Storytelling and Choice

Marina Bianchi and Roberta Patalano

Rounded Globe



“Once upon a time,” said the narrator, “there was a girl whose name was Little Yellow Riding Hood.” “Nooo Red!!!” screamed the listening children all together. “Mm… yes Red. Anyway, her father calls her and…” “Noo not her father, her mother!” “Right, her mother calls her and asks her to go to her aunt and bring her...” “Noo to her grandma, not to her aunt!”

This game of “getting stories wrong” is one of the many games that children can play with stories and which Gianni Rodari vividly illustrates in his La grammatica della Fantasia (1973; English translation: The Grammar of Fantasy, 1996). By “getting stories wrong,” children can be challenged to break the known pattern of a story and find new alternatives, creating parodies, altered plots, or different endings. However, Rodari warns, such changes must be played at the right stage in a child’s development. With stories, children are conservative for a long time. They like to listen to them in the same words, sequence and order as the first time they heard them, and to re-live their original responses: surprise, fear, gratification, elation and so on. They may be already comfortable with the presence of a wolf, but changes made too soon unsettle them.

It is only when the magic of the already-known story has lost its shine and the reassurance of familiarity is no longer exciting that children might accept the challenge of altering it, putting its order in disarray and introducing new characters. This is the point, Rodari notes (1973: 63), at which children no longer simply play with Little Red Riding Hood as traditionally told but start introducing their own modifications.

Rodari suggests a whole set of devices and techniques that stimulate children to venture into decomposing and recomposing a story with freedom and without fear. From this point on, devices like that of “getting stories wrong” become “triggers” of the imagination, of the art of inventing new stories. Stories are born from a clash that breaks the known path and forces out-of-the-ordinary forms and progressions.

In one of these triggering devices, for example, children are given a sequence of five words that might suggest the story of Little Red Riding Hood: thus, little girl, wood, flowers, wolf, grandmother. A sixth word – helicopter, say – breaks the sequence. The presence of the new element in the sequence twists the story towards new imaginary developments. In the example given by Rodari the children who were playing this game imagined that the police, having caught sight of the wolf just when it was knocking at the grandmother’s door, swoop down in their helicopter, causing the wolf to run away, right into the hunter and his rifle.

Stories lend themselves to many manipulations and transformations of this kind. Their characters can be inverted, as when it is Little Red Riding Hood who is the naughty character and the wolf the good one. Alternatively, they can be mixed together in a “salad” of different stories: Little Red Riding Hood may meet Tom Thumb and his brothers in the wood and have a new series of adventures together; or the Prince of Cinderella might also become the Prince who meets Sleeping Beauty.

Stories may have sequels too. “What happens next?” is what everybody would desire to know, wishing a story would never end. One such sequel to the Cinderella story for example – though Rodari does not recall its inventor (ibid.:70) – recounts that Cinderella, having happily married the Prince, continues in her old habit of cleaning, sweeping and sewing, looking always shabby and unkempt. Cinderella’s stepsisters, always fashionable and witty, now become more attractive to the Prince, who starts to court them. What next…?

In Rodari we find a whole trove of techniques that, by breaking the automatic responses to the known, set the imagination in motion and allow for the unveiling of new stories. Even simple associations of unrelated words, or deliberate misspellings and mistakes may become the building blocks of Rodari’s “Fantastic.” Take what he calls the “fantastic bynomial” that, by playing on unrelated associations of words – e.g. shoes and light, dog and wardrobe – may set a stage on which unpredictable stories appear. A single word, in fact, can “act,” he says (ibid.: 25), only when it is played against another that provokes it, that forces it out of the habitual track and towards new ways of signifying. There is no life if there is no fight! In similar vein, the “arbitrary prefix” makes words productive by deforming them, as does the “bis-pipe” for unrepentent smokers, or the “un-cannon” to undo wars. As logic sets the boundaries of non-contradiction, so the “Fantastic” forces these same boundaries to shift and thus reveal possible new worlds.

What happens in all these games of invention, in fact, is that the introduction into a story of “errors” and “wrong” associations also reveals how their correct use works. Breaking and decomposing the accepted codes and sequences of a novel enables, even if tacitly and inadvertently, the discovery of its very structure: what its relevant or salient elements are, what are its concatenations and linkages, its surprises and emotional twists. By breaking the received structure of the story, its internal logic is revealed and can then be re-created anew.

This, indeed, was the kind of operation that Vladimir Propp explained in his Morphology of the Folktale (1968 [1927]). For Propp there were 31 underlying functional elements that represent the universal structure of any story. Starting from “departure” and “prohibition,” this complex sequence includes additional structural functions such as the “fight of the hero with his antagonist,” the “defeat of the latter,” the “victory of the hero,” and so on. From the original templates there are also transformative variations that, according to Propp, allow stories to be derivately generated. These act through operations of change that play on reductions and extensions, on intensifications and attenuations or on substitutions that alter the basic element of a story and create a new one. The free and imaginative use of functions and transformations, then, allows for seemingly infinite variations and infinite stories to be created.

Propp’s functions apply also to Rodari’s fantastic grammar games, which become points of departure for new explorations by children. A selection of Propp functions is transposed by Rodari into cards that children can compose, as if they were musical notes, into larger stories. Unlike the pieces of a mosaic or of a puzzle, these cards are not disarrayed fragments of a unique design. Rather, each piece has an open meaning that lends itself to multiple creative combinations (ibid.: 84).

Stories, in short, exhibit some structural characteristics that both regulate their order and suggest and stimulate their interpretation. At the same time, these structures are open enough to allow for the reader/author to fill creatively their gaps and voids. The result is that the engaging power of stories is twofold: on the one hand there is the emotional tension that comes from living vicariously the twists and turns of events, the surprises and resolutions of the narration; on the other hand there is the mental engagement that the logical structure of a story requires, made up of classifications, generalizations, coherence and reliability.

Stories, in this view, involve fantasy and creativity in discovering unexplored connections, but also logic in distinguishing the possible from the impossible, the real from the invented. They mix imagination and reason, emotion and knowledge, and it is difficult to identify – as Rodari perceptively stressed – just where the boundaries of the one end and those of the other begin (ibid.:143).

* * *

If we have spent time on these first inceptions of the characteristics of stories it is because they provide a helpful initial introduction to the topics that are dealt with in this book.

Much of the literature that addresses the functions and structures of narratives stresses strongly an important point; namely, that stories are exercises in cognitive abilities.

No story tells everything. If it did it would be a pure transmission of information.

Stories instead trade on gaps in information, on contractions and expansions of the timing of events, on suspending the resolution, on balancing omissions and transmissions. It is the task of the author, the reader, the listener to fill in the gaps, to exercise their freedom to guess, to interpret and to imagine.

