more than we could
ever hope to process. Richard Saul Wurman coined the term information anxiety in his 1989 bestseller of the same name. He uses the term
to describe the ever-widening gap between what we understand and
what we think we should understand. . . . It happens when information
doesnt tell us what we want or need to know.27 In his book, Wurman
is primarily concerned with information written down and transmitted
in print or electronic formats. His claim that a weekday edition of the
New York Times contains more information than the average person
was likely to come across in a lifetime in seventeenth-century England
is true only when information is defined as something printed and
stored.28 When we define information, as I do here, to include every
bit of data conveyed to the brain through the senses, we see a more even
comparison. Every human being is exposed to immense amounts of visual, oral, tactile, gustatory, and olfactory data every daymuch more
than we could ever process. When seen in this light, information anxiety is part of the human, not merely the modern, condition.
But anxietyinformation or otherwisehas an important role to
play in creating more focused narratives. One of the primary purposes
of anxiety is to help us focus our entire attention on the things that pose
the greatest threats to our well-being. People suffering from anxiety freInformation Anxiety


quently say that they cannot concentrate on anything. Strictly speaking,

this is not true; what they really mean is that they cannot concentrate
on anything other than the thing they feel anxious about. Writing centuries before the cognitive revolution, the English philosopher Edmund
Burke theorized that the fight-or-flight mechanismand the almost
total concentration it requires of an organism in dangeraccounts for
the aesthetic pleasure that humans derive from experiencing danger at
a safe remove:
The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when
those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so
entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor
by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence
arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced
by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force.29
Burkes definition of astonishmenta feeling that suspends other emotions and fills the mind so entirely with its object that it cannot entertain any otheris very close to Randolph Nesses explanation of anxiety as a force that suppresses concerns about paying debts and fantasies
about having sex to focus all mental energy on assessing the danger and
determining the best means of escape.30
In times of genuine mortal danger, anxiety acts as a filtering agent to
help us direct our attention to what matters the most. We have also developed mechanisms to filter information less intensively in situations less
likely to lead to our early demise. One such strategy is the phenomenon
that psychologists refer to as habituation, the process by which we process familiar information automatically and focus only on what is different. Every time I walk out into my back yard, I see roughly the same thing:
a deck, a grill, our golden retriever (who wont retrieve) named Pacha,
several childrens toys, and a row of black walnut trees and wild raspberry bushes. Most of these things are so familiar to me that they no longer
register in my conscious mind. However, if something new appeared the
next time I went outsidea new swing set, for example, or a ravenous

Information Anxiety

grizzly bearI would begin to process it immediately, with no need to reprocess the enormous amount of information about my backyard already
stored in my memory. Without habituation, explains the well-known
psychologist Robert J. Sternberg, our attentional system would be much
more greatly taxed. . . . Imagine trying to listen to a lecture if you could
not habituate to the sounds of your own breathing, the rustling of papers
and books, or the faint buzzing of fluorescent lights.31
Another cognitive strategy we use to filter information is what I refer
to as the good enough rule. (In some circles this is called the good
enough for government work rule.) The general contours of this rule
are given by Ellen Spolsky:
Precisely because the human species and its ways of knowing are
evolved by the accumulation of random mutations in interactions
with changing environments rather than genetically engineered
for the task of knowing, it is not at all surprising that they are unstable. They are not purpose designed and are always vulnerable
to further environmental change. It is just this instability, however, that provides the possibility for advantageous flexibility. . . .
The only goal we can speak of with reference to adaptation is
species survival, and the only thing required for that is the survival
of a certain number of individuals long enough to breed and rear
offspring to the age when those offspring can breed. This does not
mean that everyone has to understand everything or that understanding is a logically watertight, foolproof system. All it has to be
is good enough.32
The good enough rule says we derive more benefit from basing decisions on reasonable approximations of reality than from waiting for
more precise information. Much of the information available to us
simply adds more levels of detail to information that we already have
and much of this has no practical survival implications. For example, I
know it takes about twenty minutes to drive to my doctors office, and
this knowledge has always allowed me to make appointments at times
that do not conflict with my schedule. Sometimes I am a few minutes
late, and sometimes I am a few minutes early, but I have never been
turned away for arriving at the wrong time. If I were really interested in
Information Anxiety


precision, though, I could purchase an expensive stopwatch and time

my trip to a fraction of a second, during both high and low traffic, repeating the experiment often enough to calculate credible averages for
different times of day. I could then take into account the relativistic
effect of my traveling toward the doctors office at an average speed of
thirty-five miles per hour, and, just to be on the safe side, I could use
quantum mechanics to calculate the likelihood that either my car or
my doctors office might spontaneously relocate to one of the moons of
Jupiter. But whatever marginal benefit I might derive from this added
accuracy would surely not outweigh the cost in lost opportunities for
hunting, foraging, mating, childrearing, and engaging in other fitnessenhancing activities.
Sometimes the good enough rule means we accept completely
nonfactual information as the basis for decisions. For hundreds of thousands of years, nearly everybody believed that the sun rotated around a
stationary, flat earth. These views were not simply imprecise; they were
wrong. These now discredited paradigms provided all the information people needed to conduct their daily lives. As Thomas S. Kuhn famously notes, however, Ptolemys geocentric model of the solar system,
though incorrect, was admirably successful at predicting the changing
positions of both stars and planets. In some areas, the Ptolemaic system
provided better predictions than the Copernican system that had the advantage of being correct.33 Somebody who understood more about the
universe than Ptolemy would not have had any survival advantage over
anyone else; in fact, someone in 10,000 bc who claimed that the world
was round or that it rotated around the sun would have probably been
considered crazy and died childless. Even today, there is very little evolutionary value in possessing sophisticated scientific narratives about the
way the universe works. The average high-school graduate who believes
that God created the world in its present form six thousand years ago
will probably have more childrenand contribute more genes to the
poolthan the last five Nobel Prize winners in physics combined.

Too Many Watches

An old proverb says that a man with a watch always knows what time it
is, but a man with two watches never does. Beneath this bit of conventional wisdom lies an important evolutionary truth: if we believe enough

Information Anxiety

things, some of them will inevitably come into conflict with each other.
The number of things that we can believe at the same time without conflict is actually remarkably small. In his compulsively fascinating book
Labyrinths of Reason, William Poundstone, invoking a thought experiment designed by computer scientists Larry J. Stockmeyer and Albert
R. Meyer, tries to illustrate the inevitability of contradiction among any
series of beliefs. Stockmeyer and Meyers thought experiment proposed
to determine the number of separate beliefs or truth claims could theoretically be checked for contradictions in the best conceivable computation device. To do this they imagined a computer the size of the known
universe, with components the size of individual protons (the smallest
known particle at the time), and switching speeds equal to the speed of
light (the fastest obtainable speed).
If such a computer were programmed to cross-check a set of beliefs
for internal conflicts, how many contradiction-free beliefs could it calculate, and how long would it take? The answers are: surprisingly few
and a long time. In the first second, Poundstone reports, the computer could do all the necessary comparisons to build the list up to
225 beliefs. But after that, the computations would be exponentially
more difficult with every new belief: It would take a second to add the
226th belief; two seconds to approve the 227th belief; about a minute to
check the 232nd. The computer would be working as fast as ever, but
the number of tests doubles as each belief is added to the list. It would
take over a month to approve the 250th belief. Expanding the list to 300
would takegulp!38 million years.34 A computer the size of the universe, then, could accurately believe fewer propositions in millions
of years than an average seven-year-old needs to understand an episode
of SpongeBob SquarePants.
Most of the time we never have to come face to face with the contradictory propositions that we accept. When we do, however, the resulting
paralysis can prevent us from acting at all. Fortunately, we have evolved
several cognitive strategies for resolving contradictions when we encounter them. Foremost among these is the strategy known as metarepresentation by which we subordinate some propositions to others and store
them under advisement so that they do not conflict with other propositions that we consider more important or factual. In 1987 cognitive
scientist Alan M. Leslie theorized that even very young infants develop
Information Anxiety


the ability to mark off or quarantine representations of reality that

contradict other representations and threaten to create anxiety.35 This
quarantine procedure makes the pretend play and chase play discussed
in Chapter Three possible. Subsequent arguments by evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists have refined our understanding of quarantined representations substantially. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby
draw a distinction between propositions that we consider to be absolutely
true and therefore allow to migrate unrestricted through our cognitive
architecturewhich they call architectural truthand other propositions to which we attach contingency operators such as somebody
believes this to be true, or this might be true if certain conditions are
met first, or even this is an intentional fiction meant to be entertaining. Cosmides and Tooby use the term source tagging to refer to the
process by which we attach some kind of contingency tag to a proposition that we then store in our memories in ways that restrict its circulation within our cognitive architecture.
The ability to tag propositions as contingent serves as a kind of representational immune system that allows us to hold contradictory propositions in our mind at the same time.36 We take it for granted that people
can recognize the difference between the sun moves around the earth
and Ptolemy believed that the sun moved around the earth, but holding both ideas in our mind at once requires a reliable way to prevent the
two statements from coming into conflict with each other and producing
anxiety. Source tagging allows us to consider counterfactual propositions
such as What would happen if I went fishing in the river instead of the
lake? or What would happen if I asked Mary to the prom instead of
Martha? or even abstract thought experiments such as What would
happen if I built a computer the size of the known universe?
By manipulating contingent propositions, humans can draw inferences about things that are not currently true but could be in the future. As Tooby and Cosmides explain, an architecture that only processes true information is highly limited in what it can infer, and most
forms of human discovery by reasoning involve supposition.37 It would
be counterfactual for a giraffe hunter to think of creating a stable food
supply by planting crops or domesticating animals. But in order for any
human society to move to an agricultural environment, some hunter
and probably a whole lot of huntershad to create and store proposi76

Information Anxiety

tions that were not strictly true but, at the same time, not exactly false.
In order for such propositions to circulate within the mind without
producing anxiety, they must be stored, not as representations (which
are stored as true or discounted as false), but as metarepresentations,
also known as representations of representations (which can be stored
with a variety of tags indicating different degrees of counterfactuality or
As counterfactual propositions become more abstract and elaborate
as with novels and epic poemstheir utility shifts. Rather than testing
propositions about the immediate future, they allow us to make inferences that we can store for long-term use. We will probably never need
to know the answer to the question, What would happen if I were shipwrecked for twenty-seven years on a deserted island where cannibals
came frequently to eat their victims? However, Robinson Crusoe could
still lead to valuable inferences; it could, for example, show people that
it is best not to change a comfortable situation, an inference that can
be made because Crusoe is shipwrecked while seeking more wealth.
The cognitive ability to generalize from specific instances ensures that
we can make useful inferences from other peoples experienceseven
if those people are the subjects of stories that we know to be fictional.
Lisa Zunshine has argued persuasively that works of fiction . . . seem
to be metarepresentations par excellence, perennially stored with either
variously implicit source tags, such as folk in the case of Little Red Riding Hood and Anglo-Saxon bard(s) in the case of Beowulf, or explicit
source tags, such as Jane Austen in the case of Pride and Prejudice.
Zunshine further argues that literature of any kind exercises our ability
to store representations under advisement and to reevaluate their truthvalue once more information comes in.38 This way of tagging sources
allows us to derive many of the same benefits from acknowledged fictions that we do from counterfactual propositions. Tagging sources accomplishes this by storing acknowledged fictions in a way that allows us
to analyze and draw conclusions from them without confusing them for
things we have tagged as true. In this way, many potentially contradictory propositions can be reconciled to each other through the creative
use of metarepresentational tags.
In literature, as in life, we must constantly negotiate through a maze of
contradictory assumptions, alternate viewpoints, and complex narratives.
Information Anxiety


Nancy Easterlin, in a discussion of how evolution can inform literary

studies, suggests that the cognitive ability necessary to negotiate through
a work of literature has much in common with the early humans ability to find their way through the landscapes in which they hunted and
gathered. Like many of the cognitive processes discussed in this chapter,
wayfindingsimply defined as ones ability to navigate through landscapesrequires skill in acquiring and evaluating information. Lack of
success in wayfinding (which equates to getting lost) produces anxiety
that can only be resolved through the production of a compelling spatial
narrative (figuring out how to navigate the wilderness). Because wayfinding often requires both complex spatial reasoning and special attention
to places that may conceal either dangers or opportunities, Easterlin argues, the wayfinding mind is stimulated by complexity and mystery.39
Elsewhere, Easterlin makes an explicit connection between wayfinding
cognition and fiction when she argues that our typical cognitive patterns are coextensive with evolved bodily experience, and those patterns
not only establish rudimentary features of literature but also emerge in
the dynamic action of many literary works.40
We are an information-dependent species, and both the content and
the shape of the information we process have serious implications for
our survival. Information in the wrong shapewhether insufficiently
detailed, insufficiently focused, incorrectly organized (without a sense
of closure), or inherently contradictorythreatens our survival and has
the potential to cause anxiety. Though anxiety has many adaptive functions, it can, if it persists, be both counterproductive and paralyzing.
Therefore, the ability to neutralize anxiety is itself adaptiveeven if it
involves constructing fictional narratives. When Robinson Crusoe encounters a horrifying sightthe cannibal picnic ground on the island
he calls homehe relieves his anxiety by constructing a comforting
narrative about the cannibals and their intention to leave him alone.
It does not matter whether or not this narrative is true. Its function is
not to give him accurate information about the world; rather, its job is
to relieve the anxiety that, for two years, has diverted his attention away
from activities that are important to his survival.
I have discussed a number of neutralizing strategies in this chapter.
When a narrative lacks detail, we augment it. When a narrative over78

Information Anxiety

burdens us with detail, we edit it down to a manageable story line. And

when a narrative that we consider true conflicts with another narrative
that we consider true, we create a third narrative capable of resolving
the contradiction. These acts of narrative creation are not governed by
any selection pressure in favor of accuracy or truth. All that matters is
that they neutralize anxiety effectively. Usually a neat, simplistic fiction will do a better job resolving tension than the truth, which is often messy, complicated, and devoid of closure. Like Robinson Crusoe,
we commonly gravitate toward narratives that we can understand, that
have a definite linear structure, that resolve all of the issues they raise,
and that make us feel better when we are through. This often describes
our fictional narratives, but it rarely describes the world we live in.

Information Anxiety


The Problem of Other People
The real challenge in the human environment throughout history that
affected the evolution of the intellect was not climate, weather, food
shortages, or parasitesnot even predators. Rather, it was the necessity of
dealing continually with our fellow humans in social circumstances that
became ever more complex and unpredictable as the human line evolved.

Richard D. Alexander, How Did Humans Evolve?

So this is hell. Id never have believed it. You remember all we were told
about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the burning marl.
Old wives tales! Theres no need for red-hot-pokers. Hell isother people!

Garcin, in Jean-Paul Sartres No Exit

The Evolution of Big Brains

The human brain is adaptedof that much we can be sure. However,

nobody is quite sure what it is adapted to. The usual evolutionary explanationthat the brain adapted to the natural environment in which
humans developeddoesnt account for all of the facts that need to be
explained. For one thing, humans and other hominids have developed
and flourished in nearly every habitable environment on the earth. Even
more perplexing, however, is the fact that human cognition seems to
be so much more complex than it needs to be. There can be no question that some advanced cognitive abilities help considerably in finding
food, securing mates, and avoiding predators. Yet nothing about the life
of an ancestral human would seem to require the ability to play chess,

compose symphonies, write books, or compute differential equations.

Not only do such activities lack a clear adaptive purpose, the sheer computational power necessary to perform them is beyond that required by
any reasonable program of hunting and gathering, making the human
brain seem, in the words of psychologist Geoffrey Miller, like computational overkill.1
The cognitive differences between humans and other animals are
not trivial. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, who has written
widely on brain size and social evolution, explains that the human brain
is significantly largeras a proportion of total body weightthan that
the brains of any other species. Dunbar reports that the human brain
is nine times larger than that of the average mammal, and twelve times
larger than those of the mammal species generally considered the closest relatives to the ancestral mammals of the early Paleocene epoch.
Since the human brain uses more energy than any other part of the
bodybrain tissue accounts for only 2 percent of the human bodys
weight but 20 percent of its energy uselarge brains come with a very
high price tag. Moreover, to accommodate their big brains, human infants must be born while their proportionally massive heads can still fit
through the birth canalmeaning that human infants are born dangerously underdeveloped and completely vulnerable. Even so, an infants
head presents greater risks to its mother during childbirth than those
faced by the females of almost all other mammalian species. The fact
that an organism has a large brain, Dunbar writes, means that it really must need it very badly, otherwise the forces of natural selection will
inexorably favour individuals with smaller brains simply because they
are cheaper to produce.2
What value do huge brains add to the struggle for survival? Scientists
are still debating this question. Miller, early in his career, argued that
big brains were the result of runaway sexual selection for intelligence,
though in his more recent book, The Mating Mind, he acknowledges some problems with the stronger interpretation of this hypothesis.3
Other theories propose the need for solving adaptive problems involving
such things as tool use, hunting, food processing, and the like.4 None of
these potential explanations for big brains has become widely accepted
as a complete explanation; however, in 1990, University of Michigan
biologist Richard D. Alexander, synthesizing the work of several other

The Problem of Other People

researchers, proposed an answer that has gained steady support ever

since and is now the most widely accepted of all the various hypotheses. Invoking the work of Nicholas K. Humphrey, Alexander proposes
that early humans
had in some unique fashion become so ecologically dominant that
they in effect became their own principal hostile force of nature, explicitly in regard to evolutionary changes in the human psyche and
social behavior. At some point in their evolution humans obviously
began to cooperate to compete, specifically against like groups of
conspecifics, this intergroup competition becoming increasingly
elaborate, direct, and continuous until it achieved the ubiquity
with which it has been exhibited in modern humans throughout
recorded history across the entire face of the earth.5
According to Alexanders hypothesis, then, the environmental factor
most responsible for the evolutionary expansion of the human brain
was the presence of other human beings. Humans, in other words, are
primarily adapted to each other.
In books such as Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language
and The Human Story, Dunbar expands substantially upon Alexanders
thesis. His research suggests that human evolution occurred largely within groups of about 150 members (which remains the ideal size for many
social organizations today). In order to interact successfully in such a
group, a person would have had to keep track of 149 other minds. He or
she would need to understand each persons motives, history, and temperament, and would also have to show some understanding of each
persons relationships with each of the other members of the group. In
this way, a person could attract mates, form alliances, reciprocate both
slights and favors, and acquire status within the group. Keeping track
of 149 minds and the millions of possible relationships among those
minds requires much more computational power than playing a game
of chess or composing Claire de Lune. In The Art Instinct, Dennis
Dutton points out that, while thirty-two chess pieces on sixty-four squares
of a chessboard can produce trillions of possible moves, these possibilities would be dwarfed in range by the contingencies served up by daily experience in a human lifetime.6 This is true largely because the
The Problem of Other People 83

pieces we must keep track ofother people and their relationships to

each otherare so much more complex in even the simplest human
community. Small cognitive disparities in such an environment would
set off what evolutionary biologists call an arms racea situation in
which evolution occurs rapidly because small advantages possessed by
some members of a population place intense selection pressure on the
rest of the population to match and exceed those advantages.7
If this hypothesis is correct, then we would expect that the most interesting thing to human beings would be other human beingsspecifically, the intimate details of their lives and relationships. We might expect
people to devote an inordinate amount of time to gossiping about their
acquaintances, reading tabloid reports of the private lives of high-status
people, and, perhaps most importantly for the present study, reading certain kinds of fiction. Dunbar himself recognizes the potential of evolved
social intelligence to respond to fictional accounts of other minds:
Of all the books published each year, it is fiction that tops the list
in terms of volume of sales. Take a glance around your local bookshop: university campus bookshops aside, two-thirds of the shelf
space will contain fiction. Even then, it is not the rip-roaring adventure yarns that attract us, but the unfolding intimacies of the
main characters. It is the way they handle their experiences that
fascinates us, their reactions to the vagaries of life. . . . And out of
all this fiction, it is not the writing of the acclaimed masters that
tops the publishers sales-lists, but romantic fiction.8
With only a few exceptions, fiction is about other peoples minds, and
other minds are inherently interesting to us for the same reason that
trees are inherently interesting to woodpeckers: other people are the
environmental backdrop against which we evolved. Other minds were
the chief adaptive problemand therefore the most significant source
of anxietythat early humans had to face.

