Ayn Rand and the Cognitive Science of Narrative

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By Vinay Kolhatkar

July 22, 2015


Cognitive Science, the scientific study of the mind and its processes, has been researching the question of why humans are pervasive consumers of story, and how it affects us.

In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human, author Jonathan Gottschall makes a compelling case that stories help us learn and navigate through life’s problems, in the way flight simulators assist pilots in training. Asserting that humans are genetically programmed for narratives and archetypes, Gottschall quotes neuroscience researcher Michael Gazzaninga—“It [the brain] is addicted to meaning. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t.”

This is why archetype stories stick in one’s mind and the lessons, even if untrue, survive the truth being outed—the mind does not like to let go of a framework it holds as a way of managing life.

Engagement with the narrative, as well as identification with characters, serves to increase persuasive impact through reducing the formation of counterarguments, lessening message scrutiny, and inhibiting psychological resistance.

Cognitive Science researcher Melanie Green (State University of New York), who examines the power of fictional stories on real world beliefs, infers that individuals tend to generalize from stories, even though narratives are about a few key people, a statistically insignificant sample.

With such fondness for story inherent in humans, is critical thinking lowered when our fancy is grabbed by an interesting yarn?

Yes, says Associate Professor Michael Dahlstrom of Iowa State University. Models of persuasive narrative infer that “engagement with the narrative, as well as identification with characters, serves to increase persuasive impact through reducing the formation of counterarguments, lessening message scrutiny, and inhibiting psychological resistance.” So strong is the power of narratives in fact, says Dahlstrom, that “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have begun working with Hollywood to monitor the truthfulness of medical information in television dramas.”

However, is this persuasion temporary? In other words, is our critical faculty, sedated as it is by the emotional high of narrative, cleaning up after the emotional roller-coaster ride is over?

No, says Dahlstrom—“Results from belief-based studies, which examine the acceptance of specific, factual assertions made within narratives and their incorporation into mental belief structures about the world, generally find that individuals do tend to accept narrative assertions and utilize them to answer questions about the world.”

Beliefs acquired by reading fictional narratives are integrated into real-world knowledge.

Cognitive Psychology researchers Markus Appel (University of Koblenz-Landau, Germany) and Tobias Richter (Universität Kassel, Hessen, Germany) made an even stronger inference—“persuasive effects of fictional narratives are persistent and even increase over time” (they label it the absolute sleeper effect) and that “beliefs acquired by reading fictional narratives are integrated into real-world knowledge.” Future intake of information is processed by an existing framework that we hold dear, because humans need frameworks to deal with a complex world; logicians may call this confirmation bias.

So stories that connect with us emotionally leave an indelible imprint on our psyche.

In 2011, the New York Times even posed this question as a headline, “Can a novelist write philosophically?” drawing on the work of a teacher of philosophy at Oxford, Iris Murdoch, who wrote novels, and Philosophy PhDs who wrote novels such as Rebecca Goldstein and Clancy Martin, as well as David Foster Wallace (a one-time philosophy PhD candidate at Harvard).

Among famous philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote plays, and George Santayana wrote poems.

But the New York Times misses the point entirely. All narratives express a philosophical worldview since the author must select the subject, the context, the events, and draw the characters and express their choices. Whether implicitly or overtly, a novelist cannot but express a philosophical position, so the question is redundant.

Enter Ayn Rand, probably the most famous formal philosopher who chose to express her worldview quite overtly within a narrative form. Rand had perceived the issue which the New York Times quotes as, “Philosophy is written for the few; literature for the many.”

Given that stories are “the flight simulators of life,” particularly for the young, who are often voracious consumers of stories, what is a good basis for judging how good these simulators are?

Rand in fact exited the stage (she passed in 1982) well before 21st century cognitive science confirmed her reasoning about the power of narratives to teach and affect, and even to change a worldview inexorably, particularly in the young. In The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature, published in 1971, Rand articulated the simulation learning effect—“Without the assistance of art, ethics remains in the position of theoretical engineering; art is the model builder. Many readers of The Fountainhead have told me that the character of Howard Roark helped them to make a decision when they faced a moral dilemma.”

Given that stories are “the flight simulators of life,” particularly for the young, who are often voracious consumers of stories, what is a good basis for judging how good these simulators are?

