Facts So Romantic

Game of Thrones and the Evolutionary Significance of Storytelling

What is it about storytelling that gets people so riled up when they feel it goes wrong? Perhaps the fury stems from the evolutionary burden stories, and storytellers, have had to carry.Photograph by HBO / BagoGames / Flickr

I told myself it was absurd to be discontented with the way Game of Thrones ended. Why should I feel anything for the fate of a fictional world? Even so, I watched with interest, on YouTube, videos of how several of the episodes—particularly “The Long Night,” “The Bells,” and “The Iron Throne”—could have been re-written to heighten thematic consistency, the drama of certain deaths and the coherence of other characters’ story arcs, and the feeling that the conclusion, including Westeros’ geopolitical fallout, made sense. No, I did not sign the Change.org petition to have season eight re-made with “competent writers,” which, as of this writing, has over 1.6 million signatures. But this outrage at not having the story pan out in a supposedly satisfying fashion is telling of how much power the tale possessed. And this sort of fracas is not unprecedented. The New Yorker wrote about how, in 2012, fans pleaded for the game developer Bioware to remake the ending of the last entry in their space-opera trilogy, Mass Effect 3—and the fans got it.

What is it about storytelling that gets people so riled up when they feel it goes wrong? Perhaps the fury stems from the evolutionary burden stories, and storytellers, have had to carry. In the Game of Thrones series finale, “The Iron Throne,” Tyrion Lannister, known as “The Imp,” renowned for his wit and erudition, gives a speech to the heads of the leading houses of the realm. “What unites people?” he asks. “Armies? Gold? Flags?” He shakes his head. “Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story.”

Tyrion is quite right. In a 2017 study, researchers wrote, “The universal presence and antiquity of storytelling indicates that it may be an important human adaptation,” one that encouraged group cooperation and made skilled storytellers desirable social partners. The study was led by Daniel Smith and Andrea Bamberg Migliano, anthropologists at University College London. Along with their colleagues, Smith and Migliano analyzed the content and purpose of the stories the Agta people tell. They are a hunter-gatherer group, indigenous to the Philippines, believed to be the descendents of those who colonized the area 35,000 years ago. They’re distinguished from their non-Agta neighbors by their short physique and relatively dark skin, number around 1,250, and live in seclusion in a protected forest, inaccessible by car.

Over several nights, a few elders told the researchers four stories, ones they normally tell children and each other. They all involved anthropomorphized animals and celestial objects, and related norms and principles about cooperation and socializing, particularly about sex equality, egalatarianism, friendship, and group identity. “In these stories,” the researchers wrote, “the ending reflects a reconciliation of individual interests and differences, while also exemplifying various mechanisms of social norm enforcement, such as emphasizing the benefits to cooperation over competition, examples of punishment for breaking norms, and reverse dominance hierarchies to prevent individual accumulation of power.”

The Agta live in camps that house, on average, 49 people, and the researchers asked the Agta to name the best storytellers in each camp, and then ranked each camp in storytelling ability by the proportion of good storytellers present. After having 290 Agta people from the camps play an experimental resource-allocation game, which allows players to choose how much they’d like to keep or share, the researchers found that higher camp-storytelling skill was significantly associated with increased cooperation in the game. Their model implied that a one percent increase in camp nominations of good storytellers was associated with an increase in game donations by 2.2 percentage points. “This association,” the researchers wrote, “is consistent with skilled storytellers spreading cooperative norms and promoting cooperation in camps.”

The researchers also found that skilled storytellers were desirable social partners. They asked 291 Agta from 18 camps to name people with whom they’d prefer to live, and found that—after controlling for kinship, reciprocal nominations, distance, as well as age and sex variables—skilled storytellers were nearly twice as likely to be picked compared to less skilled Agta. Storytelling wasn’t the only facet of people’s reputation that the researchers measured. They also assessed skill in hunting and fishing, as well as medicinal knowledge and camp influence. When the researchers asked the Agta to also consider these attributes in choosing a living partner, storytelling skill came out on top, “with skilled storytellers again having roughly double the odds of being nominated relative to non-skilled storytellers,” they wrote, “an effect much larger than that of possessing a good fishing reputation, the second-best reputational predictor.” Clearly the Agta find storytellers attractive—but does that lead storytellers to have more sex? It’s possible. The researchers found that skilled storytellers had 0.53 more living offspring compared to non-skilled storytellers, “indicating,” they wrote, “that storytelling skill is associated with increased fitness.”

Not only that, skilled storytellers, due to the valued service they provide, may also, according to a 2003 paper, experience increased fitness by benefitting from more social support from others. A 2007 paper showed how social support can have this effect in primates. In line with this idea, Smith and Migliano showed that, among the Agta, skilled storytellers are more likely to receive resource swaps in their experimental game. The researchers suspect, as a result, that storytellers may be compensated, in a way, “for their public good by other camp mates who benefit from the increased cooperation which storytellers may promote, in what may be mutually beneficial trade-like relationships.” But of course, as the researchers note, people may be rewarding storytellers for simply spinning an entertaining yarn.

Storytelling is no doubt one of the most highly coveted skills in modern society. Smith and Migliano suggest that the notable ability of some people to concoct and convey compelling tales evolved early on in our species’ history as a precursor “to more elaborate forms of narrative fiction, such as moralizing high-gods,” the emergence of which, according to Harvard evolutionary anthropologist Joseph Henrich, may have spurred societal complexity. “From simple storytelling to complex religion, and later formal institutions such as nation states, the evolution of storytelling,” Smith and Migliano conclude, “may have been pivotal in organizing and promoting human cooperation.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that neuroscientists are recognizing the importance of narrative in brain activity. “Stories are deep-rooted in the core of our nature,” Jonas Kaplan, a researcher at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute, has said. Kaplan co-authored a 2017 brain-imaging study that found there’s something universal about what occurs in the brain when it is processing stories, since researchers could predict, by brain activity, which of a range of stories subjects were reading, even when the same story was rendered in English, Mandarin, or Farsi. Neurologist Robert Burton highlighted, in Nautilus, the symmetry between storytelling and scientific understanding. “Once we see that stories are the narrative equivalent of correlation,” he wrote, “it is easy to understand why our brains seek out stories (patterns) whenever and wherever possible.”

Tyrion LannisterPhotograph by Game of Thrones / YouTube

So, Tyrion was right in saying that nothing unites people like a good story. In his speech, he goes on to say that “nothing can stop” a good story, “no enemy can defeat it.” Which is true. The story wasn’t defeated, it just managed to unite a whole lot of people in oppositional longing for alternatives. Stories work in many ways.

Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @brianga11agher.

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*An earlier version of this post claimed that researchers determined that skilled Agta storytellers had more sex. Strictly speaking, they were only found to have had more living offspring than non-skilled storytellers.

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