Is there an evolutionary explanation for humans’ fascination with stories about nonexistent people and events?

This essay was written in early-2017 during the final semester of my undergraduate degree. I also created an educational ‘explain like I’m five’ video on this topic, which you can find here.


The presence of storytelling in our culture is undeniable. Its persistence throughout all known human civilisation leads us to think that it is an evolved psychological tool of sorts, and therefore, must exist for a reason. But of these stories, a large majority partly consist of or are entirely made up of non-existent people and events. To explain this from an evolutionary standpoint seems counterintuitive as such an interest does not appear to obviously benefit ones reproductive fitness (Steen & Owens, 2001, p.290). This, I argue, is the case – that our interest in the affairs of non-existent entities is an unintended by-product of already developed psychological mechanisms which evolved to enhance our social aptitude. Most relevant of these mechanisms is the disposition to both express and be interested in stories which, rather, relate to actual people and events. However, in order to argue my case I must first justify this view, than storytelling as a practice does have evolutionary underpinnings.

Storytelling as an Evolved Phenomena

To properly explain storytelling from an evolutionary standpoint we must first look at its function in a society and see how this function relates to reproductive fitness – the primary factor of change in natural selection. If we consider storytelling to be an evolved trait it seems to appear in two kinds; that of the desire to share stories and that of the desire to listen to them. Separate as they are, these tools critically depend on one another in their use (ie; to share a story one requires active listeners, and vice versa). We must therefore analyse each of these if we are to understand their corresponding evolutionary functions. Let us examine the first of these.

In her essay ‘On the Origins of Narrative: Storyteller Bias as a Fitness-Enhancing Strategy’, Michelle Sugiyama cites storytelling as a kind of social intelligence – far more purposive and complex than one might initially think. Through storytelling, Sugiyama argues, one engages in a kind of language game in which the object of their participation is to convince others of their ‘take’ on a given issue (Sugiyama, 1996, p.405). Consider, for example, the manner in which certain figures tell stories. Politicians are perhaps most obviously biased in their depiction of current events and, according to Sugiyama, their bias is communicated through their information is presented. Such a storyteller relies on a variety of factors both verbal (of which include tone of voice, emphasis, interjections) and nonverbal (of which include facial expression, hand gesturing, body posture). What this also shows us is that the communicative aspects of storytelling are not strictly reducible to their composite linguistic parts, seeming to make it more likely to be a behaviour rather than a learned act.

With regard to the ‘urge’ we feel to share stories in social exchanges, we imagine reproductive success to rely heavily on access to finite resources, particularly in the Pleistocene during which most of what we would consider distinctly ‘human’ adaptions grew to evolve. It stands to reason that those who were best equipped to access these resources would have increased their chances of reproductive success. And in group settings, where resources are stretched thin to accommodate for many group members, the best equipped would be those who possess the tools needed to navigate complex social environments – those with heritable social intelligence (Humphrey, 1988, p.309 & 312). Our collective use of language is a clearly developed tool for this, and storytelling – a specialised form of linguistic communication – can be viewed as an extension of this tool. Through storytelling, the storyteller is able to affect the manner in which their story is received, consciously or unconsciously manipulating the audience to suit their fitness interests. Given this, it is easy to see how storytelling may be an evolved trait.

The second area of interest in storytelling, which I will now discuss, refers to our distinctly human fascination with stories. Much like we feel an innate urge to share stories in social exchanges, we also find ourselves drawn to them. The most likely explanation for this, I argue, can once more be made with regard to the communicative aspects of narrative. Consider again the process of natural selection. The most intuitive response might be to rule out evolution as a cause for interest in narrative. Surely the time one spends listening to stories could otherwise be used in the gathering of essential resources, from which we can draw causal links to reproductive fitness. I would like to show that listening to stories can be more beneficial to one’s reproductive fitness than the gathering of essential resources otherwise would be, or indeed any other activity of the sort.