Rand’s work provides one such framework. Using literature as the primary exposition tool, Rand constructed a dichotomy which addresses the making of art in a most fundamental way—she designated that as Romanticism vs Naturalism. It does not mean that every artistic work is completely one or the other; most in fact are mixed; there is a spectrum, not two boxes, nevertheless it assists us to identify the two bookends of the spectrum.

Rand redefined Romanticism, then a pre-existing literary movement, as “a category of art based on the recognition of the principle that man possesses the faculty of volition, and Naturalism, as the category that denies it.” Romanticism “showcases” purposeful action by which men and women try to shape the world around them as against being shaped by it.

The medium of film is tailor made for showcasing purposeful action, so let’s look at a few illustrations from the world of screen stories that elucidate this dichotomy. The examples are drawn from “Do Film Critics Understand Film?” which is a fuller treatment of how film critics have convoluted standards. Film critics may subconsciously serve a leftist purpose as defeatist narratives sweep the world of art.

“Show, don’t tell”—the filmmaker’s Holy Grail—is also about connecting at an emotional level with illustrative concretizations—not speeches, essays, and tirades. Every story has a moral. When the narrative ends, there is always an underlying message, best kept implicit. If nothing of consequence happens, the subliminal inference that your subconscious takes in, is that human life is about chance, ordinariness, or even despair if it all ends badly without hope. If consequences are dictated by coincidences, the young would infer that life is about destiny. But story events propelled by humans in purposeful conflict suggest the opposite.

Consider for example, the film The Counterfeiters (2007).

Based on a true WWII story, this German-language film is a telling of an incredible internal value-clash within a Jewish artist, Salomon Sorowitsch (Sal). Sal makes a living as a forger of passports and currency. The Nazis hunt him down and send him to a concentration camp. Here, he uses his portraiture skills to get himself a better bunkhouse and food.
The Nazis want to use him to forge the British Pound and the U.S. dollar. Initially motivated by survival, he is conflicted by the fact of the counterfeiting assisting the Germans in the war, and further conflicted by the pride he takes in his work—he has never been able to perfect his counterfeit of the U.S. dollar, and the Germans are throwing money at it. His fellow prisoners are on both sides of the debate—is it better to die honorably now, or die after helping the Nazis while retaining a slim possibility of escape? Sal engages in covert delaying tactics to buy time, which starts an engrossing cat-and-mouse detection game among purpose-driven humans in conflict who shape events via their struggle. It won the best foreign language film Oscar for 2007.

Now, consider these instead:

Crash (2004): Using an enormous ensemble cast, with no singularly visible protagonist, and no definitively pursued desires against an ascending conflict, the story liberally uses repetitive coincidence as a plot device to demonstrate that victims of racism are often racist themselves in different contexts and situations in a world full of moral gray. Critically acclaimed, Crash won two Academy awards, including Best Picture, and two BAFTAs (including Best Screenplay).

Or this:

The Hurt Locker (2009): One of the most plot-less stories ever to hit the screen, this is a journalistic slice-of-life account of unconnected incidents that befall a bomb-explosives expert. At the end, he confesses to his infant son that the risky excitement of war is his only true love. This film won six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Director, and substantive critical acclaim.

These Best Screenplay winners are narratives that feed a sense of helplessness, resignation, and determinism. They are inculcating the wrong lessons.

Having conflicts unresolved at the end, implies subliminally that resolution is not likely in real life. Having accidental or coincidental events determine the fate of the key characters conveys the meaning that accidental events are the key to outcomes. Portraying a plotless character study, without setting a context for a universal truth about humankind, violates even the educational purpose of art, let alone the inspirational. The repetitive depiction of a world full of moral gray engraves a pessimistic streak in the viewer’s mind.

This is obnoxiously lazy writing, lazy in the sense that the writer is unwilling or unable to undertake the large amount of thinking that is necessary to write a fully integrated plot and express it well. To elevate such writing to world-class with pseudo awards only deepens the confusion in the young mind.

People with an achievement oriented outlook on life, love the triumph of an integrated plot. Only the narrative with a non-defeatist perspective grips them; it tells them that, for good or bad, humans shape their destiny. It is much harder to create such a narrative as compared to a meandering navel gazing story, but it is the higher form of art. It is the genre which is consonant with the spirit of enterprise, daring, and self-reliance.