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Paradox

When the three principal characters in Jean-Paul Sartres No Exit are
escorted to their final destination, they are surprised by the relative timidity of hell. Each of themGarcin the Brazilian deserter, Inez the

The Problem of Other People

lesbian manipulator, and Estelle the society seductressexpects to find

the hell of mythologya gaping pit full of fire, brimstone, and horned
demons with implements of torture. Instead, they are led, one at a time,
into a reasonably comfortable drawing room in what appears to be a
Victorian-style hotel. However, before they can take comfort in their
good fortune, the cleverest of them, Inez, figures out the game. Each
of us, she tells the other two, will be the torturer of the other two.
Understanding the truth of Inezs statement, Garcin immediately makes
what he thinks is a perfectly sound proposal:
No, I shall never be your torturer. I wish neither of you any harm,
and Ive no concern with you. None at all. So the solutions easy
enough; each of us stays put in his or her corner and takes no notice of the others. You here, you here, and I there. Like soldiers
at our posts. Also, we mustnt speak. Not one word. That wont be
difficult; each of us has plenty of material for self-communings.
I think I could stay ten thousand years with only my thoughts for
All three agree, but their agreement ends in a matter of seconds. The
characters cannot mind their own business because they have no business
of their own to mind. Each of them has lived a life of passive reflection,
depending on their lovers, their organizations, and even their enemies
to reflect them back to themselves. They have never created authentic
existences for themselvesnever, in Simone de Beauvoirs phrase, cast
themselves into the world.10 Even in hell they must depend upon each
other for any hope of self-definition. At first they each visit their former
acquaintances in the vain hope that they will hear something about
themselves. (Had he written today, I am quite sure that Sartre would
have provided them with a computer and had them Google their own
names.) As these impressions fade, they turn to the others for validation
of their existence, first through sexual affirmation and then through sheer
provocation. Inez sums up the dynamic that they all face when she says,
I cant get on without making people suffer. Like a live coal. A live coal
in others hearts. When Im alone I flicker out.11 On this point, Sartres
Hell actually corresponds quite closely to Dantes. Most of the sinners
in the first five levels of Inferno either punish themselves or punish each
The Problem of Other People 85

other with no need of either divine or demonic intervention, culminating in the torment of the wrathful on the banks of the River Styx who,
with no compulsion beyond their inner passions, thumped at one another in that slime / with hands and feet, and they butted, and they bit
/ as if each would tear the other limb from limb.12
In No Exit (as in Inferno) the characters are involved in versions of a
famous game-theory scenario known as the prisoners dilemma, which
evolutionary psychologists often use to explain the prevalence of altruistic behavior among organisms in direct evolutionary competition with
each other. The classic prisoners dilemma game features two players
who must choose either to cooperate or defect. Mutual cooperation
gives both players a modest reward; mutual defection gives each a modest penalty. When one player cooperates and one defects, the defector
is richly rewarded and the cooperator is severely punished. In The Prisoners Dilemma, William Poundstone describes the imaginary scenario
upon which the exercise is based:
Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned.
Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking
to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they
dont have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal
charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser
charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian
bargain. If he testifies against his partner, he will go free while the
partner will get three years in prison on the main charge. Oh, yes,
there is a catch. . . . If both prisoners testify against each other, both
will be sentenced to three years in jail.13
A prisoners dilemma is created whenever two (or in some variants more)
people are in a situation with the following attributes: 1) the result of mutual cooperation is better than the result of mutual defection; 2) the worst
ending position results from unilateral cooperation; and 3) the best ending
position results from unilateral defection.14 The prisoners dilemma is, in
the words of political scientist Robert M. Axelrod, an abstract formulation of some very common and very interesting situations in which what
is best for each person individually leads to mutual defection, whereas
everyone would have been better off with mutual cooperation.15

The Problem of Other People

In Sartres version of the gamelets call it the sinners dilemma

the sinners can cooperate by simply leaving each other alone to enjoy
whatever comforts hell has to offer. This is precisely the agreement that
Garcin proposes and the others in No Exit pretend to accept. However,
for some of the playerssuch as Inez, who cant get on without making people sufferthe temptation to defect is too great, and, as in any
prisoners dilemma, if one person defects, the other(s) must defect as
well to avoid the worst of the outcomes. The actual payoff matrix, assuming a two-person game, looks something like this:
you cooperate

you defect

i cooperate

Nobody bothers anybody else and we both

live in peace and quiet
for all of eternity, bored
but uninjured.

I sit passively, not

doing anything to you
as you torture me with
glee forever.

i defect

I get to have all the

fun of torturing you for
eternity and dont even
have to worry about you
doing anything to me.

We spend eternity
torturing each other. I
suffer pain, but at least
I have the fun of making you suffer, too.

If I can be assured that you will cooperate, then it makes sense for me
to cooperate too. However, the whole point of the prisoners dilemma
is that I cannot know what you will do. Therefore, the only rational solution is for me to defect under the assumption that you will defect as
well. That way, no matter what happens, I will not end up a chump. In
a single round of the prisoners dilemma, the only equilibrium point
the point at which each player has achieved the best possible result given
the other players strategyoccurs when both players defect. Though
they can technically stop any time they want, Garcin, Inez, and Estelle
are compelled by the logic of their situation to go on tormenting each
other for all of eternity.
The prisoners dilemma has become the most famous of all gametheory scenarios because it reveals a crucial tension at the core of the
The Problem of Other People 87

human experience: we need other people, but we cant trust them.

The guiding logic of the prisoners dilemma, when projected on an
entire society, takes us perilously close to Thomas Hobbess war of all
against all where life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Any
individual has a motive to cooperate only when everybody else cooperates too; when cooperation breaks down, it is in everybodys best interest to get what they can before somebody else gets it first. Yet many societies have managed to stay together long enough to create pyramids,
highways, great cities, poetry, art, music, and even space stations. Until
Robert M. Axelrod conducted his now famous computer tournaments
in the 1970s, many people simply dismissed cooperative human societies
as either irrational or bad at math. What Axelrod discovered, however,
is that something remarkable happens when the prisoners dilemma is
played multiple times against the same opponent. In the game of iterated prisoners dilemma, players have a chance to remember what other
players have done and to respond reciprocally to both cooperation and
defectionand to anticipate how others will reciprocate in the future.
The iterated prisoners dilemma changes everything we know about the
logic of the game.
In 1979 Axelrod, a political science professor at the University of
Michigan, invited prominent game theorists from around the world to
submit, in the form of simple computer programs, decision rules for a
tournament of iterated prisoners dilemma. He describes the ground
rules for the tournament in his book, The Evolution of Cooperation:
It was structured as a round robin, meaning that each entry was
paired with each other entry. As announced in the rules of the tournament, each entry was also paired with its own twin and with random, a program that randomly cooperates and defects with equal
probability. Each game consisted of exactly two hundred moves.
The payoff matrix for each move . . . awarded players 3 points for
mutual cooperation, and 1 point for mutual defection. If one player
defected while the other player cooperated, the defecting player
received 5 points and the cooperating player received 0 points.16
Axelrods experiments have been summarized and analyzed in wellknown books by Poundstone, Matt Ridley, Richard Dawkins, and

The Problem of Other People

othersas well as in Axelrods own book-length treatment of the

In two separate tournaments guided by these rules, well-known theorists submitted programs with names such as tester (defects on the
first round but cooperates as soon as another program defects), and
tranquilizer (cooperates at first and then tries to get away with defections later in the round). The winning strategy, submitted by Professor Antanol Rapoport of the University of Toronto, was called tit for
tat and required only four lines of computer code. tit for tat always cooperated on the first move and thereafter did whatever its opponent did on the previous move. tit for tat cooperated with friendly
programs, punished defectors, and immediately assumed a cooperative
stance when defectors attempted to cooperate. When Axelrod created a
natural-selection simulationan environment in which each program
was given representation in future generations according to its success in previous onestit for tat and other programs that cooperated initially and never defected first (and were therefore indistinguishable from tit for tat when they played each other) eventually drove
out programs that defected initially or attempted to secure advantages
through occasional defections during play.
tit for tat was so successful because it combined five different
factors: 1) it was unselfish (Axelrod uses the phrase not envious), meaning it never tried to win more than its opponent in any single game, but
was successful only to the extent that it enabled the other program to
be just as successful; 2) it was nice, meaning it was never the first to defect; 3) it was reciprocal in both rewarding cooperation and punishing
defection; 4) it was forgiving, meaning it only punished defections once
and then reassumed cooperation as soon as the other program did; and
5) it was simple, meaning it followed clear, easy-to-understand rules that
allowed other programs to respond to its logic. These five points correspond with many of the principles upon which the worlds great religions are based: Christianity emphasizes forgiveness, Buddhism stresses
simplicity, Jewish law (an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth) encodes reciprocity, and Islamic law (through obligatory alms known as
the zakat) mandates unselfishness. This should not be surprising; according to Axelrods interpretation of his experiments, these are the rules
that enable essentially selfish beings to form cooperative communities.
The Problem of Other People 89

It would be shocking if religionsamong the most important historical

facilitators of communityhad not discovered them.18
The real danger in cooperative environmentsand therefore one of
the primary adaptive problems for our human ancestorscomes from
those who attempt to secure the advantages of cooperation without incurring any of the costs. In game theory, as in life, these people are called
freeloaders, parasites, and, most often, cheaters. As Leda Cosmides
and John Tooby explain, a cheater is an individual who illicitly benefits
himself or herself by taking a benefit without having satisfied the requirement that the other party to the contract made the provision of that benefit contingent on. The more complicated the network, the easier it is
to cheat. In a group of cooperators, therefore, the potential genetic benefits of deceptive non-cooperation are enormous, and the ability to detect
non-cooperators appears to be hard-wired into human nature. Cosmides
and Tooby argue that we have developed cognitive adaptations that are
specialized for reasoning about social contracts, and, specifically, inference procedures specialized for cheater detection.19 One of the more
striking pieces of evidence for such a cognitive module involves a logical
task that psychologists call the Wason Selection Task, which involves
selecting pieces of information that are important in proving or disproving a proposition. As science writer Matt Ridley explains, people are
surprisingly bad at the Wason test in some circumstancesfor instance,
if presented with it as an abstract piece of logicbut surprisingly good
at it in others. In general, the more the puzzle is presented as a social
contract to be policed, the easier people find it, even if the contract is
deeply foreign and the social context unfamiliar.20

Theories of Mind and Theories of Fiction

The great French satirist John-Baptiste Poquelin, best known by the stage
name Molire, captures the problem of other people admirably in his
1664 satire, Tartuffe. The title character of Tartuffe is a predatory religious
hypocritea pious con man who has insinuated himself into the household of the wealthy-but-nave Orgon. We join the characters in media
res, after Tartuffe has moved in and become the de facto master of the
house. Orgons wife, Elmire, and his brother in law, Clante, have not
been deceived by Tartuffes hypocrisy, but Orgon will not listen to their
warnings. He becomes more and more enamored with his hypocritical

The Problem of Other People

friend and contracts a marriage between Tartuffe and his daughter Marianeeven though she is already in love with, and legally engaged to,
an honorable young man named Valre. Not content with taking almost
everything from Orgon, Tartuffe makes a clumsy attempt to seduce Elmire, who rebuffs him and tries to report the incident to Orgon.
Orgon, however, will have none of it. In a stunningly short-sighted
display of loyalty, he signs over house and property to Tartuffe, giving
him, as part of the bargain, a chest of potentially treasonous documents
(written by an exiled friend). Not long afterward, Elmire forces her
husband to confront the truth by pretending to give in to Tartuffes advances while Orgon hides underneath a table. By the time that Orgon
finally does obtain incontrovertible evidence of his false friends treachery, Tartuffe owns his house, his estate, and a chest of documents that
could send Orgon to prison. Unable to reflect critically on his own errors, Orgon simply moves from extreme credulity to extreme skepticism.
Enough, by God! Im through with pious men, he tells his brother-inlaw. Henceforth Ill hate the whole false brotherhood / And persecute
them worse than Satan could. At this point Clante steps in and gives
what many consider the moral of the story:
Ah, there you goextravagant as ever!
Why can you not be rational? You never
Manage to take the middle course, it seems,
But jump, instead, between absurd extremes.
Youve recognized your recent grave mistake
In falling victim to a pious fake;
Now, to correct that error, must you embrace
An even greater error in its place,
And judge our worthy neighbors as a whole
By what youve learned of one corrupted soul?
Come, just because one rascal made you swallow
A show of zeal which turned out to be hollow,
Shall you conclude that all men are deceivers,
And that there are today no true believers?21
Orgons reversal is often taken as the defining satirical moment of
the play. David F. Maas, for example, presents Clantes speech as a
The Problem of Other People 91

culminating moment in the authors goal to assist individuals to make

rational adjustments, and therefore to find a wider choice of strategies
than those available from either-or evaluations.22 In Mimesis and the
Human Animal, one of the early pioneering works of adaptionist literary
criticism, Robert F. Storey uses this same scene to reject overly theorized
explanations of human behavior in favor of relatively simple ones:
The example of Orgon should give us pause. Hes obsessed, it is
true, but his obsession is a symptom, not a cause, of his absurdity.
When his eyes are finally opened to Tartuffes hypocrisy, his reaction is not to throw off his shackles, but to chain himself blindly
to another illusion. . . . Because he seems such a vital creature,
modern readers have been eager to account for his weaknesses in
psychologically determinate ways: he a repressed . . . homosexual,
hes a narcissist . . . hes a tyrant who is punishing his family. . . .
All of this may be true, but the most plausible explanation is that
he is a fool, and that fools are incorrigibly stupid.23
Orgon is certainly stupid, but his stupidity is part of an overall satirical
strategy. Any argument for Tartuffe as a corrective satire must focus on
Orgon, as Tartuffe simply lacks the good qualities that might make it
worthwhile to correct his bad ones. Molire is not telling us to avoid being predatory hypocrites; rather, he is telling us to avoid 1) being taken
in by hypocrites, and 2) to avoid using the existence of hypocrites as an
excuse to discount genuine virtue. Phrased this way, Orgons central
problem in Tartuffe bears a striking similarity to the central problem in
the prisoners dilemma, and to the much more important problem of
living in a world made up of both cooperators and defectors: how can
we tell them apart?
The rational middle course that Clante advocatesto avoid hypocrites and trust those whose virtue is genuineis much more difficult
than Molire makes it seem. Most hypocrites arent as easy to detect
as Tartuffe, and most of the people deceived arent as credulous as Orgon. In the real world, peoples motives are usually a convoluted mix
of altruism and self-interest, and detecting non-cooperators requires
enormous skill.
Symptoms of anxiety caused by interactions with other people have

The Problem of Other People

been observed in all human cultures as well as in some of our nearest

primate relatives.24 Significant anxiety disorders lie at both horns of the
social version of the prisoners dilemma. Those who cannot trust other
people at all often develop paranoia and persecutory delusions, which
have both been linked to the need to keep track of and respond to legitimate social threats.25 Those who do not feel competent to engage
other people and build cooperative relationships are often diagnosed
with social anxiety disorder (sad), or social phobiathe most commonly diagnosed of all anxiety disorders.26
When it comes to social interaction, the stakes are high and the consequences for failure are great. Many psychologists now believe that human beings have evolved a specialized cognitive mechanism for inferring
the mental and emotional states of others. According to this hypothesis,
selection pressures faced by early hominids led to an increase in the size
of social groups, which also required an increase in cognitive abilities.
Larger groups meant more potential allies, sexual partners, rivals, and
enemies to keep track of, plus more reciprocal relationships to process.
(Keep in mind that every new person added to a social group increases
the possible relationships among group members exponentially, so even
a small growth in average group size required a massive increase in cognitive power.)27 At some point it became advantageous to evolve a cognitive process for inferring the thoughts of others by combining what we
know about them with what we gather from their tone of voice, hand
movements, facial gestures, and other contextual cues that signal ones
frame of mind. However, as we got better at detecting the thoughts of
others, we also got better at concealing our own thoughts, setting off an
evolutionary arms race between detection and concealment that lead
to the extremely sophisticated cognitive mechanism that psychologists
now call the theory of mind.
Most people today exercise their theory of mind automatically without realizing that it is an extremely complicated process that evolved
over hundreds of thousands of years. For most of us it is second nature
to infer other peoples intentions through contextual clues such as their
mannerisms, their tone of voice, or their body language. Most people cannot even remember a time when they did not understand that
other peoples beliefs could be different than their own. It is not until
we encounter people with difficulties forming a theory of mind that we
realize what a complicated cognitive mechanism it really is. In the late
The Problem of Other People 93

1980s, autism researchers Simon Baron-Cohen and Uta Frith theorized

that individuals with autism spectrum disorders have difficulty reading minds, or correctly attributing to other people states of mind that
differ from their own. Together, Baron-Cohen and Frith developed the
Sally/Anne test, which they used to diagnose autism in children. In
Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind, Baron-Cohen
describes the Sally/Anne test as follows:
The test involves seeing that Sally puts a marble in one place and
that later, while Sally is away, Anne puts the marble somewhere
else. The child needs to appreciate that, since Sally was absent
when her marble was moved from its original position, she wont
know it was moved, and therefore must still believe it is in the original location. . . . On the test question Where will Sally look for
her marble? the vast majority of normal children and children
with Downs syndrome passed the test, indicating the original location. But only a small minority of the children with autism did
so. Instead, most of them indicated where the marble really was.
Since the children with autism were older and had a higher mental age than the children in either of the two control groups, this
study supports the notion that, in autism, the mental state of belief
is poorly understood.28
Reading minds requires us to use the same kinds of metarepresentational tags that we use to process contradictory propositions. For example, most people would have no trouble processing the sentence John
believes that Mary is in Jamaica even if they knew that Mary was sitting
right next to them at a restaurant in Duluth. The brain stores knowledge
of Marys actual location as a representation about the world we live in,
while it stores knowledge of Johns state of mind as a metarepresentation. We can use this same strategy to keep track of much more complicated propositions, such as: John believes that Mary wrote a book
about Pams belief that Jerry was kidnapped by pirates. Such a statement requires us to keep track of four propositionswhat John believes,
what Mary wrote, what Pam believes, and who kidnapped Jerrythree
of which may be recognizably false without altering the truth value of
the overall statement.

