Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Human Storytelling

  • Marios ShialosEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1074-1



The process of sharing stories with other people generally for the purpose of entertainment, education, and promotion of cultural awareness and societal values.


“Once upon a time” or the less common variant “once there was not” (Sherman 2008, p. 29) probably initiated everyone’s favorite story as a kid. There are many definitions of the words story, narrative, and storytelling, and at times they are even used interchangeably; nevertheless, a story is defined as the conceptualization of a sequence of events, a narrative is the concrete means of communicating a story to other people, and storytelling is the process by which narratives are composed, where the conceptualization of the story is turned into a material product, i.e., a narrative through an available medium, e.g., language and other nonverbal mediums such as pictures and miming (Sibierska 2017). Even though there are different types of stories, they can all, more or less, be separated into four main genres: true stories, folklore, fiction and literature, and fairy tales (Sherman 2008, p. 19).

A Bird’s-Eye View into Storytelling

Sherman (2008, p. 17–18) reported that the oldest record of written storytelling goes back as far as the second millennium BCE; around 2560 BCE, Egyptian records show that the sons of Pharaoh Khufu (or Cheops) used stories to entertain their father. Additionally, he stated that stories most probably predate their written versions. For instance, during the fifth century BCE, the Greek fabulist Aesop and, during the eighth century BCE, Homer (the famous Greek poet who wrote the epics “Iliad” and “Odyssey”) almost certainly recited their tales long before they had a chance to be written down. According to the author, in the course of the Middle Ages, the names of proficient storytellers started to be systematically recorded, while throughout the Renaissance era, storytellers begun to attract attention and gain popularity.

Dennehy (1999) indicated that the narration of a story is comprised by five steps that are interdependent to each other’s content:
  1. 1.

    “Establishing the setting” – describes the various details of the situation (e.g., names, time, place, etc.) that foster a sense of connection between the story and the audience and also enables the listeners to mentally visualize the story’s circumstances.

  2. 2.

    “Building the plot” – this step builds up the listeners’ excitement and interest to the unfolding events of the story while taking advantage of their emotions so that audience identifies with the plot.

  3. 3.

    “Resolving the crisis” – the “ah-ha” experience which involves the realization of the story’s main point(s).

  4. 4.

    “Describing the lessons learned” – the story’s messages are made clear ensuring that everyone understands since some listeners may not outright realize the main point conveyed in the story (depending on the audience the key lessons of the story may vary).

  5. 5.

    “Explaining how the characters change” – listeners once again are prompted to identify with the story and reflect on how they can adopt the new values and behaviors portrayed in the key lessons of the story (as cited in Yoder-Wise and Kowalski 2003).


Lipman (1999, p. 17–18) described that the storyteller, the audience, and the story constitute the three corners of the “storytelling triangle” and that these three elements are accompanied by relational forces in-between them. The first relationship is between the storyteller and the audience, the second is found between the storyteller and the story, and the third is the one that the storyteller cannot force control over and can only affect indirectly, which is the relationship between the story and the audience. Subsequently, the goal of the storyteller is to form a positive bond between the story and the audience, a relationship that can only be established indirectly by the storyteller’s skills and abilities to persist, create a novel plot, prepare, and genuinely care for both the story and the audience.

Role in Evolution

Despite the fact that language is considered the most popular way to tell a story, it is by no means the only modality available, which is evident by nonverbal narratives that are expressed through the use of pictures, facial expressions, body movements, and hand gestures (Sibierska 2017). McBride (2014) proposed that storytelling originated from mimes, long before there was any possibility of telling stories through the use of language, which would use gestures to impart their experience of the hunt. In addition, the author advocated that since stories would bestow more knowledge than juveniles could potentially learn on their own, they would eventually lead to mature and socialized adults that assembled the first forms of human cultures, from there on language evolved as the means to make the use of storytelling easier and more efficient. The storytelling brain separates humans from animals as it allows for meaning to be derived from metaphors and narratives to be interpreted and applied into real-life events (Le Hunte and Golembiewski 2014).