But what has this inferential game to do with decisions and choices? Choices, we shall argue, are action-related: the goods, activities and alternative options that choices face are embedded in actions that have a past, a present and an (albeit uncertain) future. In order to make sense of actions and to keep them together, in order to allow us to make inferences and predictions, and to open up the creation of new alternatives, a story provides the framework that, linking the past with the future, may disclose as yet unexplored but possible outcomes. All decisions are about discrepancies, about mismatches of interpretations and predictions and what may be done to correct them. With their requirements of presuppositions and interpretations stories represent a sort of filing cabinet of choices, a cognitive template thereof.

In the rational model of choice that we encounter in the economics textbooks, by contrast, choices start when this inferential game has ended: the choice set has already been delimited, the goods that appear have already been selected as their potential trade offs with others is known. All that remains to do is actually trade one good against another with no loss of utility. What we shall argue, in fact, is that before the rational-decisions-phase is reached, goods must have become goods; they have to be selected from an initial undifferentiated set and made part of a set that has value, that confers sense and meaning to deliberations.

But this is exactly what stories do. They supply the mind with tools by which people can create meaning for an altogether disconnected and disarrayed set of actors, their actions and events. Stories argue for reasons and values in a structure that has coherence and fidelity.

This model of thought, however, which uses narratives for sense-making, is different from the mode of reasoning adopted in economics. There, premises imply conclusions via paths guided strictly by thinking of a rational sort – abstract, analytic thinking. But, while (as Bruner 1990 argues) analytic thinking is ideal for reporting the expected and the ordinary, narrative thinking, encapsulated in stories and storytelling, is ideally suited to discussing the exceptional. Narratives thrive on disruptions of the ordinary, on departures from the expected, on conflicts and surprises. Storytelling doesn’t replace analytical thinking, but it supplements it, enabling us to imagine new perspectives and new worlds.

This out-of-the-ordinary aspect of stories and of the way we tell them is an element of what has been called the dramatism of stories: stories follow a movement that goes through a beginning, develops in a climax that challenges that beginning and reaches a resolution.

The climaxes of dramatism happen at the bifurcations of possible routes that may be taken, when choices with their dilemmas and uncertainties confront us. Stories, in short, are more than rational forms of communications or of meaning-making in an uncertain world. They are representations of ways of dealing with change, and of the cognitive and emotional participation that choices involve.

But if stories are mental structures for dealing with, understanding and creating change, then they are also exercises in creativity, in dealing with and producing the new, the complex and the unexpected.

It is in this creative dimension that, for us, the specificity of stories lies; in the fact that at every step the reader/listener/author is forced to make a choice, to understand and anticipate the possible courses of action, just like being in a wood where the paths bifurcate (Eco 1994: 7). But this creative specificity tells us also something else, namely, that stories have an emotional dimension. No matter how important the role of cognition is for decision and action, we know that when we tell, or listen to, or read a story there is a “plus” that goes beyong cognition, one that elicits our emotional participation. Contrary to the paradigmatic model of communication, there is no story that is not meant to entice and involve us.

As a large body of experimental studies on aesthetic preferences has revealed, the variables of change, such as novelty, surprise, uncertainty and complexity, are also the variables that trigger attention and exploration, curiosity and interest. Trading on these variables as stories do sets in motion a collaborative process whereby the aesthetic dimension, the pleasure and interest that stories trigger, plays a major role.

What is the difference between a story we listen to and one we invent?

By reading a story, we enter into the author’s way of narrating, of connecting experiences and times, associating ideas and blending facts and emotions. We are put in contact with the way the author signifies events, viewing them through the same emotional filters. And these are but some of the privileges of the listener, as we shall see.

As regards the process of invention, important differences emerge. Inventing is less relaxing; it triggers the activation of cognition, emotional states, attention and personal involvement at a higher level of intensity. As we will argue in the following chapters, to be an author is a form of agency, perhaps the most important one that we have.

For the person who invents is not inserted into a pre-formed plot but develops a new one. This situation is similar to that of the problem solver who must build up the “problem space,” as economist (but also psychologist, philosopher and social scientist) Herbert Simon (1979) defined it when he focused on the differences between decision-making in a context of defined and given choice options, and decision-making in a situation in which these options do not yet exist, but must be discovered and/or created. Only after the problem-space, the personal interpretation of the problem, is created, Simon argued, can the problem solver look for a solution in that space.

Moreover, the person who invents a story can be part of it, can take a role in the plot, and this has a twofold consequence: such persons can influence the unfolding of the story, and they may also take responsibility for the way in which the story unfolds. Our activity as narrators thus puts agency in the forefront and associates it with responsibility.

As storytellers, we absorb, but mostly generate a dynamic representation of the world and of ourselves within it. This means that storytelling is not an objective process of description but involves interpretation and sense making. Similarly to Simon’s view, but at a wider and more complex level, we actively shape our decisions.

In his highly inventive book, Tante storie per giocare (‘Many stories to play with’), Rodari (1974) presents a group of stories, each with three different endings, and asks his readers to choose which one they prefer. In this game, the borders between the reader and the author blur, the readers follow the author but also express a preference, and the author introduces them to the pleasure of imagining and choosing.

Much of our book is about the pleasure of imagining and developing stories. Specific attention is paid to the role that storytelling has in the process of change, both at the individual and at the social level, as a modality for re-describing reality that in a story can be imagined differently, with the introduction of novel and unexpected perspectives. Indeed, a story can be interpreted as the locus of that which has not yet been realized, of the ‘as-if.’

Without new stories, human beings would be trapped in a vision of the world that is not challenged by alterity and hence cannot be questioned or changed. Storytelling makes us ‘authors’ of the world we live in, and does this by involving all our psychic resources – cognitive, emotional, affective and social – at different levels of awareness.

Storytelling can also have a pathological dimension, as we shall explore in the final chapter. The story we choose among the many possible ones as a guide for our behavior may be distorted by unconscious desires or it may deeply misrepresent the choice problem itself. Serious consequences may then follow, as our discussions of financial markets and terrorism suggests.

Stories, in fact, seem to work at their best when they allow us to introduce possibilities not yet seen or explored without losing contact with the real context in which choices are made. From this viewpoint, the creativity of storytelling works by re-modulating the delicate balance between fantasy and reality, inventiveness and its boundaries.

Chapter 1. Economic choice: The mug story and the endowment effect

Imagine a person who loves wine and has collected over the years a fair amount of particularly good wines. In time these wines have greatly appreciated in value and if sold at auction a bottle that originally cost $10 would now fetch 20 times more. This person however, were he to sell his wine, would not agree to sell it at the prevailing price at auction, nor would he be prepared to buy it at that price.

From the point of view of economic theory, the behavior of the wine lover who, to be willing to sell his wine requires more than he would be willing to pay to buy it, is anomalous. It violates the principles of rational behavior. Standard economics assumes that between what someone desires to pay for a certain good and what the same person is willing to accept to relinquish it again there should be no difference. If this were not the case, exchanges between buyers and sellers would be systematically frustrated or, at best, strongly reduced in number.

But this is just the case with our wine lover: he places an extra value on a good simply because he owns it. How can this “anomaly” be explained?