The Problem of Other People

The process of creating source tags for information contained in

other peoples minds is inextricably connected to the process of generating narratives about other peoples motives. In many cases we cannot
create a tag without first creating a narrative to accompany it. If, for
example, John tells me that Mary has been in Jamaica for three days,
while I am sure that I had dinner with Mary two nights ago, I must
construct a narrative into which I can set both propositions before I
can assign one of them a source tag. Such narratives include, but are
certainly not limited to:
I have been extremely stressed at work and forgot that my dinner
with Mary was four nights ago.
John is lying to me because he is in love with Mary and doesnt
want me spending time with her.
Marys twin sister, Terri, was secretly impersonating Mary at dinner
so that she could pump me for information about their brother,
Malevolent space aliens kidnapped Mary and cloned her, sending
the real Mary to Jamaica and the phony Mary to dinner with me in
order to infect me with a retrovirus that would reorganize my genome and help them produce their wretched young.
While these stories vary widely in probability, they each contain the
basic components of any narrative. They also contain elements that
most readers of fiction will immediately recognize: romance, intrigue,
suspense, and secret plots. Without at least some of these elements, the
narrative does not contain enough information to tell me how to deal
with John. Simply determining that John is lying will not suffice.
Without understanding the motive for the lie, I will not know how I
should treat John, which is the reason that I need a theory of mind in
the first place.
Once the theory of mind mechanism evolved, it became one of the
principal reasons that we now are able to process, and even enjoy, fictional representations. People with a healthy theory of mind are capable
of feeling like they know a literary characterwhether it is a favorite
friend like Elizabeth Bennett or an amoral scoundrel like Iago. We enThe Problem of Other People 95

counter and interpret these characters much in the same way that we
encounter and interpret real people. This connection between theory
of mind and fiction has recently been made clear in Lisa Zunshines
book, Why We Read Fiction. Zunshine argues that fiction, much like
chase play, allows us to exercise and hone skills that are crucial to our
survival. Dunbar similarly presents fictional narrative as a logical outgrowth of a theory of mind. As we become increasingly good at nesting
thoughts in different minds, he argues, we become able to imagine
how someone who does not actually exist might respond to particular
situations. In other words, we can begin to create literature.29 When we
encounter fictional minds, then, we get what Zunshine describes as a
work out of our ability to store representations under advisement and
to reevaluate their truth-value once more information comes in.30
Zunshines literature-as-theory-of-mind-workout proposition can account for a good deal of what we very broadly label realistic fiction
literature designed to reproduce the complex psychology of human interaction. I can almost feel my cognitive muscles flexing when I try to
determine whether Estella really loves Pip or whether Mr. Darcy still
wants to marry Elizabeth Bennett. It is more difficult, however, to see
how something like Tartuffe might have the same effect. Molire does
not present Tartuffe as a complex character whose intentions and motivations must be painstakingly deciphered. While it is true that Orgon
makes tremendous mistakes because he misreads another mind, viewers
are never encouraged to see Tartuffe through Orgons eyes or to make a
difficult judgment about the title characters true intentions. We know
exactly what Tartuffe is from the plays full title, Tartuffe, or the Hypocrite (in French, Tartuffe, ou lImposteur), so our enjoyment of the play
can hardly stem from the challenge of deciphering his state of mind.
Clearly, something else must be going on.
William Fleschs Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fictionan interesting recent extension of Zunshines workout argumentoffers several good
candidates for this something else. Flesch argues that fiction gives us
practice, not just in deciphering the minds of other people, but also in
responding to them with the appropriate approbation or outrage. After
an extensive discussion of the prisoners dilemma game, he argues that
humans cooperate, and continue cooperating, because we monitor

The Problem of Other People

one anothers cooperation vigilantly. To give us an incentive to monitor and ensure cooperation, nature endows us with a pleasing sense of
outrage at defection and a concomitant sympathy for the victims of deception. The pleasure we derive from sympathizing with victims and
feeling outraged at defectors transfers easily to fictional narratives:
We are fitted to track one another and to track as well how others
monitor one another and what they do when they monitor one
another. What we wish to track is past behavior, including past
tracking of past behavior, in order to respond in the present to that
behavior. Fiction recruits this central capacity in human social
cognition for taking pleasure in responding to the nonfactual. It
gratifies the proximal or psychological aim of our interest in what
some have done and how others have responded. That aim is the
pleasure we take in strong reciprocation, especially punishment, a
pleasure useful in nonliterary contexts as an incentive to altruistic
punishment and presumably evolved for that reason.31
The importance of punishing defectors can, for Flesch, be illustrated by another game-theory exercise called the ultimatum game. In this
game, two people are collectively offered a sum of money. The person
who receives the money, Flesch explains, has to propose a split with
the person who doesnt receive the money. . . . The other person can
accept the split or veto it. If he or she accepts it, the money is divided as
proposed. If the person vetoes it, neither of the players gets anything.32
A rational proposer should propose the most uneven split allowed in
the rules, and the rational responder should accept any proposed division. Even a ninety-nine-to-one split leaves both players better off than
a veto. However, when the game is played under experimental conditions, most proposers offer a fifty-to-fifty split, and most responders reject
any proposal that gives them less than 25 to 30 percent of the money.33
Both proposers and responders, in other words, respond to a nonrational, altruistic view of fairness. Fleschs argument focuses specifically on
the respondersthose who give up what is essentially free money in
order to punish those they perceive as unfair. The same cognitive predisposition that causes us to engage in altruistic punishment causes us
to admire others who engage in altruistic punishment, including ficThe Problem of Other People 97

tional characters, which goes a long way toward explaining why good
guys usually triumph over bad guys in fiction. We are wired to derive
pleasure when we see defectors punished.
The end of Tartuffelike the ends of the Odyssey, Hansel and Gretel, and Die Hardgives us exactly the comeuppance that Flesch describes. When Orgon discovers Tartuffes treachery and tries to force
him to leave, Tartuffe takes control of the house (that Orgon signed
over to him) and demands that his former host leave. He attempts to
enforce his eviction order by summoning a police officer and accusing
Orgon of treasona charged leveled on the strength of the documents
that Tartuffe possesses. The officer comes to the house, appearing to
have instructions to arrest Orgon; at the last minute, however, he arrests Tartuffe instead, with the explanation that the king has detected
Tartuffes treachery:
His royal soul, though generous and human,
Views all things with discernment and acumen;
His sovereign reason is not lightly swayed,
And all his judgments are discreetly weighed.
He honors righteous men of every kind,
And yet his zeal for virtue is not blind,
Nor does his love of piety numb his wits
And make him tolerant of hypocrites.
Twas hardly likely that this man could cozen
A King whos foiled such liars by the dozen.34
By the end of the final scene, Tartuffe has been exposed, humiliated, and
condemned to prisonall by the actions of the wise king (King Louis
XIV later intervened on Molires behalf when the French Church denounced Tartuffe as heretical) who saves the day as both the detector
and the punisher of Tartuffes decidedly non-altruistic behavior.
Taken together, however, Zunshines characterization of fiction as a
workout of our mindreading abilities and Fleschs theory of fiction as
an exercise in altruistic outrage offer a compelling way to understand
the intense pleasure that we derive from the experiences of imaginary
people. While it makes intuitive sense that fictional experiences would
provide less pleasure than real experiences, the opposite may well be

The Problem of Other People

true. Fictional minds give us more pleasure than real minds for the same
reason that tigers in a zoo are fun while tigers in backyards are terrifying.
Natural selection designed us to pay special attention to tigers. The captive tiger allows us to enjoy this extra focus on a purely aesthetic level,
knowing that we are in no actual danger. Similarly, encountering a fictional mind, as Brian Boyd emphasizes, removes the dangers of deceit
or manipulation and offers the promise of interest . . . [and] therefore
offers a win-win situation, a non-zero-sum game, an advantage for teller
(benefit in attention and status, at a cost in imaginative effort), and for
the listener (maximum cognitive interest at little cost except time).35
This is not to say, of course, that the theory of mind evolved to make
stories possibleany more than the visual cortex evolved to help us
appreciate fine paintings. These adaptations were designed to help us
process information, avoid predators, locate food, find mates, and otherwise increase our evolutionary fitness. One of natures greatest motivators is pleasurepleasure from the sight of bright, contrastive colors or
from the experience of encountering and deciphering another persons
motivesand one of arts functions is to provide these pleasures without the corresponding threats to our lives or well being.

The Problem of Other People 99

Sex, Lies, and Phenotypes
My dear fellow, the truth isnt quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet,
refined girl. What extraordinary ideas you have about the way to behave to a

Jack Worthing, in Oscar Wildes The Importance of Being Earnest

One of the most important things to realize about systems of animal
communication is that they are not systems for the dissemination of the truth.

Robert Trivers, Social Evolution

Lies, Damned Lies, and Butterflies

Though lying is not the same as storytelling, the two are not entirely
unrelated. Both involve the construction and communication of counterfactual propositions and narratives. The difference between the two
is in both the intent of the speaker and the understanding of the audience. Liars know the truth and attempt to conceal it, usually to advantage themselves at the expense of their auditors. On the other hand,
both storytellers and story hearers (or story readers) usually understand
that a fictional story is something other than literal truthrather than
working against each other, they collaborate in a mutually beneficial
form of make believe. This is by no means an absolute division. Polite
lies told in tense social situations are very often fictive narratives, known
to be so by both teller and hearer and yet perpetuated as the truth in
the name of social harmony. Similarly, patently counterfactual propositions can be asserted as the truth (think of stage magicians or reality

television programs), which auditors at least pretend to believe for the

sake of heightening the entertainment value of the story.
We can profitably study the evolutionary value of counterfactual information by looking at deceptive signaling in non-human species, where
questions of intent and understanding do not come into play. Deliberate
deception requires a sufficiently advanced theory of mind to understand
the difference between the truth and the beliefs of another person. Most
species lack the cognitive capacity to engage in such behavior. On the
other hand, deceptive signalingcommunication of inaccurate informationis considerably older than lying, storytelling, narrative sequencing, and human cognition in any form. Such communication pervades
the animal kingdom (and is not unknown among plants) and provides
numerous examples of the principle that information can be usefulto
both signalers and to receivers of signalswithout being true.
In Why We Lie, evolutionary psychologist David Livingston Smith
notes that the tendency to deceive has an ancient pedigree. We find it
in many forms, at all levels, throughout the natural kingdom. . . . Nature
is awash with deceit.1 For the sheer audacity of this deceit, it is hard to
beat butterflies and moths. Short life spans, constant predation, and relatively high reproduction rates have made it possible for lepidoptera of
all sorts to evolve a number of innovative strategies to deceive predators,
while at the same time developing the bright colors and exotic patterns
necessary to attract mates. Consider the case of the Ash Borer moth of
the Eastern United States, whose body and wing patterns resemble those
of the common wasp, or the Pierid butterfly of the Amazon rain forest
preferred by avian predatorswhich evolved to look almost exactly like
Heliconid butterflies, which are unpalatable to birds.2 Butterflies of the
caligo genus develop large spots on their wings that resemble the eyes
of an owl or other large predator. Even babies get into the act: the cocoon of the Dynastor darius butterfly found in Panama looks, even to
experts, like the head of a snake.
Like most species, of course, moths and butterflies do not intend to
deceive; the tendency to provide unreliable information is simply part
of their genetic inheritance. But this kind of deception can be found
throughout the natural world and can become extremely elaborate.
Consider Triverss often-quoted example of the pygosteus pungitius, a
species of stickleback fish found off the coast of Northern Europe. The

Sex, Lies, and Phenotypes

males of this species create nests shaped like small pipes into which
females swim to lay their eggs. Males use the nests (a sign of parental
investment) to attract mates, who lay their eggs in the nest where they
are fertilized by the male. Sometimes, Trivers reports, this arrangement
leads to a stunning example of deception, intrigue, female impersonation, and dirty double crossinga plot worthy of the cleverest Restoration wits:
It sometimes happens that while one female is spawning in his
nest, another one appears at the edge of his territory. Thinking (so
to speak) to double his reproductive success, the male swims to
her and invites her in. After courtship, she swims into his nest and
deposits her own clutch of eggs. The male then swims in and fertilizes both clutchesor so he supposes. The second female is, in
fact, a male; far from laying a clutch of eggs, she actually fertilizes the first clutch! The male has been cuckolded; his eagerness
for reproductive gain has betrayed him.3
Human behavior often follows the same patternsespecially where sex
is concerned. Many of the most prominent deceptions of our species
have to do with sexual attraction and are not considered deceptions because they have been built into the fabric of human courtship rituals to
which people are socialized. Lipstick and high heel-shoes often create
false impressions of youth or strength in women, while fancy cars and
trendy clothing can exaggerate the wealth of men. These enhancements
sometimes emphasize traits that already exist, but all too often, they become outright deceptionsas with the woman who spends two hours
applying makeup before leaving the house or the man who spends half
of his monthly income paying for a sports car.
Sexual dynamics also include a fair share of intentional, direct lies.
Simply put, most people lie about sex. For example, a 1993 study reported that 92 percent of university students had lied to a current or
potential sexual partner about such things as their number of former
partners, their current feelings about their partner, or their satisfaction
with current sexual experiences.4 When the lies of courtship are combined with the various lies and deceptions of infidelities in supposedly
monogamous relationships, the amount of lying about sex that our speSex, Lies, and Phenotypes


cies does becomes truly staggeringbut not at all difficult to explain.

Indeed, it is the occasional truths that people tell about sex that would
seem to require an evolutionary explanation, because, as Oscar Wildes
Jack Worthing so presciently observed in The Importance of Being Earnest, the truth isnt quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girlespecially if, like Jack, he is interested in sex.
It requires no great effort to explain the evolutionary advantages of
deceiving others; if you can get away with it, lying is a great way to acquire resources, secure mating opportunities, and avoid unpleasant consequences. But this observation does nothing to explain why organisms
might evolve an appetite for consuming counterfactual propositions.
To count as a useful fictionusing the broadest definition of fiction
as non-facta deception has to convey some advantage to the one
deceived. To make this case we must explore the much less intuitive
proposition that, in a non-trivial number of situations, people derive an
evolutionary advantage from being lied to and believingor at least
pretending to believethe deceptions.
We can get a sense of how this beneficial deception might work by
looking closer at The Importance of Being Earnest. In this play, Jack lies
to the lovely Gwendolyntelling her that his name is Earnest, because
she has vowed to only marry a man of that name. Jack lies for the same
reasons that most men lie to women; however, the intended effect of
his deception (marriage) would benefit Gwendolyn as much as it would
Jackat least from the evolutionary perspective. Gwendolyns vow to
marry a man named Earnest makes no adaptive sense at all. Jack is a
wealthy, well-educated man who is genuinely in love with Gwendolyn.
He is responsible, serious, and shows every sign that he will stick around
and provide for her and her offspring. Gwendolyns insistence on marrying the first Earnest who comes along, on the other hand, is a silly romantic notion that would almost certainly lead to a Darwinian disaster.
Indeed, the whole point of Wildes playif it can be said, against the
authors objections, to have a pointis that his society has placed more
emphasis on superficial descriptors (being named Earnest) than on real
character traits (actually being earnest). Though Jack is not Earnest, he
is earnest, and though he is not honest in the detail of his name, he is
honest in everything else. Gwendolyn stands to gain much by believing
Jacks deception and marrying himand indeed, when faced with the

Sex, Lies, and Phenotypes

prospect of really losing Jack as a suitor because of his name, she shows
a willingness to believe any pretense that will preserve the match.
In The Evolution of Animal Communication, William A. Searcy and
Stephen Nowicki present convincing evidence for the argument that all
kinds of organismsnot just wealthy young girls with silly romantic notionscan derive certain survival benefits from being deceived. Searcy
and Nowicki survey examples of accuracy and deception in three broad
categories of interaction between organisms: relationships in which interests converge, relationships in which interests diverge, and relationships in which interests oppose. Each category abounds with examples
of deceptive communication that benefits the deceptive communicator. However, each also contains at least one example of deception that
benefits the receiver of the deceptive communicationsituations in
which, in effect, it pays to believe the lie. It is to these telling examples
from our deep evolutionary past that we now turn.
overlapping interests:
why crying wolf works two-thirds of the time

