The people who make the best company tell the best stories. At parties, you never want to end up standing next to the guy who won’t stop talking about the washing machine he recently bought. Good stories teach us, entertain us, and help us to build connections with people. It’s probably obvious that a compelling story will depend on the interests of the person you are talking to. If you’re alone at a bar beside a stranger, last night’s football game might be a decent bet for a conversation starter. But there are also other critical features, independent of individual interests, that make us engaging storytellers.
Our brains dynamically track the content of a story as we hear it. It wouldn’t be accurate to talk about a ‘story perception’ part of the brain. Instead, as a story evolves, so does our brain activity. When we read about characters and their ambitions, the goal-directed areas of our brain are particularly active (e.g. the superior temporal cortex and prefrontal cortex). When we read about characters interacting with physical objects, motor-related areas of our brain are more active (e.g. precentral sulcus). In a sense, we are living a story as we read it. This is what makes the best literature so engaging and enjoyable: it takes us by the hand and leads us everywhere we need to go without looking back.
Self-control can be exhausting. If you’ve ever spent an hour trying to hold a good posture instead of your typical slouch, you’ve probably experienced this yourself. Keeping your back straight is not a particularly energy-intensive activity like running or swimming. Much of the pain comes from keeping your goal in mind and maintaining the levels of effort and motivation you need. I’ve previously described the exhaustion of learning to drive a car. Driving when you’re an expert is a lazy activity but driving when you’re learning can be utterly draining. Some evidence suggests that we have a central self-control energy resource, and when an activity drains that resource, our self-control capacity on other tasks is also diminished (this is a theory known as ego-depletion, although it is currently hotly debated).
The question for storytellers is whether they can exhaust other people with their stories. Listening to someone’s story could reasonably leave us feeling tired, but it seems to depend on how we process their story. Imagine reading a story about a waiter who arrives at work feeling hungry, and spends their whole shift resisting the temptation to eat food from the restaurant because it is against company policy. If we actively take the waiter’s perspective as we read the story, it exhausts our self-control capacity. But if we passively read without putting ourselves in the character’s shoes, it does not seem to have this cost. In fact, it may inspire additional self-control capacity according to some evidence. So engaging with a story can be an exhausting experience, but it depends on how much we empathize with the characters as they go through their hardships. I can relate to this evidence after recently spending a full day watching a controversial senate hearing about the alleged wrongdoing of a US Supreme Court nominee. Putting myself in the shoes of the questioners and the witnesses, as the stories and perspectives were laid out, did not leave me feeling particularly healthy at the end of the day.
This question is going to sound crazy, but is it possible that spoilers for stories are a good thing? Well, according to one study, they may be. Researchers gave participants stories that they had not read before, and asked them to rate how much they enjoyed the stories. Before some of the readings, the participants were shown a spoiler paragraph before reading the full story. Unbelievably, for several types of story (mysteries, ironic twists, and evocative literary stories), people consistently reported enjoying the spoiled stories more than the unspoiled stories. You can come up with your own reasons for why this might happen, but some possibilities are that spoilers allow us to organize and anticipate stories better, while offering the pleasurable tension of knowing what may be about to hit the characters. This makes some sense to me, and explains why I often enjoy a movie more after a second viewing. However, for the time being, please do not spoil any of the upcoming titles on my movie list. The evidence might show that I’m likely to enjoy a spoiled story. But it hasn’t said anything about long-term appreciation or memorability. Yet…
In keeping along this track of surprising facts, here’s one more obvious-sounding question. Would you prefer to hear a story about an experience you’ve had before, or an experience you’ve never had? You’d be forgiven for thinking you would rather hear about something completely new, because that is in line with what most people think. However, we may all be wrong. In an experiment, when a speaker describes their experiences related to a video, they expect that listeners will prefer listening to the story if they have not already seen that video. And the listeners expect the same thing. But the data suggests that listeners enjoy a story about a familiar video more than a story about an unseen video. When we tell people stories that are completely new to them, we tend to assume they have more knowledge about the topic than they do. It’s a cognitive bias called the “curse of knowledge”. It leaves us in the awkward position of occasionally rambling while someone stares blankly into our eyes, too polite to interrupt and ask “what are you talking about?”.
So there’s a great incentive to learn about another person’s interests and background before deciding which of your amazing stories to share. For both story spoilers and conversational topics, some sense of familiarity allows our brains to keep better pace with a changing story. We don’t need to exhaust ourselves with patching holes in our knowledge and playing catch up in real time as the story unfolds. Next time you’re out chatting with friends, tell them stories about what they already know.