The Story Trap

Roundup
tags: history, science relevant to history, stories



Philip Ball is a British science writer, whose work appears in Nature, New Scientist and Prospect, among others. His latest book is Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen (2014).

It’s a movie classic. The lovers are out for a walk when a villain dashes out of his house and starts fighting the man. The woman takes refuge in the house; having seen off his rival, the villain re-enters and chases after her. Yet the hero returns, pulling open the door so that the heroine can escape. The villain chases the lovers, until they finally flee, and he smashes his own home apart in fury.

Who are these characters? None of them ever made another movie, and you won’t find them in any directories of famous actors. They are, in order of appearance, a large triangle (villain), a small triangle (hero), and a circle (heroine). The animated film was made in 1944 by the psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel of Smith College in Massachusetts, whose paper ‘An Experimental Study of Apparent Behaviour’ is a milestone in understanding the human impulse to construct narratives.

At one level, their movie is just a series of geometric shapes moving around on a white background. It appears to lack any formal elements of story at all. Yet study groups (of undergraduate women) who saw the film in 1944 were remarkably consistent in their judgment of what it was ‘about’. Thirty-five out of 36 decided that the big triangle was a mean, irritable bully, and half identified the small triangle as valiant and spirited.

That’s a striking result: near unanimity on the emotional journey of a bunch of shapes. Then again, how surprising were these findings? Abstract animation existed as early as the 1920s, and experimental animators such as the Hungarian Jules Engel had already shown in sequences such as the Mushroom Dance in Walt Disney’s Fantasia(1940) that very little visual information is needed to create characters and story. So perhaps research was just catching up with what the empiricism of art had already discovered.

Maybe so. But the question remains: where does this narrative impulse come from? Why and how do we construct these stories? What kinds of stories do we impose on events? And should we? ...




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