Children learn at a very early age that crying wolfsounding a false

alarm in order to get attention from otherscan have disastrous consequences. In Aesops famous talewith variants found all over the
worlda young boy is guarding a flock of sheep and decides to cry
wolf just to see what will happen. His family and neighbors drop everything that they are doing and rush to his aid, only to find out that
they have been duped by a false alarm. The boy repeats this action, and
the townspeople come running again, with the same result. When the
boy finally does see a wolf, he tries to sound an alarm, only to be disbelieved by townspeople tired of his antics. Perhaps the most remarkable
thing about The Boy Who Cried Wolf is that the deception works
twice in a row. One would think that, after being fooled by the boy the
first time, the people of the village would write him off as a phony and
refuse to come again. However, readers of the story implicitly understand that most people would give the boy the benefit of the doubt the
second time. Why do the villagers give the boy a second chance, even
though they know he is a liar?
This problem actually exists in many species where cries of wolf
are a common way to warn of imminent dangers. In many of these reSex, Lies, and Phenotypes


lationships, single organismsjust like the bored shepherd boycan

derive some benefit through deceptive communication. Consider Searcy
and Nowickis example of a bird who falsely signals the presence of a
One way in which a signaler can benefit from a false alarm is for
the alarm to move receivers away from some resource, thus allowing the signaler access. This benefit may apply to false alarming in
the great tits. . . . Great tits give alarms in the absence of predators
when other birds, either of the same or different species, are feeding at a concentrated food source. As the other birds rush to cover,
the alarmer flies in and takes food before the others return.5
It is easy to see how this deceptive behavior benefits the signalerand
how natural selection would favor those great tits disposed to make deceptive alarm calls. But why on earth would any other bird be selected
to respond to such calls? One would think that selection would favor
birds that ignored the alarm calls and went on eating.
The answer to this question lies in a fairly straightforward application
of the smoke detector principle discussed in Chapter Three. Organisms
stand to lose far more from failing to respond to a true alarm than from
responding to a false alarm; therefore, a tendency to respond positively
to alarms can be evolutionarily sound even when false alarms far outnumber true ones. Anders P. Mllers observation of great tits recorded
a false-alarm rate of more than 60 percent, and Searcy and Nowicki
theorize that even this high number may be well below the critical ratio that would push the system into instability.6 As with other examples
of the smoke detector principle, the survival value lies not specifically
in believing the deception, but in believing the alarm call, whether it
is true or falseon the grounds that the odds will nearly always favor
low-risk credulity over skepticism that may be fatal.
Though The Boy Who Cried Wolf is usually told to discourage children from lying, it could just as easily be a parable about how foolish
it is to disbelieve an alarm without overwhelming proof of its falseness.
We may assume that the poor young boy perishes in the wolfs attack,
but so do the sheep, other livestock near the village, and perhaps even
another child or two. In reality the villagers probably should have given

Sex, Lies, and Phenotypes

the boy one more chance, since the effort that they were expending to
respond to the alarm was minimal, while their potential loss was enormous. As long as there is a reasonable probability that such a communication is true, natural selection will tend to favor the credulouswho
occasionally waste time and resources responding to false alarmsover
the skepticalwho never waste energy on false alarms and, just once,
fail to respond to a true one.
divergent interests:
the special case of sexual selection

The interests of organisms diverge when they do not overlap but do not
directly conflict with each other. When discussing this subject in The
Evolution of Animal Communication, Searcy and Nowicki focus entirely on signals that members of a species send to prospective mates, such
as a canarys song and a peacocks tail. The overwhelming majority of
these communications feature the male as the sender and the female
as the receiver. While both the male and the female have an interest
in reproducing, their reproductive strategiesas so many evolutionary
biologists and psychologists have pointed outdiverge. Because sperm
is cheap and easy to produce, it is in the best interest of males to mate
as often as possible. Since reproduction often involves an enormous
investment of time and energy on the part of the female, she benefits
most by carefully selecting the best mate available.
The problem here lies in defining best mate. In traditional evolutionary theory, there are two ways to define this phrase. The first is in
terms of pair bonding, where the best mate is the one who has access
to the most resources, such as food; has the best status; and has a willingness to raise offspring. The second is in terms of actual copulation,
where the best mate is the one who has the best genes. Obviously, the
possessor of the best resources is unlikely to possess the best genes; this
is responsible for much of the extra-pair coupling in the natural world,
from the female indigo buntingNorth American birds previously considered monogamous but now known to produce 40 percent of their offspring through adulterous liaisonsto the heroines of the worlds greatest works of literatureHelen of Troy, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary,
Molly Bloom, Lady Chatterley, and Daisy Buchanan, to name only a
few. The qualities that attract a woman to a husband are often not the
same as those that attract a woman to a sexual partner.7
Sex, Lies, and Phenotypes


But what qualities attract women to specific packages of genes? Perhaps the most common answer to this question is the completely circular assertion that women are attracted to men who are attractive to
women. Any physical or behavioral attribute that is considered attractive in a male will lead to more mating opportunities and, therefore,
more opportunities to distribute his genes into the next generation
including the genes for his attractive traits. This theory of sexual selectionoften associated with the pioneering work of English biologist
Sir Ronald Fisher (18901962)holds that traits acted upon by sexual
selection do not need to enhance fitness in any other way. Perhaps the
most iconic example of this phenomenon is the peacocks tail, a huge,
clumsy appendage whose attractiveness to females seems to be its only
selection advantage. As Matt Ridley writes of the peacocks tail in The
Red Queen, it hardly matters whether the male chosen is the best
male; what counts is that he is the most fashionable, as his sons will be.
. . . If the goal is to have the sexiest son in the next generation, then one
way of doing that is to mate with the sexiest male.8
If the Fisher hypothesis is correct, sexual selection provides an excellent example of a different kind of useful fictionone that becomes
true simply by being believed. For example, if a man with a sixth toe on
his left foot were a good enough seducer to convince large numbers of
women that sixth toes were sexy, then all six-toed men in the population
would enjoy increased reproductive success. Women who believed this
fiction would tend to have 1) more six-toed sons and 2) more daughters
who would be attracted to men with a sixth toe. In the next generation,
then, six-toed men would enjoy even more reproductive success and
so on into the generations, until boys with five toes were considered
ugly and deformed. In this way, after many thousands of generations, a
sixth toe could become standard equipment for a species, even though
it would provide no independent adaptive advantage and could even
decrease the organisms chance for survival.
If females within a population, for whatever reason, begin to believe
that a certain trait is desirablebe it a large and colorful tail, an Italian
last name, a hairy chest, or a bone stuck through the nosethis trait
will then become more and more desirable as the males who possess it
continue to pass it on through their increased opportunities to mate. As

Sex, Lies, and Phenotypes

the entire population begins to develop the trait, it may become more
and more exaggeratedas in the case of the peacocks tailas males
must go to new extremes to compete for females. The result of such
runaway sexual selection may be a trait that is maladaptive in every way
other than mate choice. What may have started as a signal of fitness
(good color in tail feathers giving an indication of overall health) becomes exactly the opposite. Yet sexual selection continues to favor the
trait simply because it plays a role in mate choice. The great utility of
the fiction is that it creates its own fact.
opposing interests:
the size of the fight in the shrimp

Few interests oppose as clearly and absolutely as the interests of a predator and its prey. It might seem incredible to claim that I could find
common cause with an organism that wants to eat me for dinner, but,
according to a number of evolutionary biologists, I very well might. The
key lies in the price of the meal. Most organisms need to eat, but some
food comes with a higher costin energy expended, time wasted, and
risks incurredthan its caloric value justifies. Personally, I feel this way
about eating the small, fleshy morsel at the bottom of an artichoke leaf
or the meat inside of an uncracked walnut. Whatever pleasure or nutritional value I might gain from these foods is more than offset by the
trouble it takes to actually get to the food. Therefore, in their natural
state, artichokes and walnuts are perfectly safe from me. The same principle applies to food that requires a long chase or a hard fight.
The much-discussed stotting action of Thomson gazelles, while deceptive, has the potential to benefit both predator and prey. For years
scientists have puzzled at the fact that some members of this species literally jump up and down in the presence of lions and other predators
as if daring them to attack. This action has often been interpreted as a
signal to predators designed to communicate a message such as, I am a
superior, fast gazelle! Youll never succeed in catching me, so dont waste
your time and energy on trying.9 If the signal is trueif the gazelle
really is faster than the predatorthen the communication serves the
interest of both predator and prey; the lion can choose another gazelle
for its meal, and the gazelle can avoid a costly high-speed chase. Even
if the gazelle is not faster than the lionbut only faster than another
Sex, Lies, and Phenotypes


gazelle that happens to be nearbyit still pays for the lion to believe
the communication and chase a gazelle that will require less expenditure of energy.
A much higher cost can be imposed on an organism when a potential mealor, more likely, a competitor for resourcesis inclined to
fight back. A great deal of animal communication occurs in aggressive
contexts, write Searcy and Nowicki. An organism that incurs a higher
cost than its opponent is often victorious, thus both animals will benefit if they honestly signal their level of aggressiveness at the start of
the encounter.10 Clearly, however, signals of aggressive intent provide
a huge temptation to cheatto overstate ones aggression in order to
achieve the desired resources without a fight. For this reason, there are
dogs whose bark is worse than their bite, small frogs whose croaks mimic
their much larger cousins, and tenured faculty members who regularly
threaten to quit their jobs if they are not given their way. However, no
species yet encountered (except possibly the tenured faculty member)
can duplicate the moxie of the mantis shrimp, as described by Trivers
in Social Evolution:
A mantis shrimp that has just molted is soft-shelled; it can neither
attack nor defend itself and, when cornered, is easily killed. But it
can threaten and this is exactly what it does: it responds to an intruder by greatly increasing the frequency of its claw display, sometimes combining this with a lunge at the opponent. . . . About half
of the time this bluff is successful and the intruder retreats, but the
other half of the time the intruder keeps coming, at which point
the cavity-holder invariably departs. Not a single soft-shelled bluffer
persists when its bluff is called.11
The aggressive posture of the soft-shelled shrimp is a complete fiction,
and its usefulness to the shrimp cannot be disputed. Yet as we have seen
so often, there also appears to be an advantage to the organism that believes the lie. This is not to say that falling for a bluff provides any kind
of advantage in the short term. The advantage, rather, is in being inclined to believe honest displays of aggression, which, it turns out, the
mantis shrimp make in great abundance when they really are willing to
fight. This is especially true, Trivers reports, just prior to their molting,

Sex, Lies, and Phenotypes

as if building up a reputation that threats will be backed up by aggressive actions just before the time when they will not be.12

The Lies that Bind

Anyone who has ever been within earshot of the question Do I look
fat in this? knows that a polite lie is often better for everybody than an
uncomfortable truth. Indeed, as Smith explains, deception underlies
the entire structure of social rules and conventions that our society (like
most others) depends on to maintain social cohesion. Children, he
points out, are instructed, on pain of punishment, to feign respect for
their elders, to write heartfelt thank-you notes for disappointing Christmas presents, and to refrain from telling grandma that her breath stinks.
. . . The child who fails to master this skill pays a heavy price of disapproval, punishment, and social ostracism.13 As adults, we generally convert these forms of dishonesty into positive moral principlessending
somebody a thank-you card for a birthday or wedding gift is good manners, no matter how little one appreciates the gift. Offending people
unnecessarily is considered very rude, even if the offending comment
is completely true. A person who simply told the truth all of the time,
who said whatever he or she thought when asked for an opinion, and
who refused to observe the social conventions that absolutely require
polite deception, would very quickly become a social pariah.
Contemporary research into the nature of dishonesty suggests that
a large portion of everyday lies fit into the general pattern of promoting and preserving social cohesion. In the mid 1990s, University of Virginia psychologist Bella M. DePaulo and her collaborators conducted
a series of experiments aimed at separating lies told for the benefit of
the liar from those told for the perceived benefit of the lied to. They
had people keep journals and record every deceptive communication
made during the course of a week. The lies were coded into various
categories and placed into quantitative matrices for further analysis. In
one study researchers found that about 25 percent of all deceptive communicationsand nearly half of deceptive communications between
two womenfall into the category of other-oriented lies, or lies told
to protect or enhance other persons psychologically or to advantage or
protect the interests of others.14 When lies to close friends and family
are factored into these equations, altruistic lieslies told to save face,
Sex, Lies, and Phenotypes


express support, inspire confidence, preserve harmony, sooth hurt feelings, and otherwise express support for a loved oneoccur nearly twice
as often as self-centered lies. The researchers in this study concluded
that efforts to eliminate totally all everyday lies from close personal relationships would probably be misguided.15
Other research is even more persuasive on this point. In a 1988 experiment, Paula V. Lippard had seventy-four subjects report all of their
lies over a twenty-one-day period. The self-reported lies were coded
by two trained judges and assigned to one of eight motivation categories with sixteen subcategories. The two most frequent categories cited
were both directed at preserving social cohesion: Conflict Avoidance
(29.2 percent) and Protection of Others (18 percent). Thus altruistic
lies accounted for nearly half of all intentional falsehoods in the study,
followed by Self-Protection (16.5 percent), Obtaining Resources
(13 percent), Excuses (9.7 percent), Avoiding or Increasing Affiliation (8.3 percent), Manipulating Others (3.9 percent), and Joking (1.5 percent).16 If this research is correct, somewhere between onefourth and one-half of the lies that people tell us are actually intended
for our benefit. While some of this deceptive communication may be
misguided and lead to other problems in the future, much of it does
spare us psychic pain, prevent bad feelings, and ensure that our social
group functions harmoniously.
For modern humans, the consequences of instability within our social group (the 150 or so people with whom we interact regularly) are,
if not minor, at least survivable. Our pre-modern ancestors, however,
lived in much more precarious times. Small groups of hunter-gatherers with convoluted kinship networks and alliances could, at any time,
slip into the cycles of recrimination and mimetic violence chronicled
so eloquently by Ren Girard in Violence and the Sacred. As Girard explains, a single insult, slight, or affront in such a society could initiate a
series of escalating reprisals that puts the very existence of a society in
jeopardy.17 This idea of a society teetering on the brink of violent collapse calls to mind Thomas Hobbess war of all against all. Hobbess
solution was for humans to construct and submit to civil governments.
An equally important part of the solution may be to be very careful with
unpleasant truths. To understand how lying fits into the picture of Hobbesian nature, we now turn to Hobbess contemporary, the seventeenth112

Sex, Lies, and Phenotypes

century playwright William Wycherly, and his most famous play, The
Country Wife.18
As a Restoration playwright, Wycherly was in the business of creating small, self-contained societies and peopling them with flat characters who conformed to the dramatic stereotypes of the period (rake,
fop, sexually aggressive older woman, and so on). The Country Wife includes such aptly named characters as Mr. Horner, the rake-protagonist
who lives his life to cuckold (that is clap horns on) other men; Mr.
Pinchwife, who is resolved to keep his wife away from men who might
try to seduce her (thereby embarrassing him); and a cast of supporting
characters with names such as Lady Fidget, Mrs. Squeamish, and Mr.
Sparkish. Simply knowing that the main plot of The Country Wife involves a conflict between Mr. Horner and Mr. Pinchwife tells us much
of what we need to know about both the subject matter and the overall
tone of the workneither of which differ in any significant way from
the bulk of comedic plays written during the Restoration.
What is different, though, is the central deception that Horner uses
to accomplish his goals. Deception is perfectly acceptable in the moral
universe of Restoration comedy. Unlike lesser rakes, who find ways to
overstate their fortunes or their intentions, Horner convinces a quack
doctor to spread the rumor that he is impotent. As counterintuitive as
this may seem, Horner realizes that, by making himself the butt of jokes
among all of the men in town, he will gain access to their wives, whom
they will not bother to protect from a rake who is no longer in a position to muddy the waters of their gene pools. Horners plan works brilliantly with the town women, who are used to deception and know how
to play the game. It runs into trouble, however, when Horner sets his
sights on Margery Pinchwife, a nave country beauty whose husband,
obsessed with not becoming a cuckold, keeps his wife locked away and
under the watchful care of his sister, Alethea.
The problem is not that Pinchwife restricts access to Margery. The
challenge of breaking through the defenses is what attracts Horner to her
in the first place. However, Margery, the country wife, does not know
how to play the game; she does not know when she is supposed to lie.
When Margery first experiences London life at a play, she reports back
to her husband, quite frankly, that she found the players finer folks
than he. When Pinchwife tries to scare her by telling her that one of
Sex, Lies, and Phenotypes


the lewdest fellows in town [Horner] told me he was in love with you,
Margery makes no effort to hide her delight.19 The ensuing convoluted
plot twists, clever disguises, mistaken identities, and sustained double
entendres come right off the Restoration comedy shelf until the final
scene, which departs substantially from the conventions of the day by
utterly failing to resolve the plays central conflict. Unlike almost every
other play in the European comedic tradition, both the characters and
the dysfunctional society that they inhabit are returned, in the end, to
the status quo ante without any real hope of change, growth, or release.
The device that effects this non-resolution is an implausible lie that the
entire community actively decides to believe.
The Country Wife teeters on the edge of Hobbesian violence and collapse more than most comedies do. Horners deception works so well
that, in the space of only a few days, he collects four new lovers: Lady
Fidget; her sister, Dainty Fidget; Mrs. Squeamish; and, at the very end,
Margery Pinchwife. In the final scene nearly all of the plays characters converge on Horners apartment, where the deception begins to
unravel. The first three womeneach of whom believes herself to be
the only one privy to Horners deceptionlearn about each other and
nearly give the game away before agreeing to keep the secret. Margery,
however, refuses to play along and announces that she intends to marry
Horner. When Sir Jasper Fidget (Lady Fidgets husband) and Pinchwife
arrive on the scene, the entire community moves to the verge of collapse.
Pinchwife draws his sword to kill his wife, whom Horner prepares to
defend. However, just as the play threatens to end with the body count
of a Shakespearian tragedy, salvation comes in the form of a pair of lies:
the quack doctor repeats the original story of Horners impotence, and a
domestic servant named Lucy concocts a plausible narrative to explain
Margerys presence in Horners apartment. Over Margerys objections
she offers her certain knowledge that the slander is falsethe rest of
the characters all rush forward to assert its absolute truthfulness. Margery falls in line and, on the last page, accepts the collective fiction of
Horners innocence.
It is here we must consider allegorical interpretations of The Country Wife (and, indeed, one would have a very difficult time making the
case that characters named Horner, Pinchwife, and Squeamish should
not be read allegorically). Wycherlys final scene draws a compelling

Sex, Lies, and Phenotypes

portrait of a civilized society about to revert to a Hobbesian state of nature. The women are jealous of each other, and the men are exhibiting the sexual aggression that, evolutionary psychologists tell us, lies at
the heart of manyif not mostacts of human aggression.20 The only
way to avoid a devastating cycle of reciprocal violence is for all of the
members of the community to agree on a lie that will save face, placate
honor, and restore the uneasy social balance that existed before the beginning of the play. Margery Pinchwife, the only character who resists
this lie, is coerced by the other characters until she consents and goes
along with the fictional narrative capable of preventing the complete
collapse of the social group.
This final scene of The Country Wife illustrates how certain types of
deceptive behavior might have served as a precursor to the human attraction to fiction. Accepting lies, as Margery Pinchwife finally learns,
is as much a part of social cohesion as telling them. The same social
forces that require children to lie about gifts they dont like and breath
that they think stinks, encourage adults to accept certain lies without
asking too many questions. Often this polite acceptance goes beyond
pretending to believe an obviously false statement and requires genuine, if unexamined, belief. For example, if a young couple sends me a
thank-you note for a wedding gift, I dont call them up to find out if they
really liked the battery-operated apple peeler that I bought them. Nor
would I go to their house and rifle through their kitchen drawers trying
to make sure that they hadnt returned it. Similarlym when I apologize
to my wife and admit that I was wrong about something, she doesnt
usually cross-examine me to see if I am secretly harboring the suspicion
that I was right. When we encounter a lie that has clearly been designed
to help us save face or prevent unnecessary contention within our family or social group, it is usually in our best interest not only to believe it
passively but to willingly suspend our disbeliefmuch as Samuel Taylor Coleridge says we must do when reading fiction21and ignore evidence that conflicts with our credulity.