This very example – and the puzzle it raises – was used to open an article published in 1991 by Daniel Kahneman, Jack Knetsch and Richard Thaler (1991). The title of this article was: ‘Anomalies: The Endowment Effect, Loss Aversion, and Status Quo Bias.’

It is argued in this article, as in several preceding ones similar to it – and in the many others that followed it – that the behavior of the wine lover, strange though it is to economists, seems in fact to follow a pattern that is rather common. Even economists do not seem to be immune. Richard Thaler, one the authors of the paper just mentioned and one of the first to explore this type of behavior, found himself trapped in the same inconsistency. Years later, commenting on the fact that some expensive bottles of wine of his had been stolen, he told a reporter for The Economist (2008) that he was:

now confronted with precisely one of my own experiments: these are bottles I wasn’t planning to sell and now I’m going to get a cheque from an insurance company, and most of these bottles I will not [re-]buy. I’m a good enough economist to know there’s a bit of an inconsistency there.

Thaler in fact was the one who had labelled this incongruity of behavior – that people seem to value things more just because they possess them – the endowment effect. A number of experiments had provided empirical evidence in support of this form of behavior, and one in particular became a sort of template for those that followed.

1.1 The mug experiment

In this experiment, students at Cornell University were invited to participate in an experimental market game. Usually in such games buyers and sellers receive an initial endowment of some “tokens” that, at the end of the trading period, can be converted into money at a value pre-assigned by the experimenters but which are otherwise worthless. In the Cornell experiment, however, the potential sellers – half of the students, randomly selected – were given real Cornell coffee mugs, which sold for $6.00 each at the University book-store (Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler 1990).

According to economic theory, after the exchanges between the experimental buyers and sellers had taken place, one half of the mugs would have changed hands, the mugs going from those who valued them least to those who valued them most. And this was indeed what happened in the experiments in which only tokens were traded. Not so, however, in this case.

“For mugs, the median owner was unwilling to sell for less than $5.25, while the median buyer was unwilling to pay more than $2.25-$2.75. The market price varied between $4.25 and $4.75” (Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler 1991: 196). The experiment was repeated several times, but the results did not change: median selling prices were always twice median buying prices, with the consequence that the volume traded was less than half of that expected.

What was the cause of this “instantaneous” endowment effect? Do preferences have anything to do with it? Maybe the students who received the mug did love mugs more. This issue was investigated in an unpublished follow-up experiment conducted by Loewenstein and Kahneman (1991). In this experiment half the students were endowed with some redeemable tokens, the other half with a pen. All were also asked to rate the attractiveness of various gifts as prizes in the experiment. Subsequently they were asked to choose between a pen and two chocolate bars. The results showed, again, a strong endowment effect. The pen was preferred by the majority of the students who were endowed with it and only by a small percentage of those who were not, despite the fact that previously the students endowed with the pen did not show any particular preference for it. This suggests, according to the authors, that the main effect of an endowment is not that the good one owns is more appealing in itself, but that it is painful to give it up. As Loewenstein and Adler later put it: “It thus appears that a person must be threatened with the loss of an object to appreciate his or her heightened attachment to it” (Lowenstein and Adler 1995: 935).

This heightened attachment triggered by possible loss led researchers to consider the endowment effect as a manifestation of what Kahneman and Tversky (1984) had more generally thought of as loss aversion: people, it was suggested, tend to place greater weight on losses than on equivalent gains. Kahneman and Tversky (1979 and Tversky and Kahneman 1992) had already analyzed the problem of loss aversion in their studies of decisions under conditions of uncertainty.

The results of these studies and experiments showed two things: first, that people’s preferences are not unbounded but framed by their current reference point – usually the current asset position; second, that the pain of giving up what one owns in the current position is greater than the pleasure of acquiring it. Within this framework, then, when endowed with a good, even for a short time, as in the mug story, the person’s reference point shifts from not owning to owning, and this in turn causes the loss from selling the good to be perceived as more painful. However, this does not hold for the potential buyer, whose reference point has not shifted. The result then is what we have witnessed in the mug story, namely that a good is valued more by those who own it than by those who do not.

According to these new empirical findings, the impact that this type of behavior has on how choices and decisions are made and the amendments it requires to economic theory are not trivial. Simply owning a good not only has an effect on individual preferences, rendering losses more painful, but people seem to be unaware of this effect and unable to anticipate it (Lowenstein and Adler 1995: 936). The implication is that if people continue to display these systematic anomalies, the major tenet of economic theory – that a rational decision maker has a preference ordering that is stable, predictable and reversible – appears no longer tenable (Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler 1991: 205).

Nor is this kind of behavior confined within the boundaries of a laboratory or to the exchange of goods. It seems to be the case with other entitlements too, such as time, intellectual property, public land, environmental and historic artifacts, all of which people seem to demand more to give up than they are willing to pay to acquire them (Morewedge and Giblin 2015).

Behavioral responses such as the endowment effect or the other “anomalies” do indeed cast doubts on the assumed “rationality” of economic agents. The theoretical and policy implications of this “quasi-rational” behavior have been, and still are, under discussion among economists, psychologists and policy makers.

Here, however, we wish to raise a different point: whether perhaps there exist some additional plausible “reasons” for the apparent irrationality of the endowment effect, reasons that might open up alternative endings to the mug story. Actually, it is rather surprising that the amount of effort that has been devoted to proving the robustness of the endowment effect has not been matched by an equal effort to explain the motivations that might cause these behavioral responses.

1.2 Interpreting the endowment effect

There have been some attempts at an explanation. Strahilevitz and Loewenstein 1998, for example, tried to make sense of the effect that ownership has on the valuation of an object by viewing it as the result of gradual adaptation, which occurs immediately following possession and intensifies with the duration of ownership. This, in its turn, reinforces an innate aversion to loss, to giving up what is considered part of one’s personal endowment. A bias for the status quo, that is, a preference for maintaining the current state of affairs, has also been invoked to help explain why the pain of losing the status quo might loom larger than the pleasure of having it (Samuelson and Zeckhauser 1988, Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler 1991).

Other and more recent explanations have called upon more complex psychological processes (Morewedge and Giblin 2015). Owners, so these explanations run, tend to project onto the goods they possess attributes of their own identity, and the more positive these attributes and self-evaluations are the more positively charged do already-owned goods become (Weiss and Johar 2013, Gawronski, Bodenhausen and Becker 2007). The opposite happens when these associations between objects and the self turn out to be negative (Brenner et al. 2007). But in the case of associations that are positive, the act of selling, of giving up an owned object is felt as a threat to the very sense of self, which owners try to protect by placing a higher value on their possessions (Chatterjee, Irmak and Rose 2013).

Explanations that view ownership as self-projection and enhancement might well capture one dimension of the relation between persons and (their) goods. Yet they seem to focus on one direction only of this relation and to overlook its inverse, namely, how the very characteristics of a good, the way they relate to other goods, to personal history, and more generally to context, affect choice and the feeling of attachment.

