Parables, fables, myths, whatever you might call them, stories have always been part of human consciousness. Within recent decades, storytelling is recognized as a big component of advertising and marketing. Stories can capture our attention, motivate us, and make us feel.

Is there any scientific research which provides an explanation as to why humans are so cognitively responsive to stories?

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    $\begingroup$ Not only is it an important part of advertising and marketing, but also of science (see also here) and (unfortunately) pseudoscience. $\endgroup$ – Artem Kaznatcheev Feb 6 '14 at 5:53
  • $\begingroup$ I'm somewhat sorry you had to accept my answer (can't complain too much after all :), as I feel there must be better references to offer you out there. If you happened to find any that suited your interests and care to share them, I've got another upvote waiting for them! P.S. I was tempted to roll back your edit today; I felt you were right to mention those properties of narratives the first time! I suspect you were on the right track as to the nature of their appeal. $\endgroup$ – Nick Stauner Feb 12 '14 at 21:59
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    $\begingroup$ I felt I was leading readers a tad too much. Feel free to revert though! Your info was awesome, thank you. It seems there's a great body of supporting evidence throughout the discipline of CogSci, but it hasn't been strung together into a cohesive thesis. Might be a fun thing to pick up at some point. $\endgroup$ – Ana Feb 12 '14 at 22:13

Narrative psychology is probably the go-to domain of research and theory for questions about the power and popularity of stories. Here's an excerpt from the Wikipedia page (with added emphasis):

Narrative psychology is...concerned with the "storied nature of human conduct" [(Sarbin, 1986)] or...how human[s]...deal with experience by constructing stories and listening to the stories of others. Operating under the assumption that human activity and experience are filled with "meaning" and stories, rather than logical arguments or lawful formulations...[this] dichotomy...[appears (Bruner, 1990)] as a distinction between "paradigmatic" and "narrative" forms of thought, in his understanding they are both fundamental but irreducible one to the another.

According to Sarbin (1986) "narrative" is a root metaphor for psychology that should replace the mechanistic and organic metaphors which shaped so much theory and research in the discipline over the past century. The indisputable physical events of a personal occurrence are different from a story that results from the storied cause and effect relationships. (McKinnon) [citation unavailable]

...Independent of any fiction in the actual physical matter told, are physical events that are as unequivocal as quantum mechanics and human chemistry.

I'm unfamiliar with examples of narrative psychological research of the sort you're looking for specifically, but the above seems to argue from psychological theory at least that narratives gain appeal and influence from their apparent factuality. Narratives may not claim to apply their principles generally, let alone acknowledge any limits to their generality, but maybe people naturally infer generality anyway, and are less likely to recognize limits on their own when they aren't mentioned...This is just speculation though.

One other idea that's at least equally worth mentioning (which may not be saying much) is that narratives are particularly influential in the study of identity. Tying negative events in one's life into a redemptive life narrative relates to well-being, though causality isn't clear in this relationship (McAdams & McLean, 2013). Maybe a similar principle applies from an observer's perspective: maybe consumers of stories "create meaning" vicariously by putting both good and bad events in the shared context of others' lives. Maybe advertisers' messages are more subtly appealing (and less overbearing) when embedded in the narratives of relatable, likable characters that seem to have more to say than just what their favorite shampoo is. Again, this is speculation; I'm no advertiser. I mostly hope I've given you some ideas to follow up on in study of the areas of psychological research with which I am somewhat familiar: narrative identity, and narrative psychology in general.

· Bruner, J. S. (1990). Acts of meaning. Harvard University Press.
· McAdams, D. P., & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(3), 233–238.
· Sarbin, T. R. (1986). Narrative psychology: The storied nature of human conduct. Praeger Publishers / Greenwood Publishing Group.


Stories are an effective means for conveying ideas or messages and captivating our attention as it gives meaning to those idea's and messages, while also linking it to a themes and emotions, hence allowing us to reflect our own lives in these stories you hear.

For example, imagine your self in the latter stone age where story telling was the most effective medium for passing down techniques. If you were told that to start a fire you had to simply collect and number of materials and stratch a piece of flint and steel to create sparks on the tinder, some may remember the process but for most a lot of effort and concentration would be required to memorise all of these items.