Sex, Lies, and Phenotypes


Deceiving Ourselves and Others
Deprive the average man of his vital lie, and youve robbed him of happiness
as well.

Henrik Ibsen, The Wild Duck

When a person cannot deceive himself, the chances are against his being able
to deceive other people.

Mark Twain, Mark Twains Autobiography

Jousting with a Madman
The first chapter of this study began with literatures greatest storyteller;
the final chapter begins with its greatest madman. The two occupations
are not all that different. All that separates Don Quixote and Scheherazade is a thin layer of self-consciousness about the fictional nature of
their shared enterprise; Scheherazade understands that the truths she
tells her husband are embedded in fictions, while Quixote believes that
the fictions he tells himself are derived from the truth. Quixote deceives
himself, but this does not mean that his fictions are not useful. In many
cases his fantastic stories are more valuable to him, his acquaintances,
and his society than the truth. The utility of his fictions depends absolutely on his belief in their truth. The liar will always falter when the
game is no longer worth the candle, but the true believer will live by,
and die for, his or her beliefs no matter how ludicrous or impossible
they seem to others.
To be sure, Quixotes self-delusions are often painful and even life117

threatening. Throughout his adventures he falls from windmills; stumbles over farm animals; and is assaulted by muleteers, convicts, soldiers,
and travelers on nearly every stop on his journey. His delusions also do
little to help with his reproductive success, as he devotes both body and
soul to a womanthe peerless Dulcinea del Tobosowho does not actually exist. How, then, are Don Quixotes delusions examples of the
way that self-deception can enhance fitness? To answer this question,
we must look at the places in the text where Quixote, the madman,
places himself in competition with those who are sane. If his delusions
give him an advantage in these competitions, we can at least propose
that there might be some advantage to self-deception in the area of intraspecies competition.
We find an example of just such a phenomenon in the beginning
of Don Quixote, Part II, Cervantess 1615 sequel to the 1605 original.
The running joke of Part II is that all of the characters who encounter
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have read Part I and, therefore, know
everything that readers know about the pair. Part II also has a somewhat
more coherent story arc than the original, including a new antagonist
for Quixote: Sampson Carrasco, a bachelor (i.e., university graduate)
who lives in Quixotes village and sets out to use his intelligence to restore the good Dons sanity.
To accomplish his goal, Carrasco enters Quixotes fantasy world and
pretends to be a rival knight, the Knight of the Wood (later rechristened
the Knight of the Looking Glasses or Knight of the Mirrors). Assured
of victory by his youth and his intellect, Carrasco plans to vanquish
Don Quixoteto forbid him, as only a victorious fellow knight can,
to give up knight errantry for a period of two years. The distinguished
bachelor should have an easy time defeating the less-than-distinguished
knight-errant. Carrasco is in top physical shape; he is educated, clever,
and well versed in strategy. He is also quite sane. Don Quixote, on the
other hand, is nearly sixty years old. He rides a broken-down nag, wears
a decrepit suit of armor with a cardboard box for a visor, and fights entirely for the glory of a woman who does not exist. Of course Don Quixote is also mad; he tilts at windmills, steals shaving basins, and wages
epic battles against sheep. Quixote honestly believes he is a knight-errant, straight out of one of the sixteenth-century courtly romances that
he has spent his life reading.

Deceiving Ourselves and Others

To his credit, Carrasco is motivated partly by a sincere desire to keep

Quixote from harm, but this is mingled with an equally sincere desire
to demonstrate his cleverness and have some fun at the expense of a
crazy old man. Carrasco approaches his encounter with Quixote without
seriousness, treating it as a game that he is certain to win. Don Quixote, on the other hand, has only one motive in the contest: to defend
the honor of his lady fair, the lovely (albeit fictional) Dulcinea del Toboso. Quixote approaches the conflict with the high seriousness that,
in his mind, it deserves. Quixote never doubts that his skills in battle
and the rightness of his cause will bring him victory. And it does! Don
Quixote unseats his opponent. Like his biblical namesake, Sampson
Carrasco overestimates his abilities, underestimates his opponent, and
comes crashing down in defeat. Carrasco is even mocked by the peasant he hires to impersonate his squire, who poignantly asks, Which is
the greater madman, he who is so because he cannot help it, or he who
is so on purpose?1
The jousting match is more than a simple retelling of The Tortoise
and the Hare. Quixote wins largely because of a lucky breakwhen he
stops to help Sancho climb a tree, Carrasco stops his horse, making him
an easy target when Quixote starts again. Quixote also wins because of
the way that he frames the task; both he and Sampson Carrasco expect
to win, but Carrasco expects to win a trivial game with a crazy old man
while Quixote expects to win a duel of honor with a dangerous opponent. In Quixotes mind the match is serious, the threat of death is real,
and the stakes are worth dying for. Carrasco, who does not share Quixotes delusions, does not bring the same sense of purpose to the match,
and when the crucial moment comes, he makes a careless misstep that
comes very close to costing him his life.2 In this situationa battle that
really could end in the death of one of the participantsQuixotes delusion focuses his attention, removes his hesitation, and gives him a critical edge over a stronger opponent. His false beliefs are more adaptive
than Carrascos true ones because they help him win the fight. Quixote
would have lost any chance at victory if he had suddenly become sane
and realized that he was an emaciated old man riding a broken-down
nag and wearing a cardboard box on his head. He only wins by remaining deluded about his true nature and abilities.
One line of recent research suggests that this kind of self-delusion
Deceiving Ourselves and Others


might work just as well in actual modern combat as in fictional jousting

matches. The Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham has examined
the evolutionary basis of military incompetence, which occurs in a
battle when one of the opponents is patently weaker than the other,
but still chooses to fight despite nonviolent options.3 While other primate species often engage in organized raids, these acts of violence are
characterized by the ability to assess accurately the costs of premeditated and unprovoked conflict (6). Military incompetence, on the other
hand, appears to be evolutionarily novel in the hominid linea behavior that evolved after the split from chimpanzees and must therefore
have evolved specifically, possibly to fulfill some adaptive purpose.4 After
surveying the problem, Wrangham offers two hypotheses to explain the
evolution of self-delusion in combat. The performance-enhancement
hypothesis suggests that by suppressing conflicting thoughts or feelings, positive illusions enable individuals or groups to be more effective
in achieving a goal. The opponent-deception hypothesis proposes
that humans tend to deceive themselves as a way to bluff successfully.
The two hypotheses are mutually inclusive and suggest that, ultimately, exaggerated assessment of the probability of winning increases the
probability of winning.5 Overconfidence, delusion, unrealistic expectations, and overall self-deception can therefore be more adaptiveand
therefore more usefulthan the ability to assess a situation accurately
and respond appropriately.
Self-deception can be adaptive in non-combat situations as well. Over
the past twenty years ucla psychologist Shelly E. Taylor and her collaborators have produced more than two dozen articles examining the
mental and physical benefits of positive illusions, such as an inflated belief in ones own abilities, an exaggerated sense of control, or an
unjustified optimism in the future. In the first of these articles, Taylor
and Jonathon D. Brown take direct aim at the common belief among
professionals that the psychologically healthy person is one who maintains close contact with reality. They point to solid survey data showing
that most people have an unrealistically positive perception of themselves, their abilities, and their ability to control events in their life.6 If
mental health is defined as having beliefs that align with reality, then
most people would have to be considered mentally ill. However, they

Deceiving Ourselves and Others

evidence from converging sources suggests that positive illusions

about the self, ones control, and the future may be especially apparent and adaptive under circumstances of adversity, that is, circumstances that might be expected to produce depression or lack
of motivation. Under these circumstances, the belief in ones self
as a competent, efficacious actor behaving in a world with a generally positive future may be especially helpful in overcoming setbacks, potential blows to self-esteem, and potential erosions in
ones view of the future.7
In subsequent articles Taylor and others have presented evidence that
positive illusions increase peoples ability to recover from life-threatening diseases, combat aids, manage stress, and cope with extreme adversity.8 The effect of a positive illusion need not even be dramatic to be
adaptive. Lets say that a seriously ill person who had only a 1 percent
chance of recovery could increase this to a 2 percent chance through
unrestrained, completely unjustifiable optimism. Over thousands of generations, this slight survival advantage would cause selection to favor
the unrealistic optimists over the somber realists. Clinical studies have
repeatedly demonstrated that optimism and positive thinking in the
seriously ill can increase chances of survival by far more than a single
percentage point.9
Sexual selection, too, benefits from increased self-confidenceeven
when such confidence is entirely unjustified. Confident people, especially confident men, are often seen as more attractive than unconfident
peopleeven if their confidence is unfounded. Confidence accompanies material success or physical prowess often enough for potential
mates to equate one with the other. In a long-term committed relationship, a woman can see through the bluster of an overconfident male.
Yet, according to evolutionary psychologist David M. Buss this is not
true in casual encounters, where confidence itself often proves inherently valuable. To illustrate how this works, Buss relates the following
narrative from an interview with a single woman:
I was sitting at a corner table talking to my girlfriend and sipping
on a gin and tonic. Then Bob walked in. He walked into the bar
like he owned the place, smiling broadly and very confident. He
Deceiving Ourselves and Others


caught my eye, and I smiled. He sat down and started talking about
how horses were his hobby. He casually mentioned that he owned
a horse farm. When the last call for alcohol came, he was still talking about how expensive his horses were, and said that we should
go riding together. He said, In fact, we could go riding right now.
It was 2:00 a.m., and I left the bar and had sex with him. I never
did find out whether he owned horses.10
The evolutionary value of these horses does not depend on their factual
existence. It does not matter if the man has them, thinks he has them,
or is lying about having them. All that matters to his success in the mating game is that he can talk about them with confidence.
This discussion of the value of illusions, delusions, and self-deceptions takes us to the heart of Cervantess project in Don Quixote. One
of the most tantalizing things about Cervantess masterpiece is that it
occasionally forces us to come to grips with the superiority of its heros
delusionsto ask, as Carrascos squire asks, which one of us is mad?
Quixotes madness parallels that of the optimists who believe, against
all odds, that they will recover from fatal illnessesand then do so. It
is also similar to the general who believes that he can defeat the most
powerful army on earth or the civil rights leader who believes that a
powerful country or empire can be persuaded to change by nonviolent
resistance. Such people are usually considered insane by their cultures,
and only a few of them ever prove to be otherwise. As Michael Schermer
reminds us, the mere fact that someone is universally considered wrong
is not a guarantee that he or she is right.11 Enough supposed delusions
turn out to be true, however, to maintain some selection pressure for
self deceptionto act as a corrective to the inherent limitations of reality as perceived by sane and rational minds.

The Vital Lie

As discussed in the previous chapter, the final scene of William Wycherlys The Country Wife is an example of the possible adaptive value of believing a lie. Mr. Pinchwifes closing words in this playFor my own
sake fain I would all believe / Cuckolds, like lovers, should themselves
deceivesuggest that the real adaptive value of deception might be in
the ability to deceive oneself successfully. We have already seen how this

Deceiving Ourselves and Others

can be true in combat situations and in ones general sense of well being;
research suggests that it may also be true in precisely the case that Mr.
Pinchwife describes: the fate of the cuckold. The word cuckold comes
from one of the most impressive cons found anywhere in nature: the
actions of the cuckoo bird. Cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other
species, often convincing unsuspecting birds to raise young cuckoos as
their own. For the cuckoo parents, this is an evolutionary jackpot: they
get their genes firmly entrenched in future generations without having
to contribute a single worm or beetle grub to support their offspring.
Among humans and many other mammals, the same basic strategy
slipping an extra child or two into the gene pool through affairs with
women whose mates will raise the children as their ownoffers tremendous genetic benefits to the reproducing males.
How often does this deception occur? Until the development of reliable dna testing in the latter part of the twentieth century, human
males could rarely be completely sure of the paternity of their children.
Reliable statistics on adultery and extra-pair conception are notoriously
difficult to come by, since nearly everyone involved has an incentive to
lie. Jared M. Diamond reports that a genetic study conducted in America in the 1940s, while not looking specifically for children conceived
adulterously, showed conclusively that 10 percent of the children in the
sample were not biologically related to the males reported to the hospital as their fathers. Similar studies in England and America have shown
adulterine birth rates as high as 30 percent in some sample groups.12
These figures vary amongand withindifferent cultures, but there
are children in every society who are raised by men who have unknowingly agreed to commit resources to benefit somebody elses child. It is
likely (though impossible to prove) that rates of extra-pair conceptions
were even higher in prehistoric times when there were fewer social and
cultural mechanisms to enforce mens and womens fidelity.
The genetic incentives for men to cuckold other men are clear and
easy to see. But why has natural selection left men so vulnerable to this
kind of deception? If the cuckold pays a heavy genetic price for his credulityand all indications are that he doeswhy havent easy-to-spot
genetic markers evolved to remove all doubt about paternity? The lack
of such markers is counterintuitive; it would seem to be in a males
best interest to be able to identify his offspring and withhold resources
Deceiving Ourselves and Others


from other mens children. However, when extra-pair conceptions are

common, males have a genetic interest in concealing paternity so that
their own children will not be identified by other males who might be
raising them. A formula developed by Mark Pagel predicts that a rate
of extra-pair conception above 10 percent will prevent genetic markers
from ever evolving.13
Concealed paternity, though, brings its own set of problemsproblems for which the optimal solution can be found in yet another kind
of useful self-deception. Without a marker to establish genetic relatedness a male cannot be sure that a child belongs to somebody else,
but he also cannot be sure that it belongs to him. Therefore, as Paola
Bressan points out, all babies start paying the cost of paternity uncertainty, that is, the reduction in paternal care due to fathers not knowing
whether they have truly sired their mates offspring. To minimize this
cost, Bressan argues, women have a strong tendency to reassure men of
paternity by frequently remarking on babys resemblance to her mate.
More surprisingly, however, fathers have a strong tendency to believe
these reassuranceseven when they are falsebecause of their overall
genetic interest in not marking their offspring for identification by others. We should then expect, he asserts, that across cultures, mothers
should be inclined to claim that babies look just like their daddies.14
The resemblance of children to their fathers is, therefore, a useful
fiction that mothers have an interest in creating and fathers have an interest in believing. This does not mean that women are dishonest and
fathers are dupes. Most children really are the offspring of their putative
fathers, and most mothers really do perceive a resemblance between
their children and their mates. In reality, however, most children do
not look very much like their fathers. Studies have shown that people
unrelated to a child tend to identify the biological father correctly only
slightly more often than random chance would predict.15 The tendency
of mothers to make, and of fathers to believe, exaggerated claims of resemblance appears to be a cognitive adaptation built around a counterfactual proposition that everybody has a genetic interest in believing.
Henrik Ibsens masterful play, The Wild Duck, offers a stark example of
what can happen when a useful fiction is punctured with an ugly truth.
The play centers around Hjalmar Ekdal, a man of modest means who
lives a quiet, reasonably happy life with his wife, Gina, who helps him

Deceiving Ourselves and Others

run his photography business, and his daughter, Hedvig, who adores
him in every way. Hjalmars happy life comes crashing down, however, when his childhood friendthe hopeless idealist Gregers Werle
returns to town with a mission: to answer the demands of the ideal
and set his friends life upon the solid path of truth. Through conversations with Gregers, Hjalmer learns that his family was horridly abused
by Gregerss own father, Haakon Werle, who allowed Hjalmers father
to go to prison for a crime that Haakon committed. Hjalmer also learns
that his wife was once the mistress of Haakon Werle, who is actually
Hedvigs father. Unable to handle the truth, Hjalmer rejects his wife
and daughter and leaves his house. The play ends with Hedvig committing suicide by shooting herself in the chest.
The Wild Duck is often seen as a corrective to the progressive idealism that Ibsen himself had advocated in his earlier play An Enemy of
the People. (Ibsen, a true satirist, was an equal opportunity annoyer.)
Dr. Relling, one of Hjalmers boarders, takes it upon himself to sustain
peoples life liesthe overriding fiction that people create for themselves to allow them to keep despair at bay. Rellings view, of course, directly contradicts Gregers view that truth is the only stable foundation
for a happy life. In act 5, the two confront each other as representatives
of their opposite world views:
relling: Good Lord, I am supposed to be some kind of doctor, Im
ashamed to say. Well, then I ought to look after the poor sick
people I live with.
gregers: Oh come! Is Hjalmar Ekdal sick, too?
relling: Most of the world is sick, Im afraid.
gregers: And whats your prescription for Hjalmar?
relling: My standard one. I try to keep up the life-lie in him.
gregers: The life-lie? I dont think I heard
relling: Oh yes, I said the life-lie. The life-lie, dont you seethats
the animating principle of life.16
The logic of concealed paternity can be seen clearly in The Wild
Duck. The Ekdal family is ultimately destroyed, not only by an intrusive
acquaintance (though Gregerss meddling certainly doesnt help) but
by an incontrovertible genetic marker: both Hedvig Ekdal and Haakon
Deceiving Ourselves and Others


Werle suffer from weak eyesight brought on by a congenital disorder.

This genetic confirmation of paternity hastens Hjalmars disastrous decision to abandon his family. While Hedvigs paternity remains in doubt,
everybody has an interest in believing the fiction. When the doubt is
removed, the entire family collapses. This is a rough corollary to what
happens genetically when markers of paternity become too obvious:
everybody involvedmothers, fathers, and childrensuffers a decline
in their genetic influence.

