«Memory and Mystery: The Cultural Selection of Minimally Counterintuitive Narratives Ara Norenzayana, Scott Atranb, Jason Faulknera, Mark Schallera ...»
Cognitive Science 30 (2006) 531–553
Copyright © 2006 Cognitive Science Society, Inc. All rights reserved.
Memory and Mystery: The Cultural Selection
of Minimally Counterintuitive Narratives
Ara Norenzayana, Scott Atranb, Jason Faulknera, Mark Schallera
aDepartment of Psychology, University of British Columbia
bInstitut Jean Nicod, CNRS, Paris and
Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Received 12 January 2005; received in revised form 19 October 2005; accepted 17 January 2006 Abstract We hypothesize that cultural narratives such as myths and folktales are more likely to achieve cultural stability if they correspond to a minimally counterintuitive (MCI) cognitive template that includes mostly intuitive concepts combined with a minority of counterintuitive ones. Two studies tested this hy- pothesis, examining whether this template produces a memory advantage, and whether this memory ad- vantage explains the cultural success of folktales. In a controlled laboratory setting, Study 1 found that an MCI template produces a memory advantage after a 1-week delay, relative to entirely intuitive or maximally counterintuitive cognitive templates. Using archival methods, Study 2 examined the cogni- tive structure of Grimm Brothers folktales. Compared to culturally unsuccessful folktales, those that were demonstrably successful were especially likely to fit an MCI template. These findings highlight the role of human memory processes in cultural evolution.
Keywords: Culture; Memory; Evolution; Religion; Concepts
1. Introduction What makes a narrative culturally successful? Within any culture, religious tales, folktales, and other narratives are generated by the thousands; but only a few of these tales actually achieve sustained popularity. (We all know “Cinderella,” for instance; but “The Donkey Let- tuce” never quite caught on.) Of the many ecological and psychological factors that influence the extent to which any such narrative achieves cultural success, mnemonic resilience may be one of the most important. Memorability places necessary constraints on the cultural transmis- sion of narratives and ideas. In oral traditions that characterize most of human cultures throughout history, a narrative cannot be transmitted and achieve cultural success unless it Correspondence should be addressed to Ara Norenzayan, Department of Psychology, University of British Co- lumbia, 2136 West Mall, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T 1Z4. E-mail: email@example.com 532 A. Norenzayan, S. Atran, J. Faulkner, M. Schaller/Cognitive Science 30 (2006) stands the test of memory (Rubin, 1995; Sperber, 1996). Therefore, all else being equal, a more memorable narrative has a competitive advantage over a less memorable one. Because any cul- tural narrative is likely to go through several generations of repeated transmission and recall, this advantage, even if small at the start, accumulates from generation to generation, leading to massive differences in eventual cultural success.
The psychology of cognition in general, and memory in particular, is thus of great relevance to the anthropological study of how cultural belief systems emerge. Ideas and narratives are not acquired and transmitted through a process by which culture “impinges” on a passive human mind. Rather, the minds of recipients of cultural materials selectively represent, retain, transform, and transmit information. Thus the ordinary biases and transformations in human memory can constrain the content of cultural beliefs. Building on prior research on the cognitive processes that influence the cultural transmission of concepts (e.g., Barrett, 2000; Boyer & Ramble, 2001), we examine the role of cognitive processes in the cultural transmission of lists of ideas and narratives. We hypothesize that narratives combining mostly intuitive concepts with a minority of counterintuitive ones enjoy a memory advantage, and as a result achieve cultural success. Such an MCI template (Barrett, 2000) may be no accident. Indeed, we propose that it may be a recipe for cultural success: Compared to narratives that fit other templates (e.g., no counterintuitive concepts at all; many counterintuitive concepts), those that are MCI may be especially memorable and, therefore, more likely to achieve cultural stability as well.