Nor does simple adaptation and habituation to what one owns provide an exhaustive answer. For habituation is double-edged. If, on the one hand, it provides the comfort of the known and saves the effort of having to decide, it might on the other hand deprive a good of the features that made it attractive in the first place. In this case habituation can be the cause of a dis-endowment effect, of a desire to rid oneself of an object that has perhaps become obsolete.

Moreover, even the relation between fear of loss and ownership is unclear and indeed challenged by some studies that revealed ownership, not loss aversion, to be responsible for an endowment effect (Morewedge et al. 2009).

The problem faced by all these explanations is that economics, as noted earlier, and also the related experimental psychology, is silent on how goods become goods. Consumer choices are framed in terms of a choice within a preselected set of goods whose properties are known and their prices given. It is rarely asked why some goods and not others enter consumers’ choice sets. Yet, how goods become goods, which is to say potentially pleasure-yielding objects, is in reality the first problem the consumer faces.

It is in this larger framework, then, that we might start to find a different answer to the apparent oddity within the mug story. For if a mug owned is no longer neutral, no longer an undifferentiated object similar to the infinite others that are sold in the University bookstore, then this object has acquired characteristics that it did not have before. It may be that the mug becomes the marker of events that happened the very day of the experiment: of small accidents that occurred, of persons met, and of memories freshly stirred. For around an object, even something as humble and ordinary as a cheap mug, there takes place a process of singularization that records the novelty of the event. Facing loss simply reveals something that was unperceived before, namely, that the mug has become a small repository of a new and larger story, one emotionally charged with new meanings, memories and relations.

But if this is the case, then the effect that endowment has on individual valuations is far from irrational, and so not at all anomalous.1 It is in fact the way an object becomes transformed into a good, into something to be appreciated, enjoyed and cherished. It is the very way new value is created.

This is to say, goods become goods, not only through a negation, the fear of loss or the curbing force of habit, but also, as we shall soon discuss, through a positive action, through a process of active discovery. The mug story can signal the sorrow of losing, but it can also reveal the pleasure – indeed the delight – of finding.

The impact of these forms of behavioral “anomaly” on choices seems, then, to be far more complex than economic theory supposes. This holds also for the working of markets. If the endowment effect can indeed bias sellers to overvalue their goods and entitlements, with the consequence that markets might function less efficiently than traditional economic analysis assumes, it is still possible that this very effect can be a powerful creator of new markets. All the markets linked to the exchange of collectibles, memorabilia and second-hand goods of all sorts exist because these goods, whose limited functional life caused them to disappear from the market in the first place, can and do reappear with the added value that their rediscovered stories have conferred on them.

More generally, the endowment effect may be the positive underpinning of all markets related to creative goods, goods whose utilitarian life does not exhaust the complexity of their relational dimensions. Art, crafts, design, and architecture are obvious examples of goods and activities that both makers and consumers can explore and on which they can confer additional meanings, meanings that establish new relations over time, both at the level of individuals and within society as a whole.

Chapter 2. From objects to goods

We often speak indifferently about goods, objects, things, as if they were synonymous. And so they are in daily speech. But, as the Italian philosopher Remo Bodei tells us in his La vita delle cose (‘The life of things’), they were not so originally (Bodei 2009).

In Italian, Bodei tells us, the word “thing,” cosa (the same as in Spanish and as chose in French) comes from the Latin word causa, or “cause,” something for which it is worthwhile to take action, to argue or fight. Cosa is the equivalent of the Latin res. Res, in its turn, comes from the Greek eiro: to speak, to discuss. The Greek equivalent of cosa, pragma, and the German sache (from the verb suchen, to seek) relate to something that requires active involvement and search (Bodei 2009: 13). Object, however, derives from the Latin objectum and the Latin verb obicere and indicates something that is set against one, an obstacle that has to be overcome (ibid.: 20).

The etymological history of these terms seems to show that between cosa, thing, on the one hand and objectum, on the other, there is a difference, the former referring to a relational connection with the person and between persons and their environment that is lacking in the second. This nexus of relations, of actions and search that it is worthwhile to pursue, is lost, however, when a thing is simply identified as an object, an obstacle to be overcome.

But if cosa, thing, and its equivalents, pragma and sache, relate to a larger world of active engagement and societal connections, how do objects become things, something to be valued, appreciated and appropriated? How does the “good” of economic choice become a good, something that evokes relational connections?

2.1 How goods become “goods”

In economics, subjects are assumed to calculate the relative subjective value of goods on the basis of the distinct (marginal) utility of each. But utility has been pre-assigned, it is already known. Economic choice in fact happens when the process of selecting what is worthwhile to choose has already taken place. Goods are already goods in economic theory. Additionally, and importantly, apart from special cases involving complementarities and substitutabilities, goods are taken in their isolation and valued singularly, on the basis of their individual utility. But goods do not exist alone, as is here tacitly assumed. Goods interact with each other and are woven into complex patterns of hierarchies, recurrences, and saliences, which constantly and unpredictably change through their connections with, among and between persons. As echoed by their etymological history, goods are embedded in activities, where context, time and persons play a crucial role in defining, and creating, their meaning and values.

In fact we may detect two processes at work in this system of interconnections between persons and goods. One might be called “anchoring”: in order to become goods, goods must be translated into the existing space and time structure that gives order and rationale of use to the various sets of goods. This is the process that provides the reference point of choice, the one that behavioral studies have stressed and that allows for familiarity and recognizability so as to orient choice.

But there is also a second process at work, one that allows for new functions and relations, within and among goods, to be constantly created. This happens both endogenously, as when new synergies among goods are discovered by a consumer made more expert through experience, and when new goods appear on the market. It is this very process of discovery that creates the excitement, surprise and active involvement of persons with goods and that is at the basis of what is called utility (Bianchi 1997, 1998a).

2.2 The meaning of things

In his book, The Meaning of Things, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1981) addresses exactly this problem: how, in the interaction between persons and things, objects and artifacts come to acquire significance and value. Csikszentmihalyi’s analysis is the result of both theoretical and empirical investigation, the same procedure that has supported his contributions to the study of creativity in its social dimension and his theory of flow. The Meaning of Things draws, in particular, on a survey of how a sample of families in Chicago interacted over time with their domestic environment, creating new meanings out of the objects with which they surrounded themselves and which gave them a sense of purpose.

This interaction happens, according to Csikszentmihalyi, because goods are in fact part of a larger process of transactions with persons.

When a person cultivates a habit of tending plants, for example, both the nature of that plant and the nature of the person can be enhanced by the transaction. The meaning of the object, then, becomes realized in the activity of interaction and in the direction or purpose that this activity indicates: physical and psychological growth. (Ibid.: 174)

From this perspective, objects are part of a communicative process in which persons and things are interdependent. They are not static entities that acquire meaning through superimposed cognitive frames or abstract systems of beliefs. Rather, their meaning is the result of an articulated person-object transaction.