The Pinocchio Problem

There is one final area in which self-deception provides an advantage
to the self-deceived: those who believe their own lies are much more
effective at lying to others. The human mind is a remarkably effective
lie detector. Modern polygraphs are designed to measure the minute
physiological changes that accompany intentional deception, such as
rapid respiration, elevated heart rate, and increased perspiration. However, most people can detect most liars without the aid of technology.
Psychologist David Livingston Smith refers to this as the Pinocchio
Effective deception is not always easy, especially when the perpetrator has to face a skeptical audience that is prepared to penalize dishonesty. Deception makes us anxious because lying can be
dangerous business. At best, being exposed may mean that others
will keep the liar at arms length. At worst, it may be lethal. Under this kind of pressure, even the most determined con artist is
likely to get the jitters. Consequently, human liars tend to follow
the example of Pinocchio and rat on themselves by involuntary,
nonverbal signs.17
In addition to his expanding nose, Pinocchio has the problem of an
overactive conscienceexternalized in the original tale, and ever after, as a talking cricket. Thus Pinocchio, like all of us, is doubly constrained in his attempts to deceive others: first by a telltale physiological
response and second by a nagging source of anxiety. Nature, however,
has developed an elegant solution to the Pinocchio problem, which
the legendary biologist Robert Trivers has explored in several impor126

Deceiving Ourselves and Others

tant papers. We are selected, Trivers insists, to deceive ourselves the

better to deceive others.18
Trivers supports his argument about the biological role of self-deception with important findings in cognitive psychologyand, specifically,
with a series of experiments by Ruben C. Gur and Harold A. Sackeim.
After establishing that people have identifiable physiological responses
to hearing their own voiceswhich can be measured through galvanic
skin response (gsr) readingsGur and Sakheim tested subjects by playing recordings of different people speaking and asked them to identify
their own voices. They found that peoples unconscious responses to
their own voice, as measured by gsr reactions, were substantially more
accurate than their reported responses. This was true of those who misidentified their own voice as that of someone else as well as for those
who misidentified other voices as their own. From this evidence the researchers theorized that people have four cognitive prerequisites for selfdeception: 1) we can believe contradictory things; 2) we can hold these
contradictory beliefs simultaneously in different regions of the brain;
3) we tend to be consciously aware of only one of the contradictory beliefs; and 4) in our conscious minds we tend to hold false beliefs about
ourselves in relation to others.19
What do we lie to ourselves about in order to successfully lie to
others? Almost any lie could be a candidate if we manage to convince
ourselves that we are telling the truth. Think of the Manchurian Candidate scenario in which an American soldier during the Korean War,
hypnotized by Chinese agents to become an assassin, is activated by posthypnotic commands and kills without ever realizing what he is doing.
If self-deception does occur in such dramatic cases, it does so too infrequently for natural selection to pay much attention. But self-deceptive
fictions need not be drastic to be useful; Trivers and others have identified a number of more plausible scenarios where internal delusions may
operate quite effectively to support external deceptions.

We have already seen how Don Quixotes delusions of grandeur help

him in a conflict with a younger and stronger man, demonstrating Richard Wranghams performance-enhancement hypothesis. Quixote, however, does not actually deceive Carrasaco, as Wranghams second hyDeceiving Ourselves and Others


pothesisthe opponent-deception hypothesismight predict; this is

largely because Carrasco already knows Quixote well enough to avoid
the deception. Usually we must assess the strength of a potential opponent immediately before deciding between fight and flight. As Wrangham states, in conflicts involving mutual assessment, an exaggerated
assessment of the probability of winning increases the probability of winning. Selection therefore favors this form of overconfidence.20
The tendency to overestimate ones own competence in relation to
others appears nearly universal among human beings. Researchers refer
to this as the Lake Wobegone Effect, referring to Garrison Keillors radio description of a town where all the women are strong, all the men
are good looking, and all the children are above average. In his 1991
book, How We Know What Isnt So, Thomas Gilovich explores some of
the statistical evidence that confirms the existence of this general bias
of self-deception:
A survey of one million high-school seniors found that 70% thought
they were above average in leadership ability, and only 2% thought
they were below average. In terms of ability to get along with
others, all students thought they were above average, 60% thought
they were in the top 10%, and 25% thought they were in the top 1%!
Lest one think that such inflated self-assessments occur only in the
minds of callow high-school students, it should be pointed out that
a survey of university professors found that 94% thought they were
better at their jobs than their average colleague.21
Ironically, we may also benefit by underestimating our competence
at certain tasks. Trivers points out that, by deceiving down, an organism can make itself appear less large, less threatening, and perhaps less
attractive, thereby gaining an advantage.22 In human relations, people
who underestimate their own abilitiesand successfully convince others to do the samerealize the considerable benefit of low expectations.
When underestimation does lead to success, it is often judged more impressive than it really isas when a political candidate considered inarticulate performs with minimal competence in a debate. An even more
important benefit of low expectations may be a decrease in requests to
expend resources. I have, for example, managed to convince my wife

Deceiving Ourselves and Others

and I fully believe myselfthat I am not very handy around the house.
When asked to fix an appliance or make even a small home improvement, I generally bungle the job. Consequently, neither my wife nor
any of my friends ever ask me to spend time fixing things. Conversely,
a good friend of ours has proved himself so handy that, not only does
his own wife frequently ask him to spend time doing home repairs, but
my wife also calls him to come over whenever something needs fixing
in our house.

Trivers suggest that an individuals perception of its own motivation may

be biased in order to conceal the true motivation from others.23 Occasionally this occurs as psychotic self-delusion, as when Susan Smith
the South Carolina mother who drowned her two children in a local
lake when the man she was dating expressed that he did not want stepchildrenjustified her actions with these chilling words: My children,
Michael and Alex, are with our Heavenly Father now, and I know that
they will never be hurt again. As a mom, that means more than words
could ever say. . . . My children deserve to have the best, and now they
will.24 Though very few other people were deceived about Smiths motivations, it is likely that she convinced herselfat least for as long as it
took to perform the horrible act of filicide that rocked the nation.
Self-deception about motives is rarely this easy to spot. Human motivations are a complicated mixture of genuine altruism and cynical selfinterest, both of which often coexist in a single action. We seldom do
anything for a single reason, but, when we represent our motivations to
othersand to ourselveswe invariably put them in the best light possible, emphasizing the altruistic reasons for our actions and deemphasizing those that are selfish, spiteful, or just plain silly. We can usually
make this case quite successfully because it does not involve the overt
fabrication of a motive, but rather an exclusive focus on one part of a
mixed motive combined with a partial suppression of another. However, as Trivers points out, even when we deceive our conscious selves
about our motivations, it must be advantageous for the truth to be registered somewhere, so that mechanisms of self-deception are expected
to reside side-by-side with mechanisms for the correct apprehension of
Deceiving Ourselves and Others



Closely related to self-deception about motives is self-deception about

future intentions. All of us, I suspect, have promised to do something
with the full conscious intention of keeping the promise, even though
we realize, at some level, that we will probably never follow through.
At the moment that we make such a promise, we fully perceive ourselves as telling the truth. Once we obtain whatever present benefits
come from the promise of future service, we become much less committed to our promise than we were when we were making it. Many
candidates for public office, Im sure, really do believe the promises
they make during an election, and many young couples absolutely
mean the things that they promise each other before they are married.
Without such promises people would never get married or elected to
office; however, they are broken so frequently that few people really
expect them to be kept.

We deceive ourselves about the present when we conceal our motives,

and about the future when we misstate our intentions. But the most active area of self-deception is almost certainly our memory of the past. As
we discussed in chapter 2, our memories are, at best, sketchy approximations of actual past events. Natural limits of storage space and processing speed force us to use all kinds of cognitive strategies to compress,
redact, select, and eliminate unnecessary details from the images that
we store in long-term memory. This natural sketchiness of memory gives
us nearly endless opportunities to deceive ourselves about things that
happened in the past so that we can more convincingly deceive others. Trivers points out that we frequently rewrite our memories to make
them consistent with our present understandingmuch as the government in George Orwells 1984 rewrites archived news items to make
them fit present realities. This is why whenever we learn personal and
derogatory information about another person, we rarely have any difficulty telling people that we knew it all along.26 Most of us also have
a strong tendency to overestimate our role in past triumphs and to underestimate our culpability for past failures.


Deceiving Ourselves and Others

All of the data on human deception and self-deception makes it tempting to conclude that evolution made human beings exceptionally good
liars. However, the research really shows exactly the opposite: we are bad
liars who live in an environment where communication is rewarded for
many things other than accuracy. Deception is not unique to human
beings. As we have seen repeatedly, nearly all organisms can derive an
advantage from inaccurate communication. We are unique, however,
in feeling guilty about it. A butterfly has never felt guilty that its wing
design looked like the eyes of a fierce predator, and a cuckoo bird has
never lost sleep over slipping one of its eggs into another birds nest.
Yet human beings often become very anxious when they lie. Many of
us will tell the truth when it is clearly not in our interests to do so. Additionally, almost all of us lie so badly that our bodies give us away even
when we are firmly committed to the deception. It is because we are
not good liars, and because we often feel compelled to deal truthfully
with other people, that natural selection endowed us with the ability
to deceive ourselves.

Deceiving Ourselves and Others


Conclusion: why

just the facts, ma am doesn t work

You are to be in all things regulated and governed . . . by fact. We hope to

have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who
will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact.

Thomas Gradgrind, in Charles Dickenss Hard Times

Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on

lies will not understand this book either.

Kurt Vonnegut, Cats Cradle

Human beings are not fact machinesbeings who scan the environment
for information and then process it in their extremely large brains to produce pasteurized lumps of truth. Thomas Gradgrinds vision in Charles
Dickenss Hard Timesa board of fact, composed of commissioners of
fact, who will force the people to be a people of facthas never been
realized.1 Through the course of the novel, Gradgrind comes to understand that human beings are not governed by facts and that they cannot
be forced into a world of fact without a substantial amount of violence
against their very natures. There are times, of course, when we need accurate informationbut such times occur less frequently than we like
to imagine, as Edward O. Wilson reminds us in Consilience:
All that has been learned empirically about evolution in general
and mental process in particular suggests that the brain is a ma-


chine assembled not to understand itself, but to survive. Because

these two ends are basically different, the mind unaided by factual
knowledge from science sees the world in little pieces. It throws a
spotlight on those portions of the world it must know in order to
live to the next day, and surrenders the rest to darkness. For thousands of generations people lived and reproduced with no need
to know how the machinery of the brain works. Myth and self-deception, tribal identity and ritual, more than objective truth gave
them the adaptive edge.2
Wilson speaks to one of humanitys defining paradoxes. We depend
upon, and cannot survive without, a steady flow of informationbut
much of that information does not have to be accurate. Take, for example, the myths of creation and afterlife that have popped up in almost
every known human culture. As Wilson points out, these narratives have
been extraordinarily useful to the cultures that have adopted them: they
allow people to view the world as the product of a clear cause-and-effect
relationship, to feel in control of nature in a way likely to increase their
confidence, to ease their anxieties about their own deaths and the deaths
of loved ones, and to form cohesive social groups united by shared beliefs and ritual practices. None of these benefits requires that a particular
creation or afterlife myth be true. There have been thousands of these
narratives in the course of human history; depending on your perspective, either all of them are false or all but one of them is false. Yet many
of the concrete benefits derived from such narratives come whether or
not they are actually true.
In his 1963 novel Cats Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut exploits the theme of
religion as a useful fiction by introducing a holy book with the words,
all of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies.3
The religion that Vonnegut describes in Cats Cradle is Bokononism
the eminently useful religion of San Lorenzo that makes no pretense
to truth. From Bokononism, the novels narrator derives a cosmology,
a metaphysical system, a unique religious vocabulary, and a code of
ethicsall offered in a huge book of calypso lyrics that begins with a
simple caveat: nothing in this book is true. The purpose for the shameless lies, however, could not be nobler. Like all of Vonneguts novels,
Cats Cradle presents a world of human beings hopelessly ill-equipped


to understand themselves or their place in the universe. Pathologically incapable of accepting randomness, his characters insist on finding
meaning by creating shallow divisions among themselves and then doing horrible things to each other in the name of some imaginary or unimportant unifier, such as a nation, a religion, or a race (Bokonon calls
these fictional entities granfaloons). The character Bokonon creates
a completely false religion for the best of reasons: I wanted all things /
To seem to make some sense / So we could all be happy, yes / Instead
of tense. / And I made up lies / So that they all fit nice, / And I made
this sad world / A par-a-dise.4
Bokononism seems paradoxical only because Vonnegut calls it a religion, and we are accustomed to religions presenting themselves as true.
Had Vonnegut called The Books of Bokonon a novel, we would have had
no problem with the notion that it was fictional and useful. Most of us
would not even blink if he said that great truths it contained was true.
Since Aristotle, critics and casual readers alike have become accustomed
to speaking of literary fiction as true in some sense that does not require
factual accuracy. Often, this is because literature retains the presumption
of higher truth that it received from its mythological forbearers. A great
deal of what we call literaturefrom the Iliad and the Ramayana to the
poems of William Butler Yeats and the science fiction novels of L. Ron
Hubbardconstitutes religious truth for those who believe it. As myth
passes into literature, its perceived literal truthfulness is often reconfigured into some form of moral or allegorical truth. Consider, for example,
Alexander Popes tribute to Virgil in his Essay on Criticism:
When first young Maro [Virgil] in his boundless Mind
A Work t outlast Immortal Rome designd,
Perhaps he seemd above the Criticks Law,
And but from Natures Fountains scornd to draw:
But when texamine evry Part he came,
Nature and Homer were, he found, the same:
Convincd, amazd, he checks the bold Design,
And Rules as strict his labourd Work confine,
As if the Stagyrite oer looked each Line.
Learn hence for Ancient Rules a just Esteem;
To copy Nature is to copy Them.5


As a reasonably devout eighteenth-century English Catholic, Pope believed that both Homer and Virgil were pagans. He did not subscribe
to the religious beliefs or the cultural values that animated their works.
He did not believe that Zeus actually sent a dream to Agamemnon to
deceive him into attacking Troy or that Aeneas, the founder of Rome,
was really the son of Venus. However, he still held the Iliad and the
Aeneid to be true, if not in the historical sense, in the sense that they
flowed directly from natural and absolute laws that he believed defined
good literature.
We can learn a lot from this common insistence that a valuable fiction
must somehow also be true. Certainly, those who speak of the eternal
verities to be found in Shakespeare or Austen are aware that Hamlet
and Pride and Prejudice are made-up stories. Yet we insist nonetheless
on a higher truth or a moral truthanything to keep from having
to admit that we derive substantial value from something that is patently false. Why are we so afraid of this proposition? I suspect that it is because we perceive utility and truth to be much closer to each other than
they really are. Western civilizations distrust of the merely fictional
traces at least back to Plato, who banished the poets from his Republic on the grounds that they imitated reality imperfectly and, therefore,
taught the truth unreliably. All poetical imitations, he tells Glaucon,
are ruinous to the understanding of the hearers.6 But even Plato used a
narrative formdialogue between Socrates and various interlocutors
whose value as an accurate record of what Socrates said is clearly subordinated to the higher goal of leading people to the truth. Plato offers his
dialogues to us as true, whether or not they are historically accurate,
because their purpose (teaching higher truth) does not depend on their
being a factual record of what a man named Socrates may or may not
have said.
Plato, lover of truth though he was, travelled even further down the
slippery slope of fiction. Through the mouths of the characters in his dialogues, he creates some of the ancient worlds most well-known myths:
the myth of the cave in the seventh book of Republic, the myth of the androgynous super-beings split in two in Symposium, the myth of Thoths
invention of writing in the Phaedrus. Plato does not offer any of these
stories as historical facts, but as valuable illustrations of his most important arguments. He does not feel the need to include his own allegories


in his condemnation of made-up stories. As Plato saw it, Homer, the

tragic poets, and all of the other writers of the day led people away from
the truth by mingling the pleasure of narrative with blatant falsehoods.
Platonic allegory, on the other hand, was designed to lead people toward the truth by using the explaining power of narrative as scaffolding
for otherwise incomprehensible ideas. This is the same basic argument
that we encountered in our discussion of Jesuss parables in Chapter
Two, and it could just as easily be made about Rabbinical stories, Sufi
allegories, and Zen koans. Such stories are created to provide insights,
frame arguments, and help people discover the truth. All of these things
are useful, but that is not quite the same thing as being true.
The pleasure of fiction, like all forms of pleasure, has been built into
the human mind over millions of yearsduring which those who felt
this pleasure did a little bit better in the survival-and-reproduction game
than those who did not. For less than a hundred of these years, the pleasure of fiction has been delivered through movies and television shows,
before that it came primarily through books, stories, tall tales, folklore,
and myth. But as we go back further into our ancestral past, we find that
narrative served an even deeper purpose. As the human mind increased
in its processing ability, the ability to form narrative sequences allowed
us to process and analyze information much more efficiently than we
could have done otherwise. The ability to construct factually accurate
narratives allows human beings to process a staggering amount of information during the course of a single lifetime and to transmit their acquired knowledge to their descendents in the form of stories. Fictional
narratives can be just as useful in the evolutionary sense because the
blind watchmaker of natural selection neither knows nor cares what
is true. Given a choice between a useful fiction and a useless fact, natural selection will choose the useful fiction every time. At the deepest
level of human cognition, where our values and perceptions have been
conditioned by natural selection for millions of generations, it is this
utility of fictionmore even than truth or beautythat must structure
and support our universal attraction to literature.





Boyd, On the Origin of Stories, 69.

Dennett, Freedom Evolves, 18.
Cohn, Distinction of Fiction, 12.
Ryan, Postmodernism, 16587.
Campbell, Liars Tale, 155. Campbells direct quotation in this passage
comes from Vaihinger, Philosophy of As If, 48.
6. Wilson, Darwins Cathedral, 41.
7. My fictional hominid, Thag, draws his name from one of Gary Larsons
most recognizable Far Side cartoons, in which a lecturer in a caveman
classroom points to a picture of a spiked dinosaur tail and calls it a thagomizer . . . after the late Thag Simmons. In reference to this cartoon,
some museums and scientific publications have adopted the term thagomizer to describe the end of a stegosauruss tail.

1. Scheherazades Stories and Panglosss Nose

1. Irwin, Arabian Nights provides an exceptionally useful guide to the complicated textual history of The Book of the One Thousand and One Nights.
See especially 4262.
2. Bettelheim, Uses of Enchantment, 88; Malti-Douglas, Womans Body, 11;
Zipes, When Dreams Came True, 57.
3. Hernadi, Literature and Evolution, 56.
4. Green and Brock, In the Minds Eye, 329.
5. Green, et al, Fact Versus Fiction Labeling, 267.
6. The unification of knowledge in general is the topic of Wilsons 1998
book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Wilson deals specifically with
art and literature on 22959.
7. See for example Mithen, Singing Neanderthals, 1127; Carroll, Evolution
and Literary Theory, 47885.
8. Pinker, How the Mind Works, 52425.
9. Dutton, Art Instinct, 10910.
10. Sugiyama, Narrative Theory and Function, 237.



Sugiyama, Food, Foragers, and Folklore, 22728.