Meanwhile, if you were told this process through a story with characters (for example a story of how fire was discovered that was most likely fictional) suddenly you are relating characters, themes and experiences to events in your own life, which would significantly increase the chance of you remembering it.

Similarly, for the story teller, instead of having to remember a list of items required, all they would have to remember is a short story and the best part is the details of the characters do not have to be specific. Thus it would be much more enjoyable.

Clearly sotry telling is much more effective then memorisation, which is why it is being used up to this day.

Hope this helped, Mona.


I think that when a human being listen to a story then listener get some sympathy or emotional attraction towards some character and as you said that it motivates us, stories motivate us because we thing that we are equivalent to some character and we try ourselves to become like that or to achieve what the character have achieved.

You even said that stories capture our attention, in this case I am not with you. Take an example, you yourself will not like(not being in attention) because you have some categories(like- love stories, horror, adventure etc.) let say that you like horror stories then I am sure that you can not give the same attention to stories other than horror.

This just the role of genes that decide the mood, likes, dislikes etc.

You will like to know that you pay more attention in watching a horror movies than any other movie.


No research can prove any explanation as to why humans are so cognitively responsive to stories.

Moreover, while one may be able to find evidence to support a plausible theory, such evidence will only be correlative, and as such cannot prove cause.

That said, there have been many studies about correlating emotional stress with with long term memorization.

While the comprehension of bare facts does not require emotion, the full comprehension of a story does.

It has also been shown, that when presented with a story, your mirror neurons are activated, and you become more susceptible to suggestions of feeling. You then take on the emotions presented to you, and these emotions, much like the ones in the stress studies, are thought to help solidify memories in your mind.

Despite all of these insights of how stories affect us, the "why" still cannot addressed.

One might theorize about an "explanation" of how it might be evolutionary advantageous to remember things with strong emotional ties vs information without such context. However, it is prudent understand that such explanations provide no testable hypotheses, and thus should not to be confused with "scientific explanations".

As such, "Why" questions are generally the realm of philosophy and religion.


Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to cogsci.SE. Forgive me for combining my welcome with an admonition, but I think you've mischaracterized the distinction between philosophy and science. Both have plenty to say about "whys" and "hows", especially if one acknowledges the scientific nature of social sciences. Both would agree there's more to this question than emotion and memorization. Non-evolutionary (e.g., sociocultural) explanations might be more falsifiable, as is your adage, incidentally! To respond to it rather too literally, people don't always remember anything... ;) $\endgroup$ – Nick Stauner Feb 7 '14 at 8:57
  • $\begingroup$ Right! That's why most emphasize falsifiability and null hypotheses. When results regarding nulls turn out bad (in a good way), we often claim support for alternative hypotheses that seem to provide preferable explanations, though these are still often vague (e.g., the relationship between x and y is positive, i.e., $>$0) and always far short of proven. Hence we tend to settle for probabilistic support (e.g., with $>95\%$ confidence that if we repeated the study with new data of the same general kind, the correlation in that data would be $>$0 again), as you probably know already. $\endgroup$ – Nick Stauner Feb 7 '14 at 18:10

Maybe because episodic memory is better developed then semantic.

Here is a nice study on how to teach virtual agent to use episodic memory: http://www.techfak.uni-bielefeld.de/~frabe/publications/Rabe2012-EpisodicMemory-ICAART2012-CameraReady.pdf

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    $\begingroup$ Can you elaborate a bit on the pertinent details of the study? $\endgroup$ – Chuck Sherrington Feb 9 '14 at 2:46
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    $\begingroup$ yes i will in next few days (because of the job) $\endgroup$ – ICanFeelIt Feb 9 '14 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ I had a feeling that distinction would be important too, but wasn't sure how to suggest it. Episodic memories, being more representative of experience in general, ought to be more relatable, I posit. However, I've been under the impression that they fade faster, such that semantic memories might be the only information effectively retained. Surely semantic memory encoding benefits from the episodic elaboration though, somewhat like packaging helps sell merchandise: it makes it more eye-catching, and protects the contents somewhat from damage (i.e., context makes info more convincing, no?)... $\endgroup$ – Nick Stauner Feb 12 '14 at 21:55

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