Social intelligence, as I have discussed, includes ones predisposed ability to be able to manipulate their social environment to their own ends – storytelling seems to be an example of this. Another facet of social intelligence, perhaps less ‘active’ than the former, could refer to a heritable disposition for information gathering. Jerome Barkow describes this passive form of social intelligence as “the ability to predict and influence the behavior of potential rivals for resources, present and potential allies, possible mates, and of course, close kin” (Barkow, 1995, p.628). This predictive ability, Barkow argues, arises from the formation of complex internal representations of the people who were most likely to affect the inclusive fitness of our ancestors. Such people might include close kin, members of the opposite sex, authority figures, rivals, offspring, among many others. And the information we gather to create these internal representations, Barkow argues, is that which has the most bearing on our reproductive fitness. For example; information pertaining to “control over resources, sexual activities, births and deaths, current alliances/friendships and political involvements, health, and reputation about reliability as a partner in social exchange” – all of which affect one’s reputability as a partner/candidate for producing the most genetically successful offspring (Ibid).

Now what if the listener is aware of the teller’s potential fallibility or tendency to lie in social exchanges? Surely it would be detrimental to our fitness interests if we were to believe false information. In response to this, I argue that even if second-hand anecdotes aren’t as concrete a form of information gathering as a firsthand account might otherwise provide, it remains the case that it is AN account, afflicted by the bias of the storyteller or not. A biased account of certain societal events is certainly more advantageous to one’s fitness interests than no account at all. And furthermore, we can speculate that previously formulated internal representations might tell us whether or not the storyteller is a trustworthy source of information.

If we relate this now to storytelling it’s easy to see how the two complement each other. First we have the storyteller, a person who is in a unique position to implement their bias onto an audience. This can be used to further the interests of the storyteller, whether or not they are even aware of this bias being communicated. Second – the audience, those whose fitness interests dictate their gathering of social information. “Storytelling can thus be seen as a transaction in which the benefit to the listener is information about his or her environment, and the benefit to the storyteller is the elicitation of behavior from the listener that serves the storyteller’s fitness interests” (Sugiyama, 1996, p.412).

Quasi-Social Information

Given, this seems a plausible account for our interest in storytelling. But what relevance does the act of and interest in storytelling have with that of non-existent entities? Fictional stories, I argue, tend to mimic the kinds of events which we would otherwise be interested in if they were directly relevant to our everyday lives. By this I claim that stories which relate to non-existent entities are only of interest to us because they appear in the form of socially advantageous information. The stories by themselves do not serve any ordained purpose, for they are not fitness-enhancing as would be the case for regular social information. We might think of the communicated information in these social exchanges as quasi-social information – an unintended imitation of actual social information (Barkow, 1995, pp.629-630).

Jerome Barkow discusses this misdirected attraction as it relates to our fascination with strangers – people whose lives we have an interest in, though to no obvious evolutionary advantage. He argues that quasi-social information, such as the kind one obtains while obsessing over the exploits of various celebrities, is obtained in such a way so as to exploit our evolved need to create internal representations of people around us (those whose activities are likely to affect our reproductive fitness) (Ibid). If, during the Pleistocene, we had access to a television – or any other tangible mode of receiving quasi-social information – we can imagine that there would be a selection pressure for our brains to be able to differentiate between genuine members in our community and non-members who have no actual impact on our lives. With such an adaption in place, we would have surely evolved to place greater importance on the former, those whose affairs actually impact our reproductive fitness. It is only the relative newness of international icons to human culture which justifies our lack of such an adaption.

Relating this argument to non-existent people, we might argue the same for particular fictional characters. Tyrion Lanister is a person whose life exploits millions of people follow, yet he also happens not to exist. Just as in the case of celebrities, an interest in Tyrion Lanister does not directly affect our inclusive fitness and again, just as in the case of celebrities, we do not care and continue to obsess over him without regard to this fact. For the same reasons that our evolved dispositions mistake celebrities for genuine community members, so too can our interest in such fictive characters be explained.

For the purpose of answering this essay question to the fullest, I ought to note that I have not yet specifically discussed our interest in non-existent events. I have, rather, discussed our collective interest in people, both fitness-relevant and non. This emphasis is not as dire as it may seem. The reason being; fitness-relevant information pertaining to people of interest will usually take the form of news, describing up-to-date events in their lives. Our interest in these events is closely tied to our interest in the people who these events concern. Thus, an interest in one usually guarantees an interest in another. There are, of course, those who might find interest in the events alone – this too can be explained using the same inference. If we consider the usefulness of an interest in events during the Pleistocene, we can speculate that it would have allowed a person to be more aware of both hazardous and opportunistic forces acting within their particular environment. There would have been no selection pressure to be able to differentiate between real events and either fake or fitness-irrelevant events since there did not exist communication networks as have existed in the post-Pleistocene world. Therefore, it seems as if the habits of historians and fictional worldbuilders can too be explained as an unintended by-product of already developed evolutionary mechanisms.