Dissanayake, Homo Aestheticus, 51, 49.
Dissanayake, Homo Aestheticus, 48, 42.
Pinker, How the Mind Works, 539, 542.
Boyd, Origin of Stories, 85.
Boyd, Origin of Stories, 191.
Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction, 164.
Miller, Mating Mind, 282.
For a detailed, highly readable discussion of the logic of sexual selection,
see Ridley, Red Queen, 13069.
Miller, Mating Mind, 37879, 38385.
Tooby and Cosmides, Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds? 26.
Joseph Carroll, The Human Revolution and the Adaptive Function of
Literature, 43.
Voltaire, Candide, 20.
Gould and Lewontin, Spandrels of San Marco, 8485.
Gould and Lewontin, Spandrels of San Marco, 582.
Tooby and Cosmides, Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds? 1011. Tooby
and Cosmides do list a third possibilitythat aesthetic experiences
evolved through random genetic driftbut they dismiss it immediately,
stating, We consider the cognitive and motivational features related to
aesthetic experience and pretense to be too well-organized and reliably
developing to be explicable as chance fixation of neutral alleles, and will
not consider this hypothesis further.
Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 7780.

2. Stories for Thinking

1. Turner, The Literary Mind, 12, 7, 5.
2. Turner, The Literary Mind, 11.
3. On this point Dutton, Art Instinct, 50, observes, with the tremendous
availability of artworks from nearly every epoch and culture, how odd
that philosophical speculation about art has been inclined toward endless analysis of an infinitesimally small class of cases, prominently featuring Duchamps readymades or boundary-testing objects such as Sherrie
Levines appropriated photographs and John Cages 4'33".
4. Bruner, Narrative Construction, 4.
5. Talmy, Toward a Cognitive Semantics, 419.
6. For a brief introduction to the modular mind theory see Pinker, How
the Mind Works, 2731. For a more complete treatment see Spolsky, Gaps
in Nature, 1939.
7. Abbott, Evolutionary Origins, 248.

Notes to pages 621

8. Herman, Stories as a Tool, 17071. Herman does not advocate this definition of narrative himself, but extracts it from some of the more inclusive
work on cognitive narratology that he surveys.
9. Turner, Literary Mind, 13.
10. Herman, Parables of Narrative Imagining, 23.
11. Kerzel, Representational Momentum, 180. See also Levine and Klin,
Tracking of Spatial Information; Rinck et al., Spatial Situation
Models; Morrow, Greenspan, and Bower, Accessibility and Situation
12. Pinker, How the Mind Works, 355. For more discussion of the role of spatial reasoning in narrative comprehension see Haenggi, Kintsch, and
Gernsbacher, Spatial Situation Models; Rinck et al., Spatial Situation
Models; Shin and Ivry, Concurrent Learning; Zwaan and van Oosterndorp, Do Readers Construct?
13. Kirkpatrick, Genetic View of Space, 565.
14. Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind, 149. For an explanation of the difference between episodic and procedural memory, see 15053.
15. Suddendorf and Corballis, Mental Time Travel, 135.
16. Fauconnier and Turner, The Way We Think, 7576.
17. Newberg et al., Why God Wont Go Away, 67, 70.
18. Vaihinger, Philosophy of As If, 1213, 15.
19. Borges, John Wilkinss Analytical Language, 232.
20. Vaihinger, Philosophy of As If, 179.
21. Vaihinger, Philosophy of As If, 170.
22. Vaihinger, Philosophy of As If, 19.
23. For a description of narrative as a compression device, see Gerrig and
Egidi, Cognitive Psychological Foundations, 3643. For a very detailed
discussion of how the mind compresses and decompresses information,
see Fauconnier and Turner, The Way We Think, 11535.
24. Schank and Abelson, Scripts, Plans, Goals, 249.
25. Vaihinger, Philosophy of As If, 2425.
26. Schank and Berman, The Pervasive Role of Stories, 293.
27. Brewer and Treyens, Role of Schemata; Brasel, Slavich, and Zimbardo,
Blind Minds Eye; Simons and Chabris, Gorillas in Our Midst. The
videos used in the Gorillas in our Midst study can be viewed online at
the University of Illinois Visual Cognition Lab at http://viscog.beckman
28. Vaihinger, Philosophy of As If, 29.
29. Turner, Literary Mind, 11.
30. Fauconnier and Turner, The Way We Think, 7587, 17193.
31. Vaihinger, Philosophy of As If, 27.
Notes to pages 2234



Tulving, Episodic and Semantic Memory, 382402.

Emmott, Narrative Comprehension, 25.
Schank, Abelson, and Wyer, Knowledge and Memory, 1.
Schank, Abelson, and Wyer, Knowledge and Memory, 34.
Gross and Levitt, Higher Superstition, 43, 51, 55.
Storey, Mimesis and the Human Animal, xv; Turner, Literary Mind, 129.
Carroll, Evolution and Literary Theory, 12526.
Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 366.
Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 136.
Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, xxiv.
Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 45.
Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 189.
Spolsky, Darwin and Derrida, 51.

3. The Influence of Anxiety





Freud, Major Works of Sigmund Freud, 607.

Freud, Major Works of Sigmund Freud, 842.
Bloom, Anxiety of Influence, 516.
Eysenck, Anxiety, 1.
Andreasen, Brave New Brain, 291. The term wheel in the hub of fear
comes from LeDoux, Emotional Brain.
Young and Saver, The Neurology of Narrative, 75.
Nesse, What Good Is Feeling Bad? 33. For a contrastive account of anxiety in humans and fear reflexes in animals, see DeGrazia and Rowan,
Pain, Suffering, and Anxiety.
Nesse, What Good Is Feeling Bad? 1729.
Matthew 12:32 (King James Version) reads: And whosoever speaketh a
word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever
speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in
this world, neither in the world to come.
Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Simers, 3637.
Dostoyevsky, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, 49.
Wegner et al., Paradoxical Effects. Wegner later expanded this discussion into the book White Bears.
Davies, Graceful Reading, 87. See also Evans, Notes on the Conversion
of John Bunyan; and Sharrock, John Bunyan, 5762.
Davies, Graceful Reading, 89.
For book-length treatments of scrupulosity as a form of ocd see Baer, Imp
of the Mind; Ciarrocchi, Doubting Disease; Santa, Understanding Scrupulosity; and Van Ornum, Thousand Frightening Fantasies.
See, for example, the entry on scruple in the 1912 edition of The Catho142

Notes to pages 3548





lic Encyclopedia, which defines a scrupulous conscience as an unfounded apprehension and consequently unwarranted fear that something is a sin which, as a matter of fact, is not. It is not considered here so
much as an isolated act, but rather as an habitual state of mind. . . . It is a
bad habit doing harm, sometimes grievously, to body and soul.
Abramowitz et al., Association between Protestant Religiosity; Nelson et
al., Scrupulosity in Patients; Steketee, Quay, and White, Religion and
Guilt; Tek and Ulug, Religiosity and Religious Obsessions; Weisner
and Riffel, Scrupulosity.
Ciarrocchi, Doubting Disease, 39.
Rapoport, Boy Who Couldnt Stop Washing, 24041; Osborn, Tormenting
Thoughts, 5355; Sneep and Zinck, Spiritual and Psychic Transformation.
Ciarrocchi, Doubting Disease, 10. For clinical confirmation of this assertion, see H. D. Brown et al., Can Patients?
Freud, Ego and the Id, 5354.
See Schwartz and Beyette, Brain Lock, xv.
OConnor and Robillard, Inference Processes, 887.
Hallam and OConnor, Dialogical Approach, 344.
OConnor, Aardema, and Plissier, Beyond Reasonable Doubt, 53, 70.
OConnor, Aardema, and Plissier, Beyond Reasonable Doubt, 108, 110.
This evolutionary argument is applied specifically to obsessive-compulsive disorder in Feygin, Swain, and Leckman, Normalcy of Neurosis.
Nesse, Smoke Detector Principle, 78. Martin Brne, Evolutionary Psychology applies this principle specifically to ocd.
Nesse and Williams, Why We Get Sick, 213. For the original experiment
see Dugatkin, Tendency to Inspect Predators.
Andreasen, Brave New Brain, 292.
See Leslie, Pretense and Representation.
For book-length discussions of chase play in nonhuman species see Aldis,
Play-Fighting, and Fagen, Animal Play Behavior. For a discussion from a
perspective of evolutionary psychologists, see Boulton and Smith, Social
Nature of Play Fighting, 43135.
Steen and Owens, Evolutions Pedagogy, 299.
Steen and Owens, Evolutions Pedagogy, 301.
Tamis-LeMonda, Conceptualizing Fathers Roles, 22122.

4. Information Anxiety
1. A quick computer word count reveals just how closely to the center of
the book this incident occurs. The passage begins exactly 60,400 words
into the text, whose total word count is 120,806. The exact halfway point
Notes to pages 4861






would therefore be at 60,403 words. It would be difficult to imagine someone without computer technology coming any closer to the halfway point
than Defoe apparently did as the result of a happy accident.
Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 162.
Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 109.
Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 163
Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 166.
Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 16570.
Zimmerman, Defoe and the Novel, 36.
See Reuven-Magril, Dar, and Liberman, Illusion of Control; Skinner,
Guide to Constructs of Control; and Burger, Desire for Control.
Langer, Illusion of Control.
Fryrear, Lane, and Itzkowitz, Who Presses the Elevator Button.
Matute et al., Illusion of Control, 176.
A single footprint on a beach might be explained by a person sticking a
foot out of a boat during high tide, leaving a mark that can be seen during low tide. But the fact that Crusoe can go back several days later to
measure his own foot against the print demonstrates that it could not have
been in an area that is close enough to the water for such an explanation
to work.
Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 167.
Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 172.
Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 17273.
This pentad of agent, act, scene, agency, and purpose comes from Kenneth Burkes Grammar of Motives. I introduce it here not to provide a systematic definition of narrative for the remainder of the study but simply
to support the observation that Crusoes narrative can make a reasonable
claim to completeness.
Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 27.
Marks and Nesse, Fear and Fitness, 252.
Zeigarnik, On Finished and Unfinished Tasks, 313.
Dale, Writing Effective Ad Headlines, 33.
Kermode, Sense of an Ending; Miller, Narrative and Its Discontents;
Richter, Fables End; Smith, Poetic Closure; Thickstun, Visionary Closure;
Torgovnick, Closure in the Novel.
Kermode, Sense of an Ending, 7.
Torgovnick, Closure in the Novel, 5.
Herman, Stories as a Tool for Thinking, 17374.
See, for example, Coles et al. (2005), Not Just Right Experiences.
Summerfeldt, Understanding and Treating, 1156. For further discussion
of incompleteness in ocd see Ecker and Gonner, Feeling of Incom-


Notes to pages 6270


pleteness; Coles et al. (2005), Not Just Right Experience; Summerfeldt

et al., Treating Incompleteness.
Wurman, Information Anxiety, 34.
Wurman, Information Anxiety, 32.
Burke, Philosophical Enquiry, 57.
Nesse, What Good Is Feeling Bad? 3334.
Sternberg, Cognitive Psychology, 79.
Spolsky, Darwin and Derrida, 52.
Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 68.
Poundstone, Prisoners Dilemma, 183188.
Leslie, Pretense and Representation, 415.
Cosmides and Tooby, Consider the Source, 7071.
Cosmides and Tooby, Consider the Source, 65.
Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction, 66, 124.
Easterlin, Cognitive Ecocriticism.
Easterlin, What Is Literature For?

5. The Problem of Other People



Miller, Brain Evolution, 289.

Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, 5859.
Miller, Mating Mind, 7285.
Gibson and Ingold, Tools, Language, and Cognition; Hill, Hunting and
Human Evolution; Wrangham et al., Raw and the Stolen.
Alexander, How Did Humans Evolve? 4. For a further development of this
hypothesis see Flinn, Geary, and Ward, Ecological Dominance.
Dutton, Art Instinct, 111.
Dunbar, Human Story, 7176; Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, 5579.
Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, 5.
Sartre, No Exit, 17.
Beauvoir, Ethics of Ambiguity, 42.
Sartre, No Exit, 26.
Dante, Inferno, 7576.
Poundstone, Prisoners Dilemma, 118.
There are well-defined rules for multiplayer prisoners dilemma games
but for the purpose of my discussion it makes sense to treat each relationship in No Exit as an independent two-player game.
Axelrod, Evolution of Cooperation, 3031.
Axelrod, Evolution of Cooperation, 19.
Dawkins, Selfish Gene, 20233; Ridley, Origins of Virtue, 5266. These
and other texts have already treated this subject thoroughly; therefore,
I will offer only a brief description of Axelrods tournaments and their
Notes to pages 7189


18. Axelrod, Evolution of Cooperation, 88105. My five categories correspond

to four categories that Axelrod gives in this section, as he discusses forgiveness under the general category of reciprocity.
19. Cosmides and Tooby, Cognitive Adaptations for Social Exchange, 180.
20. Ridley, Origins of Virtue, 128.
21. Molire (Wilbur), Tartuffe, 139.
22. Maas, Using Literature, 31.
23. Storey, Mimesis and the Human Animal, 168.
24. Kutsukake, Assessing Relationship Quality; Castles, Whitens, and
Aureli, Social Anxiety.
25. See Green and Phillips, Social Threat Perception; and Julia Zolotova
and Martin Brne, Persecutory Delusions.
26. See Jessica Rosenthal et al., Beyond Shy, 369.
27. Dunbar, Coevolution of Neocortical Size.
28. Baron-Cohen, Mindblindness, 7071.
29. Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, 102.
30. Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction, 12324.
31. Flesch, Comeuppance, 51.
32. Flesch, Comeuppance, 31.
33. See the account of the ultimatum game in Barber, Kindness in a Cruel
World, 20411.
34. Molire (Wilbur), Tartuffe, 16162.
35. Boyd, Origin of Stories, 206.
6. Sex, Lies, and Phenotypes

Smith, Why We Lie, 1.

Smith, Why We Lie, 3839.
Trivers, Social Evolution, 406.
Knox et al., Sexual Lies.
Searcy and Nowicki, Evolution of Animal Communication, 65.
Searcy and Nowicki, Evolution of Animal Communication, 66. For the
study quoted by the authors see Mller, False Alarm Calls.
7. The dynamics of mate choice are among the most studied and most frequently discussed topics in all of evolutionary psychology. David and
Nanelle Barash have recently provided a highly readable application to
these issues as they relate to literature in Madame Bovarys Ovaries. Other
recent book-length treatments of the subject include Barash and Lipton,
Myth of Monogamy; Buss, Evolution of Desire; Miller, Mating Mind; Ridley, Red Queen,.
8. Ridley, Red Queen, 146.
9. Diamond, Third Chimpanzee, 196. See also Searcy and Nowicki,
Evolution of Animal Communication, 5455.

Notes to pages 90109





Searcy and Nowicki, Evolution of Animal Communication, 13435.

Trivers, Social Evolution, 40910.
Trivers, Social Evolution, 410.
Smith, Why We Lie, 18.
DePaulo et al., Lying in Everyday Life, 983. For other examples of these
experiments, see Bell and DePaulo, Liking and Lying; DePaulo, Truth
and Distortion; DePaulo et al., Sex Differences in Lying; and Kashy
and DePaulo, Who Lies?
DePaulo and Kashy, Everyday Lies.
Lippard, Ask Me No Questions.
Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 15.
For an excellent analysis of the Hobbesian fears and anxieties at the heart
of Wycherlys drama see Vance, William Wycherley and the Comedy of
Wycherley, Country Wife, act 2, scene 1, 5153.
The connection between sexual jealousy and male violence is a perennial theme of evolutionary psychology, and has recently been used as a
basis for reading the Iliad. See Jonathan Gottschall, Rape of Troy. For a
commentary from the psychology side of the disciplinary divide, see Buss,
Murderer Next Door, 4565.
The famous phrase occurs in chapter 14 of Coleridges autobiography,
Biographia Literaria, in which he explains the plan of his collaboration
with Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads and the purpose of his supernaturalthemed poems such as Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel:
In this idea originated the plan of the lyrical ballads; in which it
was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief
for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

7. Deceiving Ourselves and Others

1. Cervantes, Don Quixote, 560. The scene discussed in this chapter runs
from pages 548 to 558.
2. Quixote is almost persuaded by Sancho to kill Carrasco after the match,
but he spares him on the requirement that he confess the peerless beauty
of the lady Dulcinea and agree to seek her out and relate the victory of
her knight.
3. Wrangham, Is Military Incompetence Adaptive? 34. Wrangham
draws this definition from Dixon, Psychology of Military Incompetence.
4. Wrangham, Is Military Incompetence Adaptive? 67.
Notes to pages 110120



Wrangham, Is Military Incompetence Adaptive? 1011.

Taylor and Brown, Illusion and Well-Being, 193.
Taylor and Brown, Illusion and Well-Being, 201.
See Taylor, Positive and Negative Beliefs; Taylor, On Healthy
Illusions; Taylor and Armor, Positive Illusions; Taylor and Brown,
Positive Illusions Revisited; Taylor et al., Psychological Resources.
9. See Gana and Bailly; MacLeod and Moore, Positive Thinking Revisited; Nilsson, Unosson, and Kihlgren, Experience of Postoperative Recovery; and Foreman, The Healing Truth.
10. Buss, Evolution of Desire, 1078.
11. Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things, 50.
12. Diamond, Third Chimpanzee, 8587.
13. Pagel, Desperately Concealing Father.
14. Bressan, Why Babies Look Like Their Daddies, 117.
15. McLain, et al., Ascription of Resemblance.
16. Ibsen, Wild Duck, 202.
17. Smith, Why We Lie, 73.
18. Trivers, Natural Selection, 257. The question of whether or not a person
can actually commit a deception without the intent to do so is important to philosophers and courts of law but it is not important at all to biological fitness. Natural selection does not act on intentions, only on expressed behaviors, so, biologically speaking, deception occurs any time
false information is communicatedregardless of the communicators
19. Gur and Sackeim, Self-Deception; Trivers, Social Evolution, 41618.
20. Wrangham, Is Military Incompetence Adaptive? 10.
21. Gilovich, How We Know What Isnt So, 77.
22. Trivers, Natural Selection, 260.
23. Trivers, Social Evolution, 416.
24. Susan Smith, Written confession, dated 11/3/1994, http://www.getcon
25. Trivers, Social Evolution, 416.
26. Trivers, Social Evolution, 419.


Charles Dickens, Hard Times, 9.

Wilson, Consilience, 105.
Vonnegut, Cats Cradle, 14.
Vonnegut, Cats Cradle, 90.
Bate, Criticism, 175.
Plato, Republic, 42743. The major discussion of poetry occurs in the

Notes to pages 120136

tenth book of The Republic, and Plato does make some exceptions,
though not for the much admired Homer. We are ready to acknowledge
that Homer is the greatest of poets and the first of tragedy writers; but we
must remain firm in our conviction that hymns to the gods and praises
of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted into our
State (433).