Over time human evolution ensured that it would be no longer necessary to live a situation in order to gain insight into potential threats or opportunities and humans would possess the evolutionary advantage to recognize and compare patterns in different situations or narratives allowing them to experience the perspective of others (Le Hunte and Golembiewski 2014). Storytelling is a skill assumed to be favored by natural selection because (a) children would receive important lessons from stories of experience hunters in a playful manner that would make them more adept as future hunters, (b) individuals talented at storytelling would receive more attention from their species hence gain more status and respect in their society, irrespective of rank, that could even make them more likely to be chosen as a sexual partner, (c) by hearing more stories experience troops learned from their peers about dangers and others’ failures or successes which they could later avoid or repeat without wasting unnecessary lives, and (d) storytelling’s ability to pass on knowledge without directing communication through a double interaction, i.e., a primary social/interpersonal interaction between two or more individuals that contains a secondary interaction which is the story (McBride 2014).

Throughout years of evolution, neurological mechanisms in the brain have developed that allow the human species to effectively process and reflect on stories (Le Hunte and Golembiewski 2014). The brain components, found in both brain hemispheres, that assist these neurological mechanisms include the hippocampus where its role in storing and recalling information enables listeners to process the details of the story, within the temporal lobes the amygdala’s function in processing emotions grants contextual awareness enabling the listener to identify or separate himself from the story, and lastly the frontal cortex act as an inhibiting agent for these storytelling mechanisms so that individuals can choose the story they want to concentrate and focus on (Le Hunte and Golembiewski 2014).

Why Do We Even Bother?

The storytelling occasion is a two-way street: as for the audience it is an opportunity to play, bond with friends, and share an experience together with a group, but for the effective storyteller, it is a moment of unconditional acceptance by the crowd (Sherman 2008, p. 18). To an even larger extent, when a father tells his son a story, societal values are passed down from one generation to the next, and when other groups of individuals hear those stories, it can help promote intercultural awareness (Sherman 2008, p. 18).

Some of the many benefits for students from the educational properties of hearing stories include but are not limited to learning about different cultural backgrounds, increasing the self-worth of immigrant or minority children who listen to their cultural values, aiding children to hone their listening skills, and improving the use of imagination, and by listening to the experienced storyteller, they are indirectly trained to become better storytellers, writers, and readers themselves (Sherman 2008, p. 29). This is concurrent with current research findings that illustrate that in children there is a positive relationship between receptive and expressive language abilities along with their storytelling abilities (Holmes et al. 2017).

According to Sherman (2008, p. 18–19), individuals who hear a tale are presented with the opportunity to acquire another perspective to an adversity, gain access to an effective role model that prevailed in a challenging situation, expand their imagination to new heights, and overall develop on a personal level, while stories filled with intense emotional content promote a climate of compassion and caring that cultivates the feeling of togetherness among a group of people. What is more, the author stated that children listeners improve on their vocabulary knowledge, understanding of a narrative’s structure, verbal ability to retell the story, and sense of self-worth. However, caution is advised when interpreting meaning from tales as the mind is biased toward detecting positive patterns and inferring meaning in stories where none exists (Gottschall 2012, p. 103–105), for example, “pareidolia” is the psychological phenomenon where the mind associates a familiar pattern to a stimulus even though one does not actually exist (e.g., seeing a face from a stain).


As discussed, human storytelling offers many evolutionary and developmental benefits while simultaneously is a largely entertaining and readily available resource to draw upon. For instance, the “catch-phrase” can often conveniently remind us of a tale and the accompanied moral point so that we can reevaluate our course of action (Sherman 2008, p. 18). Without undermining traditional storytelling, the technological advancements that increase exponentially year after year suggest that storytelling’s future lies inside the virtual world and toward the direction of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) where individuals can immerse their selves in a story shared with millions of other people that come from different ethnic backgrounds (Gottschall 2012, p. 177–200).



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of NicosiaNicosiaCyprus

Section editors and affiliations

  • Menelaos Apostolou
    • 1
  1. 1.University of NicosiaNicosiaCyprus