For Csikszentmihalyi, there are three different modes to this transaction, each critical to understanding why some goods and not others come to be valued. The first mode is aesthetic quality. We shall return to this important feature later in the book. For the moment we simply follow Csikszentmihalyi himself who, in order to illustrate this point, draws on American philosopher John Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934) (Csikszentmihalyi 1981: 177). In this book, Dewey explains the role that aesthetic experience has in the valuing of objects. He does so by introducing a distinction between perception and recognition.

Through recognition a person relates to an object by simply drawing on past experience and associations with the known. “In recognition we fall back, as upon a stereotype, upon some previously formed scheme” (Dewey 1980 [1934]: 52). Perception is different. “Perception replaces bare recognition. There is an act of reconstructive doing, and consciousness becomes fresh and alive” (ibid.: 53). Perception, in other words, involves an active and critical receptivity so that previous habits and formed schemes are altered and activate something new. “For to perceive, a beholder must create his own experience” (ibid.: 54).

If aesthetic experience involves an active re-doing, then the aesthetic cannot be considered, as it usually is, merely as a passive act of consumption, separate from creation. Being receptive and perceptive for Dewey means to enter, to take in the very process of creation, it is in fact an act of re-creation. It is in the context of this transaction that the elements of both creation and fruition acquire their meaning.

Additionally, and importantly, this positive act of re-doing cannot be limited to the world of art, as traditionally assumed. Dewey considers it a potential element of all experiences: “the esthetic is not an intruder in experience from without, whether by way of idle luxury or transcendent ideality, but... it is the clarified and intensified development of traits that belong to every normally complete experience” (Dewey 1980 [1934]: 46).

Perception then, says Csikszentmihalyi, following Dewey, involves something more than the projection of meaning from the person to the environment or vice versa. Through perception habitual frameworks and associations are amplified and changed, and new ones developed (Csikszentmihalyi 1981: 181). From the aesthetic perspective, objects acquire the unique ability to produce something new in terms of experiences, feelings and, importantly, ideas. This process is what leads to psychological growth and learning and it is one that would be prevented if perception were arrested at the level of recognition.

Much of what makes a home such a warm and familiar place is that it embodies all our prejudices and habitual idiosyncrasies and allows us to “vegetate” when we must. But without the “stir of the organism” provided by aesthetic experiences, a home would very easily lose its warmth and become petrified. (ibid.: 179)


If culture were simply a symbol system of convention, as some cognitive anthropologists argue, then aesthetic experience would only consist of recognition in Dewey’s sense, because the object of that experience “contains” meaning only as an arbitrary sign endowed with meaning by cultural convention and not because of unique qualities of its own. (ibid.: 177)

The second element of intermediation that qualifies the transaction between persons and things is attention. Attention, for Csikszentmihalyi, is what contributes to the channeling of psychic energy in an experience, and is needed in order to realize the transaction more effectively. It is through attention that objects are selected from an undifferentiated set and transformed into things of significance and joy. Attention is tightly linked to Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow.” For him, every conscious experience ranges from boring sameness at one end to enjoyable diversity in the middle, to anxiety at the farther end. It is in the enjoyable middle that a form of integrated attention is formed, one that allows psychic energy to be directed towards activities that are valued and pursued intrinsically: “activities in which the psychic energy given to the object is returned to the person as meaningful, enjoyable information, thus creating a kind of free and open ‘current’ of psychic energy” (Csikszentmihalyi 1981: 187).

But what are the outcomes of this transaction? What are the ends that attention helps to cultivate and realize? The third characterizing dimension of the interaction between persons and things is the goal. This constitutes the outcome of the transaction, which finally reveals the intentionality of this interaction, whether pursued at a personal or social level, or even at the cosmic level of the self, or that portion of the self whose ultimate goal is the larger harmony of things (Csikszentmihalyi 1981: 187). Csikszentmihalyi describes this goal-oriented process as a process of cultivation, involving and accomplishing personal growth and self-realization but also enjoyment and ultimately freedom.

What we can draw from this triangular connection, which links persons, things and different modes of transaction, is that, once an object enters our possession, a process of investing it with meaning also begins. This is an investment that does not stop at the simple recognition of the physical properties of the object, but stretches beyond. It involves the specific, unique relational dimension of the ‘I’ with the ‘it.’ It becomes part of Dewey’s aesthetic perception that, he insists, calls for attention and purpose.

Objects then become things, goods, when they escape their routine life and become part of a process of discovery and surprise. In this process they are transformed, becoming repositories of new meanings, of relational connections that did not exist before. They become out-of-the-ordinary and activate a process that, as Bodei also tells us, is accompanied by a feeling of joy, surprise and some inquietude.

What we have discovered in this process of translating objects into things is that the objects of choice are embedded in an action, an action that has a past, a present and a future; an action that, in order to make sense needs the creation of a story, with a beginning, a climax and a resolution. The object, now thing/good, becomes one of the protagonists, along with the person, in a larger story – a story that is the recognition and perception of a distinct out-of-the-ordinariness of the object involved. The sense or fear of loss that plays so irreplaceable a part of stories is meant to reveal it and also to enhance it; but what is really thrilling is the wonder of “finding,” of discovering the new.

Indeed, what has been described here as happening to goods is what Rodari has described in his La grammatica della fantasia. As for stories so for goods and activities, creativity requires anchoring, recognizing and respecting the ordering rules of interpretive structures, but it requires also the breaking of predictable sequences, the discovery of new interrelations among goods and their specific properties. Goods are like the elements of a story that can migrate through uses and break functional boundaries, giving rise to contaminations and re-combinations, through an active dialogue with and among persons.

To return to our mug story, we may now interpret differently the apparent irrationality of the so-called endowment effect. Based on our intervening discussion, but as we shall see even more clearly further on, subjects tend to orient their choices not only in a logical-scientific mode but also in a narrative mode. In the latter mode, people structure and process information in ways that are action-related and shaped in a coherent narrative that captures the originality and singularity of the event, not its generality. Particularized in a story, even the humble mug becomes a “thing” of significance, related to a past and with a future.2

If the aesthetic dimension – the ability to go beyond recognition and to perceive the extra layers of possibilities, meanings and unexpected connections of goods – is not confined to art but belongs to the fabric, and the joy, of everyday practice, then it is also true that art, and artists, go beyond recognition systematically, intentionally. It is art’s task to break the boundaries of the obvious and the experienced and to let us discover the open-ended world of goods and of human relations.

Chapter 3. Still life with a bridle

It happened during his first visit to the Royal Museum in Amsterdam, when a canvas of an unknown painter caught his attention. The painting, a round oak panel, was a “calm, static still life,” the date 1614, the painter Torrentius.

In the painting, standing on a shelf, are an earthenware jug of a rich brown golden color, a wine glass goblet (romer) half full, and a silver grey pewter pitcher with a protruding spout. At the base of the glass two clay pipes frame a sheet of white paper with musical notes and a text. At the top of the painting are some objects difficult to identify. The highlights on the jug and pitcher are smooth and resplendent and the background fascinating: “black, deep as a precipice and at the same time flat as a mirror, palpable and disappearing in perspectives of infinity. A transparent cover over the abyss.”