1.1. Intuitive and counterintuitive concepts in cultural narratives
Before examining the cognitive factors that contribute to the cultural success of narratives, we consider current theorizing and research on the cultural success of various intuitive and counterintuitive concepts that proliferate in cultural narratives. What makes a concept “intuitive” or “counterintuitive”? As several psychologists and anthropologists have noted, the key is whether the concept is consistent with, or violates, ontological assumptions about the properties of ordinary objects (Barrett, 2000; Boyer, 1992; Keil, 1989; see also Atran & Sperber, 1991).
Intuitive concepts are intuitive because built into them are implicit inferences about their properties. These intuitive inferences are rarely articulated explicitly. Rather, they are assumed, and make the concepts comprehensible and communicable. For example, the concept bird involves the implicit inference that birds fly, that they grow and die, that they drink when thirsty. These inferences are guided by intuitive ontology (Keil, 1989), or core assumptions about the basic categories of existence, such as intentional beings, animals, inanimate objects, and events. Ontology is psychologically important, because it determines the appropriateness of inferences. For example, knowing that birds belong to the ontological category ANIMAL affords “automatic” inferences about biological properties, but not necessarily intentional agent properties. These inferences are possible because ontology is in turn governed by domain-specific “theories”—of mind, biology, and physics—that provide commonsense expectancies and explanations for the workings of each ontological category.
There are important cultural variations in many aspects of domain-specific theories: theory of mind (e.g., Lillard, 1998; Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001), biology (e.g., Medin & Atran, 1999), and physics (e.g., Peng & Nisbett, 1998). However, certain core elements of these theoA. Norenzayan, S. Atran, J. Faulkner, M. Schaller/Cognitive Science 30 (2006) 533 ries appear so early, and are so widespread across human societies, that they may turn out to be psychological primitives that make cultural learning possible. For example, babies as young as 4 months already possess a “theory of physics,” having a notion of what counts as a solid object, and assuming, for example, that an object cannot be in different places at the same time, or that a solid object cannot pass through another solid object (Baillargeon, 1998; Carey & Spelke, 1994; Leslie, 1982; Spelke, 1990). Similarly, preschoolers and adults in most cultures known to anthropologists have a “theory of biology,” which dictates that species have biological “essences” and that superficial transformations performed on an animal do not alter its species-specific essence (Atran, 1998; Berlin, 1992; Berlin, Breedlove, & Raven, 1973; Gelman & Hirschfeld, 1998; Keil, 1994). Preschoolers and adults across cultures also have an elaborate “theory of mind,” which entails, among other things, the attribution of beliefs and desires to people, and the appreciation that people may have false beliefs (Avis & Harris, 1991; Callahan et al., 2005; Flavell, Zhang, Zou, Dong, & Qui, 1983; Gardner, Harris, Ohmoto, & Hamazaki, 1988).
Unlike everyday natural concepts with properties consistent with ontological expectations, there are many other concepts that violate those expectations. Ghosts that walk through walls, frogs that talk, mountains that are invisible to the human eye—these and many other fanciful concepts are inconsistent with intuitive theories of mind, biology, and physics and thus are “counterintuitive.” (For broad discussions of intuitive and counterintuitive concepts in culture and religion, see Atran & Norenzayan, 2004; Barrett, 2000; Boyer, 1994a, 1994b, 2003;
Sperber, 1996). Interestingly, despite their obvious incompatibility with ontological expectations—or assumptions about what is actually possible in the real world—these kinds of counterintuitive concepts appear regularly in religious traditions, folktales, myths, and legends around the world (e.g., see Boyer, 1994b, 2001).
1.2. Past research on the cognitive optimality of MCI concepts
The effect of unusual or surprising story elements on recall has been examined under the rubric of schema theory, which proposes that recall is a joint product of the interaction between general knowledge structures or expectancies and input information. There is a consensus that schema-relevant information is better remembered than schema-irrelevant information (for reviews, see Alba & Hasher, 1983; Koriat, Goldsmith, & Pansky, 2000). However a complex pattern of findings has emerged as to whether recall is enhanced by schema-consistent versus schema-inconsistent information. Incongruous or surprising elements have often been found to produce superior recall under some conditions (e.g., Bower, Black, & Turner, 1979; Brewer, 1985; Davidson, 1994; McCabe & Peterson, 1990; Stangor & McMillan, 1992). Similar effects have been observed in list-learning paradigms, in which conceptually incongruous items enjoy superior recall (e.g., Waddill & McDaniel, 1998).