Film critics however, have long since completed their journey into the dark world. For sixty consecutive years (1952-2012), film critics classified a wayward examination of an unhappy newspaper baron (Citizen Kane) to be the greatest film of all time, offering little more than new techniques at the time and a gimmicky narrative structure as the reasons thereof. Citizen Kane is a purposeless story, essentially an inferior screenplay. Perhaps, like their literary counterparts, they did not dare to state the real reason—Orson Welles made Naturalism chic and initiated the debasement of humanity in movies in 1941. Citizen Kane was initially a commercial failure, until it received a glowing recommendation—the kiss of existentialist despair, from Jean-Paul Sartre. Then the critics began to fawn over it.

Since then, film critics have often elevated the mundane to a mountaintop alight with pompous glory. Their pretentious literary and visual art cousins had paved the way. For how far in the gutter modern art has landed, see Emptiness and Nausea in Modern Art by Stephen Hicks.

The flight simulators that are teaching our young pilots how not to fly, are being heralded as sublime works of art.

A writer’s subconscious will always show through his or her work by the act of selection. The work speaks to us at a subliminal level. We respond positively when it accords with our own worldview. And in the young, it can shape their worldview.

That is why we need to pay attention here—the flight simulators that are teaching our young pilots how not to fly, are being heralded as sublime works of art.





1) Appel, Markus, Fictional Narratives Cultivate Just‐World Beliefs, Journal of Communication, 2008, Vol.58(1), pp.62-83

2) Appel, Markus & Richter, Tobias, Persuasive Effects of Fictional Narratives Increase Over Time, Media Psychology; 2007, Vol. 10 Issue 1, pp 113-134

3) Dahlstrom, Michael F, The Persuasive Influence of Narrative Causality: Psychological Mechanism, Strength in Overcoming Resistance, and Persistence Over Time, Media Psychology, 2012, 15:3, pp 303-326

4) Gottschall Jonathan, The Storytelling Animal: How stories make us human, Houghton Harcourt, 2009

5) Green, Melanie C, Research challenges in narrative persuasion, Information Design Journal, Volume 16, Number 1, 2008, pp. 47-52(6)



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  • Excellent essay. Have saved it for reference.

  • A very compelling area of research and study. Might I also humbly offer my contribution to this topic- my most recent book: Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness (Rodopi 2014). I go back to prehistoric hominins and navigate a timeline to chart the origin and linkage of consciousness, narrative, and moral emotions. /gft

  • Thank you, Mike N.

  • Thank you, Gregory. Is that likely to be also on Kindle in a reasonably-priced edition?

  • Troy Camplin

    Interesting. I would have liked more on what seemed the direction in which you were going before you talked about the movies.

    You may also be interested that I have blogs on Evolution and Literature at and on Austrian Economics and Literature at

  • Thank you, Troy. Will have a look at those blogs. I did write a much longer academic research essay on that topic which moves further in that direction, gravitating then toward how narrative play is used by journalists, with a long bibliography. It’s too academic for this e-magazine, but I can send a copy to your email address if you are interested.

  • raycathode

    Ayn Rand is a great illustrator of the power of metaphor, for instance the beautiful restated legends in Atlas Shrugged, or as stated in the article, the way many epople use Rand’s characters as symbols for what moral persons would do: also see “Philosophy in a New Key” by Suzanne Langer.

  • Thank you for that reference and your comments, raycathode.

  • Palliden7

    Very good essay. The information given is nothing new but just a critique on modern adaptation of story telling. As a species mankind is a story teller. We wouldn’t have the world that we’re living in if it weren’t for this ability. Great many author’s and movie creators have influenced society in many ways. Some such as AR are read and reread yet the underlying philosophy has not taken hold.

  • Thank you, Palliden7 and Kennon Gilson.

  • Liz

    Great article! I have recently been disappointed in contemporary literary fiction and I think it is very much in line with what you have observed—the despair, the plotlessness, the unresolved conflicts. I often feel cheated of an ending and a purpose! I would love to read more of your writing on this subject!

    • Fred Bastiat

      I thought the same when reading Kafka,until I had a friend provide me context of the times and lives. Kafka did right hopelessness and about the inevitability of failure and despair: but hopeless with its own meaning. I think the emptiness, unresolved conflicts, dysfunction, lack of strong archetypes, are equally a reflection of the context of our time. We’ve had two generations on (un)ethical autopilot and the disintegration of not only meaning in our lives, but the simple meaning of words. Family, ethics, sex, social norms, everything is fluid, unresolved. I recall hearing a song on the radio with the lines, “waiting on the world to change” and thinking how that sense of doing nothing, waiting, and not having agency, was pervasive. Even though people are in fact agents of change, there is a world of dysfunction where everyone feels change is happening to them.