The narrator here is Herbert Zbigniew, Polish poet and writer, in one of his peregrinations to the flat land of the Netherlands, exploring and writing on seventeenth-century Dutch paintings (Zbigniew 1991: 78-79).

Everything in the painting seemed to demand attention and to awake curiosity: its unusual round shape, its calm and vibrant colors, its unknown signature. It was as if somebody had called him, summoned him. With senses both anticipatory and a little alarmed, Zbigniew embarked on an adventurous journey into a never quite closed process of discovery.

But first the painter.

3.1 Torrentius

When Zbigniew tried to discover other paintings that Torrentius might have produced he could not find any. This was the only one that had been attributed to the painter with certainty. But who was Torrentius?

His real name was Johannes (Jan) Symonsz van der Beeck (1589-1644). But he would change it to Torrentius, conjoining the Latin “torrens” – river – with the “beeck” (brook) of his Dutch surname.

The name somehow captures something of Torrentius’ impetuous life. Elegant and sophisticated, free of conventions and outspoken, he was openly impatient of Calvinist moral severity. Rumors arose too that he was a member of the secret association of the Rosicrucians, a movement that, mixing Kabala, neo-Platonism and Gnosticism, was thought to be preparing for the advent of the divine kingdom on earth. These suspicions, together with Torrentius’ openly libertine conduct, became more and more intolerable in the eyes of the reformist Church establishment of the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. Eventually, on 29 August 1627, Torrentius was arrested for both blasphemy and heresy. Interrogated, he defended himself with persuasion and conviction, always denying any act of blasphemy. Even torture did not bend him to confess. But he was condemned under the weight of the accusations of many dubious witnesses and with the few voices raised in his defense disregarded. The verdict on 25 January 1628 was burning at the stake, a punishment later changed to twenty years in prison. It seemed that “Torrentius’s fate was sealed, that he would never see the light of freedom” again (Zbigniew 1991: 90). But things then took an unexpected turn. Thanks to the intermediation of the English ambassador to Holland, Sir Dudley Carleton, who was also the appointed art agent of the King of England, Charles I, and thanks too to the direct intervention of the King himself, after two years in prison Torrentius was released and left the Netherlands for England.

In 1642, however, Torrentius left England and returned to the Netherlands, though why is unclear. Perhaps the outbreak of the English Civil War had made his position at the court of the King precarious. But worse awaited at home. Once back, Torrentius was imprisoned again, charged with all the old accusations. Though brief, this second bout of prison left him a broken man. He died in February 1644, leaving no known memory of the products of his art.

3.2 The painting

Emblematic Still Life with Flagon, Glass, Jug and Bridle, Johannes Torrentius, 1614. oil on panel, h 52cm × w 50.5cm.

The arresting Still life with a bridle that so captivated Zbigniew was in fact discovered by pure accident in 1913. It had served for centuries as the cover of a raisin barrel in a grocery shop, hidden under layers of grease and dirt. When the signature and date (T. 1614) at the back of the painting were discovered, the Rijksmuseum acquired it as a Torrentius.

The fact that this is the only known surviving work of Torrentius, the others having been destroyed following the fate of their maker, plus the fact that no historical comparison with his other works is possible or available for technical analysis, leaves many questions unanswered (and unanswerable). What does the painting represent? Does it even have a particular meaning? Is this another allegory of Vanitas, of the transience of life that earthly possessions cannot escape, as in other contemporary still lives?

Zbigniew thinks not: too general and too simple. First of all, the object hanging at the top of the painting, which he was initially unable to decipher, turned out to be a bridle chain. How to explain the threatening presence of this metal contraption for controlling a horse with the other objects of the painting (ibid.: 99)? Additionally, there was the presence under the glass of the white page with its mysterious text and notes. The text, in Zbigniew’s translation, reads: “What exists beyond measure, in over-measure will meet a bad end.” What did the painter mean to convey with these words?

Zbigniew’s hypothesis is that they might allude to an antinomy between order and chaos, between form and shapelessness. The painting in this case could be read more properly as an allegory of the virtues of moderation and temperance: with the bridle curbing the passions and the half-full wine glass a reminder that wine can be diluted with water (ibid.: 101). But is not this explanation too suspiciously simple?

There were also the letters ER+ at the beginning of the text, adding further mystery. For some they might indicate that Torrentius was indeed a member of the Rosicrucian movement: ER+ standing for Eques Rosae Crucis. Yet, even if that is the meaning of the letters, it provides no proof that he was a Rosicrucian.

Trying to unlock the mystery of the painting, Zbigniew moves further into unchartered territory. He plunges himself into the reading of the esoteric writers contemporary with Torrentius, working through the history of the Rosicrucian movement. Yet even these peregrinations left him without definitive answers. The painting kept its secrets.

Then, a few years later, and completely unexpectedly, Zbigniew received a small parcel. Inside was a manuscript by a Dutch art and music historian that drew attention to the musical notes accompanying the text. Hitherto everyone had thought the notes no more than a simple decorative element. And nobody had noticed an additional feature of the painting: in the text the word quaat (evil) is wrongly spelled qaat. This could be interpreted as a simple oversight on the painter’s part, were it not for the note above the word: this note too is a mistake (h in place of b), breaking the harmony. This double mistake seems an intended violation of order: a Diabolus in musica that in the Middle Ages alluded to the existence of sin (ibid.: 104). All of which might confirm the interpretation that focused on the moderating effect of the virtue of temperantia.

Conversely, the presence of this conscious mistake might allow a more intricate interpretation: as the art historian who discovered the mistake and sent the parcel suggested, the symbols of moderation in the painting may be a simple camouflage while its real meaning lies in the praise of a life liberated from bonds and restraints.

Zbigniew leaves the question unsolved and takes his leave of Torrentius confessing his ignorance. He did not succeed in breaking the painting’s code. But, he asks, was this important after all? The painting does not live by the reflected light of treatises and books: “it has its own light, the clear, penetrating light of clarity” (ibid.: 105).

And we too can take leave of Torrentius, like Zbigniew rather dazzled by the intricacies of these interconnected stories: Torrentius’ life, itself a ready literary plot (ibid.: 94); the improbable discovery of the painter’s only surviving work, which exalts its extraordinariness; the sheer beauty of the painting’s translucent colors, its dubious possible meaning and its undisclosed secrets. Even today, Torrentius’ still life continues to excite research and wonder, and his life has recently become the subject of a novel by Brian Howell (2014).

But included here is also the story of the author, of how the painting summoned him, as if claiming a new life. We, as readers, are made to participate and discover this new life: its artistic present, its dramatic past, its voice. The language is the language of stories. To this end Zbigniew recalls an episode from his own experience. He was talking with Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, who used to mock his passion for art and his desire to write about it. “Leave this amusement to the historians of art,” he would say: “They don’t understand anything either, but they have persuaded people they are cultivating a science” (Zbigniew 1991: 96).