However unusual story elements differ from supernatural elements in two important ways.
First, unusual story elements disrupt story structure, whereas supernatural elements in a folktale or religion are integral to the story structure (Boyer & Ramble, 2001). Second, whereas unusual elements in a story involve a schema or script violation that is otherwise consistent with intuitive theories, counterintuitive elements found in folktales, myths, and religions involve ontological violations that are incongruent with intuitive theories. These differences may imA. Norenzayan, S. Atran, J. Faulkner, M. Schaller/Cognitive Science 30 (2006) plicate different processes and may result in different recall effects (see, for example, Boyer & Ramble, 2001). Although instructive, these earlier studies on the effect of schema violations have not examined counterintuitive supernatural elements that are recurrent and widespread features of cultures, which is the focus of this research.
One of the earliest accounts of the memorability and transmission of counterintuitive supernatural cultural narratives was Bartlett’s (1932) classic study of “the war of the ghosts.” Bartlett examined the ways by which British university students remembered and then transmitted a culturally unfamiliar story, in this case a Native American folktale. Interestingly, over several generations of retelling the story, some culturally unfamiliar items or events were dropped from the retelling. Other unfamiliar items were distorted, being replaced by more familiar items. But Bartlett’s striking finding was that the very notion of the ghosts—so central to the original story—was gradually eliminated from the retellings, suggesting that counterintuitive elements are at a cognitive disadvantage.
In recent years, there has been growing empirical work on the cognitive factors that constrain the cultural success of beliefs, and this research yields a more complex perspective (Barrett & Keil, 1996; Barrett & Nyhof, 2001; Boyer, & Ramble, 2001). Spirits and other supernatural concepts found in culturally successful narratives (such as religious mythologies) are MCI, having properties that are partially, but not entirely, counterintuitive (Barrett, 2000; Boyer, 2003).
Spirits may be invisible or may pass through solid objects; but otherwise they possess the intuitive properties of ordinary intentional agents. Supernatural agents may have supernatural abilities of perception, but they also obey many of the mundane laws of folk physics and folk biology (e.g., they cannot occupy more than one physical location at a time; they get hungry). Indeed, it appears that people assume a substantial set of intuitive properties even for beings that are putatively supernatural: Controlled experiments by Barrett and Keil (1996) indicated that people spontaneously anthropomorphize God in their reasoning, even if doing so contradicts their stated theological beliefs. Culturally successful materials also favor minimal rather than large violations of ontological expectations. In a content analysis of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Kelly & Keil (1985) found that the ontological transformations experienced by the characters followed a distinct pattern: The number of transformations of one ontological category to other ontological categories decreased as the distance between the two categories increased. Thus, it was far more likely for a conscious being to be transformed into an animal, than a conscious being to be transformed into an inanimate object. Transformations that occur across wide swaths of ontological distance may be just too counterintuitive to be psychologically appealing.
If indeed MCI concepts are cognitively optimal, they should enjoy a cognitive advantage in memory and transmission advantage in communication. Recent studies have supported this conclusion. In a series of experiments, Barrett and Nyhof (2001) asked participants to remember and retell stories containing intuitive, intuitive but bizarre, and counterintuitive events or objects. After 3 generations of retelling the story, the proportion of items recalled in each category was measured. Results indicated that both counterintuitive and intuitive but bizarre items were remembered in greater proportions than intuitive items. Furthermore, the same recall advantage of MCI items was found after a 3-month delay; this is an important finding, given that in most natural settings in which cultural narratives evolve, recall after a long delay is the critical factor. An idea that is memorable immediately, but fades over time, could not be culturally successful.
A. Norenzayan, S. Atran, J. Faulkner, M. Schaller/Cognitive Science 30 (2006) 535 Another important finding is that the effect of counterintuitiveness on recall is not linear.