Why do we like stories?

by joshux4 min read22nd Oct 20183 comments



Some people like music. Others like visual art. Yet regardless of difference in age, gender and cultural backgrounds, everyone likes hearing a story. Whether it’s fantasized ‘Harry Potter’, romantic ‘Pride and Prejudice’, tragic 'Hamlet', or a beloved classic 'Journey to The West', man and women around the world are enchanted by their spell. Story is one of the most universal art forms. Our cultures are built on myths, and religions are passed on through legends.

A curious person would ask: Why do we like stories?

What Is a Story?

Before we try to find the origin of stories, we might first want to know what a story is. A cogent definition of story is given by Randy Olson, a scientist turned filmmaker who now teaches other scientists how to tell stories. He created a simple method for telling stories, called ABT—which stands for “And, But, Therefore”. These three words capture the basic structure of a story. For example, we can tell the story of "The Wizard of Oz" : "A little girl living on a farm in Kansas AND her life is boring, BUT one day a tornado sweeps her away to the land of Oz, THEREFORE she must undertake a journey to find her way home." [1]

This is idea is not entirely new: Aristotle, the philosopher and one of the first story analyzers, recognized that every story contains a three-act structure: Beginning, Middle, and End. The structure roughly corresponds to Olson’s "And", "But" and "Therefore". However, the advantages of Olson's idea are that the words are simple (they are among the most used words in English) and that each word has a meaning signifying its function in the story. "AND" connects relevant information to introduce the story; "BUT" brings in conflict; "Therefore" resolves the conflict and concludes the story.

Science and Story

While teaching storytelling to scientists over the years, Olson recognized that there is a similarity between ABT and a scientific paper. Most scientific papers have a structure of: Introduction, Method, Results, and Discussion. If we compare this to the structure of a story (ABT), we will find that "And" roughly corresponds to Introduction, "But" to Method, "Therefore" to Results and Discussion. This shows that storytelling is related to problem-solving.


We can now come back to the question of why we like stories. My hypothesis is that storytelling began as a means of transferring problem-solution knowledge between people.

Think about a savage man who comes into contact with a tiger in the jungle. Running for his life, he spotted a cave and rushes inside it to avoid becoming the tiger's meal. Upon returning to the tribe, the savage starts relating the experience, including the location and time he met the tiger. This describes the introduction to the problem which is the "AND". After this, he describes what he did to avoid the danger: He escaped to a secure cave. This is the stage when he is trying to find a solution to the problem: the "BUT". Finally, he explains how he solved the problem by entering a cave to avoid danger: the “Therefore”.

Storytelling seems to be an innate trait of us. This points to an evolutionary explanation.

All Life is Problem Solving

When we see that a dog's nose resembles a human's nose, we can assume that they derive from a common ancestor. This resemblance, in evolutionary terms, is called 'homology'. The philosopher Karl Popper, in his book, proposed that we should regard the problem-solving ability as homologous across all species. That is: "All Life is Problem Solving". [2]

Life must adapt to its environment. The environment is not designed to ensure an organism's survival. Problems arises, and life must have solutions to them. Thus, to survive, the organism must have knowledge of problem-solutions. Most are not conscious knowledge, but are more like instinct stored inside of the biochemical constitution of the organism—in other words, the knowledge is in its body. For most of life, the knowledge is transferred through generations biologically via genetic inheritance and other processes. However, for humans, it could also be transferred by direct communication between people—through stories.

But Story is not True

Actually, what we consider a story today is mostly not about problem-solution knowledge, at least not factual knowledge. The original problem-solution knowledge of the ABT form, should be called a proto-story.

While thinking about the stories of today, I realized that most of them don't teach us about facts, but rather stimulate us emotionally. They are pleasurable to hear and have aesthetic values. Also, the most popular movies are often about good and evil (for example, Harry Potter and Lord of The Rings). This view is supported by the psychologist Jordan Peterson's lecture series that covers Bible stories, which he argues teach morality.

Finally, if we consider the three dimensions of universal value: truth, beauty, and goodness, we can see that stories represent both beauty and goodness. On the other hand, science/philosophy is a process that helps us arrive at some factual truth. However, because they are structurally similar, we can postulate that they both descend from proto-stories. Perhaps once they were viewed as the same, but then branched off on different paths.


In the relative small populations of ancient Greece, art and literature flourished. The Greeks also invented science and philosophy—the beginning of rationality. This may seem to be a coincidence, but I would argue that these two events are related.

Most primitive cultures have myths. In ancient Greek, storytelling matured into poetry. Aesthetically, it has reached a height that after two millennia, it is still included in the curricula and influenced today's culture. The Greek citizens attend plays as regular entertainment. They even have poetry competitions. It's not hard to imagine that the poets started to pay attention to the craft of the stories themselves, they have even tried to improve upon them.

I suspect that this attitude—critically examine the stories and try to improve upon them—is also the reason why they were able to invent science and philosophy. While poets try to improve their stories in the context of aesthetics and morality, at one point in history, some people started trying to truly understand the world. These people become philosophers or scientists. As Popper has wrote: "scientific theories originate from myths, and that a myth may contain important anticipations of scientific theories."


The psychologist Karl Buhler distinguished three functions of language. The first two are found in both animal and humans. The third one is unique to humans.

  1. Self-expressive function: the organism expresses its internal state

  2. signaling function: animals exchange crude information between each other

  3. descriptive function: since human started to become more conscious, they can use language to describe complex information, which represents facts in the world.

    Popper added another function:

  4. the critical function: "the critical discussion of the truth or falsity of propositions. " In this way, humans can critically select and modify the descriptions, hence improve upon their knowledge.

I would argue there is another function: the (proto-)storytelling function, or the function that conveys problem-solution knowledge which has the form of the ABT structure. In my view, evolutionarily, the storytelling function came about in between the third and fourth function. Or to be more precise, it can incorporated to the third function. As we now know, problem-solving is an essential part of every species hence also humans. The descriptive function can be seen as an auxiliary of the problem-solving transferring function, since we describe things in order to solve problems. This is more consistent with the evolutionary theory of knowledge.


[1] Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking - Randy Olson

[2] All Life is Problem Solving - Karl Popper