In a certain sense Zbigniew did not disagree. He knew too well, he says, “the audacity of translating the wonderful language of painting into the language – as voluminous, as receptive as hell – in which court verdicts and love novels are written” (Zbigniew 1991: 97). Indeed, no painting could demonstrate the philosophy of a Kant, a Husserl or a Sartre, some of his interlocutor’s favorite writers. Fine arts had, for Gombrowicz, an innate “stupidity” that seemed to irritate him. “But this very stupidity, or to speak more delicately, this naiveté,” observes Zbigniew, “has always put me in a state of happiness. Thanks to the intermediary of paintings, I experienced the grace of meeting the Ionian philosophers of nature. Concepts sprouted from things. We spoke the simple language of the elements. Water was water, a rock was a rock, fire was fire. How good that the deadly abstractions had not drunk all the blood of reality to the end” (Zbigniew 1991: 97).

3.3 Natura morta

Torrentius’ still life painting participates in the magic and wonder that Flemish and Dutch seventeenth-century still life continues to excite in us today. Common objects – an ordinary knife, a glass, bread, fruit – are subtracted from the disorder and noise of daily use and stand isolated, still and silent, out of time. Made to escape the ordinary, they claim to be given new attention. Made still, they acquire a new inner life. Once overlooked, they become looked at. Still life, or natura morta – dead nature – as the genre is called in Italian, is in fact a lively, changing world of new relations, contrapositions and similarities where details grow larger and invisible particulars are revealed.

But still life also plays on another inversion of ordinary-extraordinary, as when it is the new, the exotic and the precious that is made to come into everybody’s view. In floral still life greatly desired flowers, which were rare or impossible for most people to possess, could be seen in one single painting, defying season, time and place and collapsing into unity the differences of multiple gardens and the distance between latitudes and seasons. Arranged in a vase, a bowl or in a glass, flowers established new dialogues between colors and shapes and opened different paths of exploration and curiosity (Bianchi 1999 and 1998b).

Even when accompanied by symbols of corruption and of the evanescence of life they in fact defy oblivion and chant the marvel of daily life (Bodei 2009: 96). They are miniatures of eternity (ibid.: 116).

Still life paintings represent a perfect example of how art can discover and add a surplus of meaning: objects that in their ordinariness are otherwise mute and insignificant, objects that are perishable, objects unknown and distant, are transformed in ways that reveal new properties and unpredicted connections.

This process of decontextualizing and re-contextualizing an object that we so much admire in art, alerts us to something important that is also present in everyday life but that it is usually overlooked. This is, as Bodei perceptively remarks, that complex objects are never perceived in their entirety, so that any subsequent act of perception can be revealing of additional elements, or of some gaps that can be filled by imagination and memory (Bodei 2009: 40).

In order for goods to become goods, in order to discover their potential for choices and experience, in order to understand their relational nature, we need to embed them in stories, stories that make sense and give value to our relations with goods, stories that link the past with the present and build bridges with the future.3

Chapter 4.The theory

We have seen that stories enter our lives not only in the usual forms of the narratives we tell, listen to, watch, hear, read, write, sing, stage and act, but also in the form of the stories we construct in our daily interactions with our environment. That environment, in the form of objects, nature, places and people, is made ours because we weave its components into stories that make a link with the past and create connections with the future, stories that mark some breaking with the ordinary, the predictable, the obvious, and establish new paths to explore.

4.1 Why stories?

But why are stories so ubiquitous? Why do we seem to need stories? In his Sei passeggiate nei boschi narrativi (Six Walks in the Fictional Woods), Umberto Eco (1994) recounts the story of how, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, language originated. Adam, so the myth goes, in the process of giving names to the things and creatures surrounding him, created a nomenclature, a list of natural genres, from which to designate the true name of, say, horses, apples and oaks, a name that corresponds to their true essence.

It was not until the seventeenth century that a new hypothesis concerning the origin of language surfaced, according to which the original names were not names of individual elements but of actions. There was not, for example, an original name for “drinker” but only for the act of drinking: the name of the actor – the drinker – of the object – the drink – and of the place – the drink-house – derived from that original scheme of action. Adam, according to this new thinking, was able to give names to creatures such as animals, not as individual examples of natural genres, but because he had seen them involved in a certain type of action and interaction with other animals and their environment. Only then, says Eco, was Adam able to understand that this or that subject interacting with another subject in order to reach a certain goal was in fact part of a story, and that the story was inseparable from that subject and the subject was an integral part of the story. Only at this point could Adam call that subject by a specific name. In terms of language, then, this means that when we are confronted with a particular phrase we are able to understand it because we are used to interweaving the elements of the phrase with the net of actions and reactions of an elementary story.

Stories, Eco concludes, paraphrasing psychologist Jerome Bruner (1986), are the way we construct the actions of our lives.

Today a host of new literature, coming from literary studies, psychology, philosophy, psychoanalysis, anthropology, neuroscience and even economics,4 is addressing the relevance, meaning and indispensable role that narratives play in everyday life. Within this new view humankind is re-conceptualized as homo narrans, and all forms of human communication are seen as stories, “as interpretations of aspects of the world occurring in time and shaped by history, culture and character” (Fisher 1989: 57).

We humans, echoes Beach, “think in narratives with which we make sense of our past and present and make forecasts about our future” (Beach 2010: 11).

A common element in this new literature is the discovery and consequent stress that is put on the cognitive role played by stories. Stories are seen as narratives that allow for a series of cognitive supports to decision-making: interpretive categories, coherent structures, predictions, organized sequences, and so on. In this sense, they provide the mind with tools for the interpretation and knowing of a complex reality. Yet since this task is also performed by other mental constructs such as logic, causality, information decoding, and so on, we may still ask what it is that makes stories what they are. Is there a specificity that distinguishes stories from other forms of mental structuring?

4.2 What are stories?

Until now we have used the term story rather loosely, on the tacit assumption that everybody knows what a story is. But when we start analyzing a story’s inner way of working and its possible distinguishing features, things no longer seem so simple.

Psychologist Jerome Bruner, who may be considered the pioneer of studies exploring the links between processes of the mind and the structure of stories, draws a rather sharp distinction between different mental procedures. For him there exist two quite different “modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality. The two (though complementary) are irreducible one to the other” (Bruner 1986:11). The first mode, which he calls the “paradigmatic” or logical-scientific mode, deals in general causes and uses procedures to assure verifiability and testable empirical truths; this mode has its most sophisticated realization in the sciences. The second, the “narrative mode,” that proceeds by way of storytelling, deals with the vicissitudes and consequences of human intentions and actions. “It strives to put its timeless miracles into the particulars of experience, and to locate… experience in time and space.” As Joyce once remarked, Bruner adds, the particularities of a story are the “epiphanies of the ordinary” (ibid.:13). Yet, Bruner observes, in contrast to our vast knowledge of the way logical and scientific reasoning proceeds, we know very little of what makes a story a story and of how stories compare to other forms of reasoning and of making sense of the world.5

The distinction between these two basic forms of thought is a recurring theme among those scholars who have addressed the specificity of the “narrative mode” and tried to fill the gaps in our knowledge of this way of thinking.