There are, I would imagine, many difficulties with this theory. Some might argue that our interest in non-existent people and events does, as a matter of fact, have current evolutionary uses. Most of these arguments I think are mistaken, for they tend to pick out current practices (newly adopted practices over the past few thousand years) as evidence for enhancing reproductive fitness. By this, my opponent might claim that an interest in non-existent people and events actually does have a fitness enhancing use, for it might lead one to pursue a career in fictional writing. If the best writers of fiction are those which are most committed to their occupation, which I think it is fair to assume, then a person who is particularly disposed to be interested in fictional stories would have a comparatively better chance for success than those who were not disposed. In response to this, I would argue that any such examples of fitness-enhancing activities are not applicable since they were not of any relevance during the Pleistocene. And since we are only to take Pleistocene environmental conditions into account, throughout which there did not exist a selection pressure for excellence in fictional writing, we would not call such a disposition an evolved tool.

Another such criticism may be that our theory is self-condemning. It does, after all, assume the premise that that an interest in fictional people is evolutionarily irrelevant, and therefore, that it is an unintended by-product of already evolved psychological mechanisms. If it is the case, why do we consciously choose to satisfy this interest rather than another we know to be more fitness-enhancing? Once more we consult the Pleistocene for an explanation to this. Consider the nature of evolved interests. We have the ability to freely choose which of our interests we are to satisfy at a given point. But this does not entail the case that each choice is equal in its urgency to be satisfied. A woman suffering from dehydration, for example, will consider the satisfaction of her interest for hydration far more urgent than the satisfaction of her interest for finding a suitable mate. As such, we think that there are some interests that override others. Now imagine the interest to participate in social exchanges. Though seemingly redundant now, this interest can be thought of as far more important during the Pleistocene, during which an absence from the affairs of a society could have led to ostracization and a sharp drop in desirability as a reproductive partner. Despite its current redundancy, the interest remains as does its relative urgency to be satisfied.

Barkow comments on this issue, stating that “knowledge of the pointlessness of this behaviour is more likely to lead us to mask rather than alter it (just as knowledge of proper nutrition by itself may have little impact on eating behaviour)” (Barkow, 1995, p.630). This is a fair analogy. Our taste palate evolved to place nutrients which were at the time scares and valuable above those which were plentiful, constituents of which include salt, sugar and fat. While this may have been useful during the Pleistocene, it seems now to achieve the adverse effect as overconsumption of these three nutrients now pose a great risk to reproductive fitness. Similarly, an interest in sexual imagery may have been useful some hundreds of thousands of years ago, whereas its current employment in the attention economy (ie; advertising and pornography) seems only to serve the interests of the corresponding publicist. So in answer – no, it is not sufficient to say that our capacity for choice and our awareness of those choice outcomes gives us complete control over our behaviour. It may play a role in influencing behaviour, but there are certain evolved aspects which it seems we cannot consciously alter. We might even speculate that these aspects are physical mechanisms within the brain, perhaps requiring external intervention if one is committed to such behavioural alterations.

Closing remarks

In closing, I would like to acknowledge that the argument expressed in this essay is by no means infallible, and there are certain to be many errors in my reasoning. Since there is very little written on this particular topic, I hope to be excused for my presumptive attitude. It is, however, an intriguing position to take in evolutionary theory, one which few discuss relative to its success in explanation of psychological tendencies. Perhaps this position ought to be investigated further in the coming years, and in greater depth.


Barkow, J 1995, ‘Beneath New Culture Is Old Psychology: Gossip and Social Stratification’, in J Barkow & L Cosmides, J Tooby (eds), The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, 2nd edn. Oxford University Press: New York.

Humphrey, N 1988, ‘The Social Function of Intellect’, in R Byrne & A Whiten (eds) Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Expertise and the Evolution of Intellect in Monkeys, Apes, and Humans. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Steen, F & Owens, S 2001, ‘Evolution’s Pedagogy: An Adaptationist Model of Pretense and Entertainment’, Journal of Cognition and Culture, vol. 1, no. 4, pp. 289-321.

Sugiyama, M 1996, ‘On the Origins of Narrative: Storyteller Bias as a Fitness-Enhancing Strategy’, Human Nature, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 403-425.

Scroll to Top