      Perhaps I’m off on a tangent, but I believe that much of the art of our time, film in particular, reflects this state of the world.

      • “… I believe that much of the art of our time, film in particular, reflects this state of the world.”

        Actually, this is dead on.

        The late William Brugh Joy, a Jungian psychologist among other things, does not even have a Wikipedia entry. Yet he was one of the wisest men on the planet. I was privileged to know him and call him my teacher and friend.

        He said exactly the same thing, that motion pictures are “collective dreams” that emerge from Jung’s “collective unconscious”.

        Note that we are not talking about political collectivism, but the very thing you mentioned, the “state of the world”.

        One unmistakable example is the rash of Zombie Apocalypse movies and TV series. They reflect mass anxiety about civilizational collapse and the challenge of surviving in the ensuing chaos.

        • It’s true that, in a generalized sense, in a democracy, the people, collectively, get the politicians and the art they desire. Votes and box-office. They deserve much better, but they don’t know it.

  • Thank you, Liz. Please do share the piece on social media. There’s more here and if you go to author archives, you will see some film reviews and the Nine Memorable Screen Dialogues piece. By the way, you might also like this … and perhaps the Harlan Coben

  • Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.

    Unfortunately, I think the essay wavered from what was starting off as a good summation as to the purpose of art, especially the purpose of literature (narrative). Basically, since man is born tabula rasa (he has no innate knowledge) and yet also has no instincts to guide him in his daily life, he needs a means of holding his own life in mind as an entirety so that he can contemplate what to do with it of his own free will. Focusing on plot literature is a good way of illustrating this; whereas, as you pointed out, modern naturalism says man has no control of anything, that he is a helpless play-thing of the omnipresent existence he was born into. A man’s own consciousness is what is revived when he reads a good plot-driven story, the fact that he, too, can gain control of his own life and live it according to his own principles. This is true of each individual so it doesn’t matter that the statistical analysis will say that a novel might have, say, ten major characters, whereas in real life he might meet many hundreds of individuals. The key is the concretization of an abstraction — of making an idea real on paper by means of the characters and the plot and the resolution of all the conflicts. By doing this in an exciting manner, a good author can convey a great deal about being human and what can be made of one’s own life.

  • Thank you, Thomas. Not sure of the “wavered” part. The purpose of art is established in the first half of the essay. The comparison to Rand’s theory of aesthetics and the illustrations to draw attention to where literature has gone awry is the second part. The “discovery” of cognitive science, that the particular lessons are learnt as though they are generic (a novel’s key characters are a few), as you rightly point out, is not actually a “surprise” to most of us; that’s where Rand, albeit not a formal, academic scholar, was way ahead of her time.

  • Charles

    Vinay, I put reading this essay on my to do list. It should have color-coded A1! It’s wonderful, and I agree. I’ve come to appreciate Rand much more in light of this research. She really knew what she was doing. When I first heard your views on Citizen Kane, I was admittedly somewhat peeved, since I was quite infatuated with its cheeky and flashy visual style. Having seen it again in light of your remarks, I again have to acknowledge you called it. Perhaps getting older and hopefully wiser, I find it very difficult to sit through existential, pointless muck–and many films I was once in love with due to their directors’ cinematic exhibitionism (Godard, Antonioni, Wenders, etc) I can’t sit through at all. A great article from which I learned. Bravo.

  • Threnody

    Thank you. I enjoyed your article. Some of your phrasing of the key bits was particularly clean and succinct. I offer something along a similar line: http:// students/ students-blog/ 3671-why-art-became-ugly (you’ll have to take the spaces out of the link. I don’t know how to prevent disqus from blocking links.)

  • Fred Bastiat

    Very fine article, the topic is interesting. I can’t see a mention of Citizen Kane without saying it’s a terrible, plodding movie, and the supposed secret reveal is lame. I won’t spoil it for those who have it on their must view list, although I could recommend some truly great films to replace it. I wouldn’t have been detoured myself from seeing Citizen Kane, despite being forewarned by people I respect.

