Emotional Responses to Fiction: An Evolutionary Perspective
Across cultures, humans create fictional worlds. Storytelling is a cross-cultural phenomenon, taking various forms, such as narrative dances that act out passages of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, Latin American telenovelas, recitations by West African griots (troubadours) accompanied by a kora (twenty-one-string lute), and intricate Russian novels. Narratives elicit emotions. Many authors have proposed comprehensive theories about what emotions are, and how they could be categorized. Darwin (1872) was the first to propose an evolutionary, functional explanation for emotions: they help to prepare an animal for appropriate actions and to effectively communicate inner states, such as distress or anger, to others. Emotions elicited by fiction, and by art more broadly, do not fit neatly in these evolutionary scenarios. To understand the role of emotions in fiction, it is important to look at the motivations of both authors and consumers. Social novels highlight problematic social circumstances, such as extreme poverty, slavery, or animal cruelty.