In Another’s Shoes
Empathy is part of the larger ability humans have to put themselves in
another person’s shoes: we can attribute mental states—awareness,
intent—to another entity. Theory of mind, as this trait is known, is
crucial to social interaction and communal living—and to understanding
Children develop theory of mind around age four or five. A 2007
study by psychologists Daniela O’Neill and Rebecca Shultis, both at the
University of Waterloo in Ontario, found that five-year-olds could
follow the thoughts of an imaginary character but that three-year-olds
could not. The children saw model cows in both a barn and a field, and
the researchers told them that a farmer sitting in the barn was
thinking of milking the cow in the field. When then asked to point to
the cow the farmer wanted to milk, three-year-olds pointed to the cow
in the barn—they had a hard time following the character’s thoughts to
the cow in the field. Five-year-olds, however, pointed to the cow in
the field, demonstrating theory of mind.
Perhaps because theory of mind is so vital to social living, once we
possess it we tend to imagine minds everywhere, making stories out of
everything. A classic 1944 study by Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel,
then at Smith College, elegantly demonstrated this tendency. The
psychologists showed people an animation of a pair of triangles and a
circle moving around a square and asked the participants what was
happening. The subjects described the scene as if the shapes had
intentions and motivations—for example, “The circle is chasing the
triangles.” Many studies since then have confirmed the human
predilection to make characters and narratives out of whatever we see
in the world around us.
But what could be the evolutionary advantage of being so prone to
fantasy? “One might have expected natural selection to have weeded out
any inclination to engage in imaginary worlds rather than the real
one,” writes Steven Pinker, a Harvard University evolutionary
psychologist, in the April 2007 issue of Philosophy and Literature.
Pinker goes on to argue against this claim, positing that stories are
an important tool for learning and for developing relationships with
others in one’s social group. And most scientists are starting to
agree: stories have such a powerful and universal appeal that the
neurological roots of both telling tales and enjoying them are probably
tied to crucial parts of our social cognition.
As our ancestors evolved to live in groups, the hypothesis goes,
they had to make sense of increasingly complex social relationships.
Living in a community requires keeping tabs on who the group members
are and what they are doing. What better way to spread such information
than through storytelling?
Indeed, to this day people spend most of their conversations telling
personal stories and gossiping. A 1997 study by anthropologist and
evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar, then at the University of
Liverpool in England, found that social topics accounted for 65 percent
of speaking time among people in public places, regardless of age or
Anthropologists note that storytelling could have also persisted in
human culture because it promotes social cohesion among groups and
serves as a valuable method to pass on knowledge to future generations.
But some psychologists are starting to believe that stories have an
important effect on individuals as well—the imaginary world may serve
as a proving ground for vital social skills.