Notes to page 136


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Page numbers in italics refer to

Aardema, Frederick, 5152
Abbott, Porter H., 21
Abelson, Robert P., 3536
advertising, 67; sexual, 910
Aeneid (Virgil), 136
Aesop, 1057
Alexander, Richard D., 81, 8283
allegory, 137
analogy, 3334
The Analytical Language of John
Wilkins (Borges), 2728
animals: brains of, 82; and deception,
1023, 106, 10911, 123, 131; episodic
memory of, 35; fight-or-flight reflex in,
44, 55, 58; and sexual selection, 107;
temporal sequencing by, 2324
anxiety: causal reasoning and, 2526;
cognitive causes of, 4344; disorders,
4753, 6970, 93; evolutionary basis
for, xv, 4445, 5455, 56, 66; and
fight-or-flight reflex, 44, 55, 58, 72;
Freud on, 4142; and human brain,
4344, 5051, 56; and information
need, 6165, 71, 78; literary critics
on, 4243; and literary narratives, xi,
xvxvi, 57, 63, 7172, 7879; and need
for closure, 34, 69, 70; normal vs.
obsessive, 53; and pleasure, 34; and
psychic equilibrium, 6263; and sexuality, 44; and social interaction, 9293;
and White Bear Phenomenon, 4547

The Anxiety of Influence (Bloom), 42

The Arabian Nights: about, 12; conceptual blending in, 34; and need for
closure, 2, 34, 6566, 68; parable in,
1819; Scheherazade Strategy in, 10;
and self-deception, 117; shows human
need for narrative, 3, 16
Aristotle, 135
The Art Instinct (Dutton), 83
arts, 7; evolutionary explanations for, 5,
13, 140n26; as sexual advertisement,
910. See also literary fiction
Austen, Jane, 9, 77, 136
autism, 94
Axelrod, Robert M., 5, 86, 8889, 146n18
Bakhtin, Mikhail, 51
Barash, David and Nanelle, 146n7
Baron-Cohen, Simon, 94
Beauvoir, Simone de, 85
Beowulf, 77
Berman, Tamara R., 31
Beyond Reasonable Doubt (OConnor,
Aardema, Plissier), 5152
The Birds (Hitchcock), 8
Bloom, Harold, 42
The Book of One Thousand and One
Nights. See The Arabian Nights
Borges, Jorge Luis, 2728
Boulton, Michael J., 5758
Boyd, Brian, ixx, 8, 99
The Boy Who Couldnt Stop Washing
(Rapoport), 48
The Boy Who Cried Wolf (Aesop),


brain: and anxiety, 4344, 5051, 56;

built for survival, 13334; causal reasoning by, 2425; cognition modules
of, 2021; evolution of size, 8184;
information compression by, 2930;
literatures evolutionary function for,
11; processing of information by, 18,
6869, 70, 137; temporal and spatial
sequencing by, 2224, 30
Brain Lock (Schwartz), 5051
Bressan, Paola, 124
Brewer, William F., 3133
Brock, Timothy C., 4
Brown, Jonathan D., 12021
Bruner, Jerome, 20
Buddhism, 89
Bunyan, John, 41, 4547
Burke, Edmund, 72
Burke, Kenneth, 51, 144n16
Burton, Richard Frances, 1
Buss, David M., 12122
Campbell, Jeremy, xii
Candide (Voltaire), 1213
The Canterbury Tales (Chaucer), 2
Carroll, Joseph, 11, 37
Cartesianism, 38
Cathedral of San Marco, 13, 14
Catholic Church, 48
Cats Cradle (Vonnegut), 133, 13435
causal reasoning, 2426
Cervantes, Miguel de, 11719, 122,
12728, 147n2
chase play, 5758
children, 5759
Christianity, 48, 89
Ciarrocchi, Joseph W., 48, 49
classification, 2729
closure: need for, 2, 34, 6567, 68; as
neutralization of anxiety, 69, 70
Closure in the Novel (Torgovnick),
cognition: and anxiety, 4344; complexity of, 8184; and human brain, 2021;


literary narrative and, 89, 2027,

5153; and social interaction, 93
Cohn, Dorrit, xi, 36
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 115, 147n21
Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Flesch),
conceptual abstraction, xi, xiixiii
conceptual blending, 34
Consciousness Explained (Dennett), 38
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge
(Wilson), 13334, 139n5
Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
(Rorty), 39
cooperation, 8890; defectors from, 89,
91, 92, 97; monitoring, 97; and pleasure, 9798
Corballis, Michael C., 24
Cosmides, Leda, ix, 5, 11, 76, 90; on
evolutionary explanation for creative
arts, 13, 140n26
The Country Wife (Wycherly), 11315, 122
Critical Inquiry, 20
culture: and narrative, x, 19; sexuality
and, 9
Cyrano de Bergerac (Rostand), 10
Dante Alighieri, 8586
dAquili, Eugene G., 25
Darwin, Charles, and Darwinism, 12, 36,
37, 38. See also evolution
Darwin and Derrida (Spolsky), 3738
Darwins Cathedral (Wilson), xiii
Davies, Michael, 47
Dawkins, Richard, 88
The Decameron (Boccaccio), 2
deception, 11722; animals and, 1023,
106, 10911, 123, 131; as benefiting
the receiver, 105, 106; and concealed
paternity, 12226; evolutionary basis
of, 102, 104, 105, 131; intent in, 148n18;
Pinnochio Problem in, 12627; and

sex, 103; and social conventions, 111,

11315. See also lying; self-deception
Dennett, Daniel C., x, 5, 15, 38
DePaulo, Bella M., 11112
Derrida, Jacques, 37
Diamond, Jared M., 5, 123
Dick, Philip K., 33
Dickens, Charles, 66, 133
Dissanayake, Ellen, 7
Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds?
(Cosmides and Tooby), ix, 13, 76, 90,
Donald, Merlin, 2324
Don Quixote (Cervantes), 11719, 122,
12728, 147n2
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, 46
The Doubting Disease (Ciarrocchi),
48, 49
Dr. Panglosss nose, 1216
Dugatkin, Lee, 55
Dunbar, Robin, 82, 83, 84, 96
Dutton, Dennis, 56, 83, 140n3
Easterlin, Nancy, 78
Emmott, Catherine, 35
An Enemy of the People (Ibsen), 125
Essay on Criticism (Pope), 13536
Evolution and Literary Theory (Carroll),
evolutionary adaptation, 1316; anxietys
basis in, xv, 4445, 5455, 56, 66;
creative arts and, 5, 13, 140n26; deception as, 102, 104, 105, 120; and human
brain, 8184; literary narratives as,
ixx, 56, 9, 11, 12, 1516, 137; and
processing information, 6465, 70;
usefulness in, xxi, 12; and wayfinding, 78. See also natural selection
The Evolution of Animal Communication (Searcy and Nowicki), 105, 106,
The Evolution of Cooperation (Axelrod),
8889, 146n18
exaggeration, 56, 57

Fables End (Richter), 68

Fauconnier, Gilles, 2425, 34
Faulkner, William, 20
Fisher, Ronald, 108
Flesch, William, 9698
Forster, E. M., 61, 66
Foucault, Michel, 27
Freedom Evolves (Dennett), x
Freud, Sigmund, 4142, 49
Frith, Uta, 94
generalization, 30
Gestalt psychology, 67
Gilovich, Thomas, 128
Girard, Ren, 112
Gould, Stephen Jay, 1213
Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners
(Bunyan), 41, 4547
Graceful Reading (Davies), 47
Green, Melanie C., 4
Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of
Language (Dunbar), 83, 84
Gur, Ruben C., 127
habituation, 7273
Hallam, Richard S., 51
Hamilton, William, 5
Hamlet (Shakespeare), 68, 136
Hard Times (Dickens), 133
Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent
Knowledge. See The Analytical Language of John Wilkins (Borges)
Herman, David, 22, 69, 141n8
Hernadi, Paul, 3
Hitchcock, Alfred, 8
Hobbes, Thomas, 88, 11213
Homer, 135, 136
Homo Aestheticus (Dissanayake), 7
How We Know What Isnt So (Gilovich),
Hubbard, L. Ron, 135
The Human Story (Dunbar), 83
Humphrey, Nicholas K., 83



Ibsen, Henrik, 117, 12426

the Iliad (Homer), 135
The Importance of Being Earnest
(Wilde), 101, 1045
Inferno (Dante), 8586
information: and anxiety, 6165, 71,
78; compression, 2930, 33; good
enough rule in, 7374; human dependency on, 65, 78, 133, 134; human
processing of, 18, 6869, 70, 137; and
narrative, 67, 18, 1920, 6465, 70, 95
Information Anxiety (Wurman), 71
Islam, 2, 89
James, William, 47
Judaism, 89
Keillor, Garrison, 128
Kermode, Frank, 68
Kerzel, Dirk, 2223
Kirkpatrick, Edwin A., 23
Kuhn, Thomas S., 74
Labyrinths of Reason (Poundstone), 75
Lake Wobegone Effect, 128
Lakoff, George, 27
Langer, Ellen, 63
language: as human creation, 39; learning facility in, 21; postmodernist
distrust of, 38
Larson, Gary, 139n7
Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm, 1213
Leslie, Alan M., 57, 7576
Lewin, Kurt, 67
Lewontin, Richard, 1213
The Liars Tale (Campbell), xii
Linnaeus, 28
Lippard, Paula V., 112
literary fiction: analogical, 33; children
and, 5759; classificatory, 2728; as
cognitive play, 89; as conceptual
abstraction, xi, xiixiii; conceptual
blending in, 34; and deciphering
minds of others, 84, 95, 9697, 9899;


evolutionary adaptive functions of,

xvixvii, 56, 8, 9, 1112, 99; in human
culture, x; as memory structuring, 36;
metarepresentation in, 7677; and
myth, 13537; and nonfiction, xi, 5;
and pleasure, 8, 58, 137; and religion,
13435; schematic, 31; sequencing of
information in, 1112, 1920; and sexuality, 10; standard story devices in, 36;
and storytelling, 19; as untruth, xixii;
and usefulness, xiiixv; and wayfinding, 7778. See also narrative stories
The Literary (Turner), 18, 19
Little Red Riding Hood, 77
Locke, John, 21
lying: and sex, 1034; and social conventions, 11112, 115; and storytelling,
1012. See also deception
Lyotard, Jean-Franois, 38, 39
Maas, David F., 9192
The Manchurian Candidate, 127
Marks, Isaac M., 66
The Mating Mind (Miller), 910, 82
Matthew, Book of, 1718, 45, 142n9
memory, 33, 3536; self-deception about,
13031; semantic and episodic, 3536
metanarratives, 3839, 40
metarepresentation, 7576
Meyer, Albert R., 75
military incompetence, 120
Miller, D. A., 68
Miller, Geoffrey F., 910, 82
Mimesis and the Human Animal (Storey), 92
Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and
Theory of Mind (Baron-Cohen), 94
Molire (John-Baptiste Poquelin),
9092, 96
Mller, Anders P., 106
myth, 13537
Narrative and Its Discontents (Miller),

The Narrative Construction of Reality

(Bruner), 20
narrative stories: and anxiety, xvxvi,
57, 63, 7172, 7879; closure in, 2,
34, 6570; cognitive functions of,
2026, 5153; evolutionary adaptive
functions of, ixx, 7, 12, 15, 5657,
137; exaggeration and excitement in,
56, 57; information compression in,
30; information conveyance in, 67,
18, 19, 6465, 70, 95; and lying, 1012;
and memory, 3536; modules for
building, 2122; and obsession, 51, 52;
postmodernist skepticism toward, 37,
40; and projection, 19; source tagging in, 7677; speculation in, 5657;
temporal and spatial sequencing in,
1920, 22; and truth, 38, 39, 52. See
also literary fiction
natural selection: and anxiety, 55, 56;
and fictional narrative, xii, 56, 12,
1516, 59, 99, 137; how it operates,
xxi; irrelevance of intent in, 148n18;
and sexual selection, 109. See also
evolutionary adaptation
Nesse, Randolph M.: on anxiety disorders, 53; on evolutionary basis for
anxiety, 54; on fight-or-flight anxiety,
44, 55, 72; on incompleteness as
anxiety, 66
The Neurology of Narrative (Young
and Saver), 4344
Newberg, Andrew B., 25
1984 (Orwell), 130
No Exit (Sartre), 81, 8485, 86, 87,
Nowicki, Stephen, 105, 106, 110
obsessive-compulsive disorder (ocd),
4753, 63, 6970
OConnor, Kieron P., 5152
Oedipus complex, 42
Office Study (Brewer and Treyens),
31, 32, 33

On the Origins of Stories (Boyd), ixx, 8

The Origin of Species (Darwin), 12
Orwell, George, 130
Osborn, Ian, 48
Owens, Stephanie A., 58
Pagel, Mark, 124
parables, 1719, 28, 137
paternity, 12226
Plissier, Marie-Claude, 5152
Phaedrus (Plato), 136
The Philosophy of As If (Vaihinger), xii
Picasso, Pablo, 20
Pinker, Steven, 5, 8, 23
Pinnochio Problem, 12627
Plato, 13637, 14849n6
pleasure, ix, 9798; and anxiety, 34;
and fictional narratives, 3, 8, 11, 5859,
9899, 137; in observing danger from
safety, 72
Poetic Closure (Smith), 68
poetry, 7, 35
Pope, Alexander, 13536
postmodernism, 3640
Poundstone, William, 75, 88
Pride and Prejudice (Austen), 9, 77, 136
prisoners dilemma, 8688, 92, 93
Problems with Dostoyevskys Poetics
(Bakhtin), 51
Ptolemy, 74
The Ramayana, 135
Rapoport, Antanol, 89
Rapoport, Judith L., 48
rationality: and choice, 91, 92; and irrationality, 4950
The Red Queen (Ridley), 108
religion: and cooperation, 89; and John
Bunyan, 4549; and myth, 136; as useful fiction, 13435
Remembrance of Things Past (Proust), x
Republic (Plato), 136, 14849n6
Richter, David H., 68



Ricoeur, Paul, 17, 51

Ridley, Matt, 5, 88, 90, 108
Robinson Crusoe (Defoe), 6165, 69, 77,
78, 14344n1, 144n12
Rorty, Richard, 39
Rostand, Edmund, 10
Royce, Josiah, 47
Ryan, Marie-Laure, xi
Sackeim, Harold A., 127
Sartre, Jean-Paul, 81, 8485, 86, 87,
Saver, Jeffrey L., 4344
Saxe, John Godfrey, 26
Schank, Roger C., 31, 3536
Scheherazade. See The Arabian Nights
schematization, 3033
Schermer, Michael, 122
Schwartz, Jeffrey M., 5051
scrupulosity, 4749, 14243n16
Searcy, William A., 105, 106, 110
self-deception: by animals, 123; biological role of, 127; in combat, 120; and
competence, 12729; Don Quixote
and, 11719; memory and, 13031;
motivations for, 12930; and psychological health, 12021; and sexual
selection, 12122. See also deception
The Sense of an Ending (Kermode), 68
sexuality: and anxiety, 44; and lying,
sexual selection, 82, 146n7; advertising
in, 910; and evolutionary adaptation,
1079; and self-delusion, 12122
Shakespeare, William, 68, 136
Smith, Barbara Herrnstein, 68
Smith, David Livingston, 126
Smith, Peter K., 5758
Smith, Susan, 129
The Smoke Detector Principle
(Nesse), 53, 54, 55
Sneep, John, 48
social anxiety disorder (SAD), 93



social cohesion, 7, 8990, 93; deception

and, 115
Social Evolution (Trivers), 101, 11011
sociobiology, 45
source tagging, 76, 77, 95
spatial sequencing, 2223, 30
speculation, 5657
Spiritual and Psychic Transformation
(Sneep and Zinck), 48
Spolsky, Ellen, 3738, 40, 73
Star Wars, 68
Steen, Francis F., 58
Sternberg, Robert J., 73
Stockmeyer, Larry J., 75
Storey, Robert F., 37, 92
Suddendorf, Thomas, 24
Sugiyama, Michelle Scalise, 6
Summerfeldt, Laura J., 70
Symposium (Plato), 136
Talmy, Leonard, 20
Tartuffe (Molire), 9092, 96
Taylor, Shelly E., 12021
temporal sequencing, 2324, 30
theory of mind, 9394, 9596, 99
Thickstun, William M., 68
Tooby, John, ix, 5, 11, 76, 90; on evolutionary explanation for creative arts,
13, 140n26
Torgovnick, Marianna, 6869
Tormenting Thoughts and Secret Rituals
(Osborn), 48
Toward a Cognitive Semantics (Talmy),
transcendental signifier, 38
Treyens, James C., 3133
Trivers, Robert, 5, 101, 11011; on deception and self-deception, 12627, 128,
129, 130
Turner, Frederick, 37
Turner, Mark, 22, 34; on causal reasoning, 2425; on parables, 18, 19
Twain, Mark, 117

ultimatum game, 97
usefulness: in evolutionary terms, xxi,
12, 137; fiction and, xiiixv
Vaihinger, Hans: on analogy, 33; on
classificatory fiction, 2829; on conceptual abstraction, xii; on memorystructuring process, 36; on mental
representations, 2627; on schematic
fiction, 31
Violence and the Sacred (Girard), 112
Virgil, 13536
Visionary Closure in the Modern Novel
(Thickstun), 68
Voltaire, 1213
Vonnegut, Kurt, 133, 13435
Wason Selection Task, 90
The Way We Think (Fauconnier and
Turner), 2425
We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (Dick), 33
Wegner, Daniel M., 46
What Good Is Feeling Bad? The Evolutionary Benefits of Psychic Pain
(Nesse), 44

What Is Art For? (Dissanayake), 7

Why We Get Sick (Nesse and Williams),
Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind
and the Novel (Zunshine), 9, 96, 98
The Wild Duck (Ibsen), 12426
Wilde, Oscar, 101, 1045
Williams, George C., 55
Wilson, David Sloan, xiii
Wilson, Edward O., 5, 13334, 139n5
Winter Notes on Summer Impressions
(Dostoyevsky), 46
Woolf, Virginia, 20
Wrangham, Richard, 120
Wurman, Richard Saul, 71
Wycherly, William, 11315, 122
Yeats, William Butler, 135
Young, Kay, 4344
Zeigarnik, Bluma, 67
Zeigarnik effect, 6667
Zimmerman, Everett, 62
Zinck, Arlette, 48
Zunshine, Lisa, 9, 77, 96, 98



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