    The reverence for Citizen Kane among certain film critics, teachers, and students has become self perpetuating, and self promoting. It’s film snobbery, where the snobbery is important, not the film.

    • I think CK is an admirably ambitious film that takes on a mighty big subject.

      I think it is a pretty good film, despite the fact that Sartre endorsed it. LOL.

      Transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber has done much to address the subject (not the film per se):

      “An immortality project, says Ken, is searching in the world of time for that which is timeless. We are constantly looking to plant a flag in the temporal world that will not blanch or tatter, whether it’s a physical structure or a belief system that promises an afterlife, or denies our fundamental impermanence. In this community call we hear from Ken about how to stop confusing our relative, grasping desires for things in the temporal realm, with the experience of a real infinity, a genuine eternity. According to Ken we have a correct intuition of infinity (or Spirit, or oneness), but we apply it in a way that prevents us from realizing it. This changes at each stage of development. We’ll reach for food, sex, power, love, etc. on and on in attempts to gain wholeness. But these are substitute gratifications, and everything this desperate fear-of-death touches, it distorts.”

      Basically the 1%, the Illuminati if you will, are latter day Citizen Kanes. Their sociopathic pursuit of global domination is the ultimate “immortality project”, the sickest, most dysfunctional one imaginable.

      Citizen Kane was a textbook case of someone attempting desperately and futilely to find happiness and defy death by acquiring power and accumulating things, when what his soul really longed for was the rustic pleasures denied him as a child, symbolized by the child’s sled.

      Paradoxically CK’s sacrosanct status may well raise expectations so high the result may sometimes be a massive let-down!

      • Socrates Wilde

        I see parallels between Kane and Wynand in “The Fountainhead.”

        • Now that you mention it. I agree!

        • Fred Bastiat

          Okay, but I can’t put it in my top 100 classic films and for would place any Elvis film above it. Yes, I said it, at least I get a little peppy music with the cringe worthy rest of show.

        • That makes sense, actually. Kane was, I assume you know, based on media mogul William Randolph Hearst.

          Rand based Wynand on Hearst too, if I’m not mistaken.

          Yup. Just ran a quick search. The dots connect perfectly.

          “Some elements of Wynand’s character were inspired by real-life newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst,[31] including Hearst’s mixed success in attempts to gain political influence.[32] Wynand is a tragic figure who ultimately fails in his attempts to wield power, losing his newspaper, his wife, and his friendship with Roark.[33]”

          • The Hearst parallel is a good point, but that’s where the commonalities end. In The Fountainhead, Wynand serves as the foil to Roark, his intellectual equal, but having a malevolent worldview. He is part of the story, an essential part, but the story revolves around Howard Roark, and his struggle. Roark’s victory implies that Wynand, too, would have won, had he made the right choices. But Citizen Kane suggests that Kane’s downfall is caused by his ambition, and his unhappiness by his tough childhood. It serves a deterministic view of life.

      • Fred Bastiat

        Yes, the premise is compelling, but in my opinion the delivery was excruciating.

    • Thank you.

    • Socrates Wilde

      I liked it. But I also see it in its historical context, and for its technical innovations.

      • Fred Bastiat

        Oh no, Socrates, you’ve exhibited such good taste elsewhere! Art is subjective, excepting the last Fantastic Four, which I’ll gladly argue as fact that it was a disaster on every level, not even achieving B Movie schtick. Citizen Kane may have some historical and film innovations that I failed to appreciate as a film lover, granted. But I so looked forward to seeing it, it was top of the list for so many people as a great film. Never felt more duped, those that appreciate the film should all provide a disclamer that the film might come with great regret and suicidal thoughts.

        • “But I so looked forward to seeing it, it was top of the list for so many people as a great film. Never felt more duped, ”

          That’s the problem. It’s been hyped so much, and expectations are so high, it cannot possibly live up to them. If it was a neglected masterpiece, and you happened to catch it on late night TV, you might be blown away.

          Or not. LOL.

    • Excellent observation; I couldn’t agree more, indeed—-the snobbery has become self-perpetuating.

  • Thank you for this.

  • Neeraj Chaudhary

    GREAT piece! I don’t know Rand well enough to appreciate that part of the piece, but the idea that people need stories in order to process their world, makes complete sense to me. Excellent!

  • Thank you, I Love L.

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