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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

The sympathetic plot, its psychological origins, and implications for the evolution of fiction

Singh, M. (2021). 
Emotion Review, 13(3), 183–198.


For over a century, scholars have compared stories and proposed universal narrative patterns. Despite their diversity, nearly all of these projects converged on a common structure: the sympathetic plot. The sympathetic plot describes how a goal-directed protagonist confronts obstacles, overcomes them, and wins rewards. Stories with these features frequently exhibit other common elements, including an adventure and an orphaned main character. Here, I identify and aim to explain the sympathetic plot. I argue that the sympathetic plot is a technology for entertainment that works by engaging two sets of psychological mechanisms. First, it triggers mechanisms for learning about obstacles and how to overcome them. It builds interest by confronting a protagonist with a problem and induces satisfaction when the problem is solved. Second, it evokes sympathetic joy. It establishes the protagonist as an ideal cooperative partner pursuing a justifiable goal, convincing audiences that they should assist the character. When the protagonist succeeds, they receive rewards, and audiences feel sympathetic joy, an emotion normally triggered when cooperative partners triumph. The psychological capacities underlying the sympathetic plot are not story-specific adaptations. Instead, they evolved for purposes like learning and cooperation before being co-opted for entertainment by storytellers and cultural evolution.


Why do people everywhere tell stories about abused stepdaughters who marry royalty and revel in awarded riches? Whence all the virtuous orphans? The answer, I have argued, is entertainment.Tales in which a likable main character overcomes difficulty and reaps rewards create a compelling cognitive dreamscape. They twiddle psychological mechanisms involved in learning and cooperation, narrowing attention and inducing sympathetic joy. Story imitates life, or at least the elements of life to which we’ve evolved pleasurable responses.

Note: Many times, our patients narrate stories of their lives.  Narrative patterns may help psychologists understand internal motivations of our patients, how they view their life trajectories, and how we can help them alter their storylines for improved mental health.