For Fisher (1984, 1985, 1989), people tell stories to themselves and others because it is through stories that they are able to provide and communicate the reasons and values that inform their actions; it is through them that people realize their nature as “reasoning-valuing animals” (1984: 8). The “rational paradigmatic mode,” by contrast, “has excluded the question of values from the world of scientific inquiry, leaving its analysis either to the poet or the mystic or to the inscrutable world of individual beliefs” (1984: 5). The problem, then, is to provide an alternative paradigm that, differently from the formalist mode of thinking, tries to account for how, day in, day out, people argue their reasons and deal with the values that guide their behavior: a paradigm, additionally, whose task is to infuse the whole process with, or restore to it, rationality.

Fisher sees the narrative paradigm as the response to this quest. It provides a rational scheme, a logic, that tries to assess the internal coherence of the stories that are traded and communicated and insures that the values/good reasons they convey are trustworthy and reliable. In Fisher’s telling, the rationality of narrative is based on two principles: coherence and fidelity. Coherence is concerned with the integrity of a story as a logical, organized structure, while fidelity responds to whether the elements of a story are accurate accounts of the individual (and social) reality they represent, thereby providing good reasons for actions and beliefs.

These principles of narrative rationality, for Fisher, cross all disciplines, fiction and science, as well as infusing the “text of life and learned and unlearned discourse.” Homo narrans indeed is the “master metaphor” that subsumes all the others: homo oeconomicus, homo politicus, homo faber, homo sociologicus. The narrative paradigm, in fact, is none other than a theory of human action, of how people form their beliefs and act according to them (Fisher 1985: 357).

Fisher’s theoretical background is the anti-positivistic stance of such humanistic disciplines as structuralism, constructivism and deconstructionism, to which the narrative rationality paradigm is meant to provide an extension, one that takes into account the role of stories in the process of acting on values. In asserting the function of values, narrative rationality, for Fisher, calls into question the ascription of unquestioned superiority to paradigmatic discourse over the rhetorical or the poetic for the understanding of social and individual problems (Fisher 1987, 1994).

Dealing with values and preferences means also addressing the problem of how they influence our choices, which in turn invokes our perception of reality and our evaluation of the future. Choices, in order to be performed and realized, require specific cognitive frameworks. For psychologist Lee Roy Beach, narrative thought is what best supplies the basis of these cognitive frameworks.

Relatively early on his career, Beach addressed the problem of providing a theory of choice that could include values, goals and strategies using the paradigmatic mode. The theory, developed jointly with Terrance Mitchell, was called Image Theory (Beach1990). More recently, however, he has revised his position (Beach 2010, 2016). For Beach now, in the paradigmatic mode – of which economic decision theory represents the most developed psychological model – rational decision-makers pursue an optimal strategy, assuming as given the states of events. Any attempt to influence the outcome, when this is uncertain, falls outside the scope of rationality. Economic decision theory, as well as theories based on the analogy between human cognition and computers, implicitly assume that paradigmatic thought is the “natural” way for people to approach problems.

In contrast, Beach argues, when people make decisions in real life, they do not await passively how things will turn out, but actively intervene to affect the outcome. And this they can do because, for him, people rely on the narrative mode of thinking. Only through a narrative discourse, he insists, can people make sense of their own ongoing experiences in ways that help them to envisage their future and actively manage it in the hope of realizing their preferences and values.

Stories, and this is what makes them unique, take place at the junction of decisions, actions and the outcome that, good or bad, results as a consequence. All decisions are in fact about discrepancies, about mismatches of interpretations and predictions and what may be done to correct them. Stories, then, are the mind tools through which people can create meaning for an altogether disconnected and disarrayed set of actions, actors and events. By linking the past with the present, stories provide the continuity that allows us to make plausible guesses about the future.6

In similar vein, David Carr argues that, in formulating plans, as in deliberative actions, we struggle to be in a storyteller’s position: focussing not only on the present, but also on the ways we bridge past and future (Carr 2008: 125).7

Stories organized around a time line, causality and purpose, are what Beach calls chronicle narratives (Beach 2010, Beach and Bissel 2016). Conversely, paradigmatic, procedural narratives resemble how-to books, narratives about how to perform specific intellectual and manual tasks, such as how to use a computer or a cell phone. These narrative tools are ancillary and subordinate to chronicle narratives. Their usefulness derives from their precision, repeatability and applicability to general classes of cases and not, as in chronicle narratives, from their ability to create meaning and purpose (Beach and Bissel 2016: 62-63).

This approach to decision-making, which Beach calls The Theory of Narrative-Based Decision Making (NBDM), is a theory that aims to provide a positive alternative to the prescriptive theory of paradigmatic thought. From a certain point of view, Beach suggests, NBDM’s distinction between the two forms of narrative is similar to the behavioral economic approach of Kahneman and his distinction between System 1 and System 2 ways of thinking. Indeed, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), Kahneman had argued, following earlier formulations of this distinction (Schneider and Schiffrin 1977a, 1977b), that people in ordinary life think in a quick, intuitive and automatic way. This corresponds to what he labels System 1 thinking, which answers questions through unconscious attention, by associations and memories. By contrast, System 2 thinking is slow, conscious, deliberate and costly to use. It corresponds to what economists think of as rational thinking. Because of its automatic and reactive nature, System 1 is prone to errors and to deviations from the optimizing rules of economic models and generates the systematic anomalies we have seen operating in prospect theory and discussed in the case of the endowment effect.

For Beach then, like chronicle narratives, System 1 is for everyday, run of the mill thinking. System 2, by contrast, but like procedural narratives, involves more pondered and informative thought.

Yet for Beach, NBDM’s distinction marks a substantial difference that inverts the hieararchy between these two systems. Far from being the ultimate court of appeal of the correct behavior of System 1, formal, paradigmatic thought, for him, grew from narrative, with the purpose of providing a supporting role as well as a more precise and rigorous way of thinking. But it is chronicle narratives that are the “natural language” of thought and the essence of conscious experience. The other, the procedural sort, though a necessary component of human cognition, is not the basic mode of thought. Beach simply views it as a useful adjunct to narrative cognition (Beach 2010).

Both Fisher’s narrative rationality and Beach’s NBDM have reclaimed the cognitive role of narrative and emphasized its specificity (in fact its supremacy) as compared with the paradigmatic mode of thinking. In Fisher’s case, stories are the cognitive tool that allows values and reasons to be argued coherently and trustworthily. For Beach, stories are an organized form of thought for the creation of meaning and represent the irrepressible ingredient of real life decisions.8

For us these two contributions are relevant for having brought convincingly to light that creating meaning, making sense of experiences and arguing reasonably about them, belongs to a narrative mode of thinking that is conscious and experience-based. Yet we maintain that the two modes of thought are neither opposite, one fast and prone to errors and the other slow and controlled, nor hierarchical, one of the two representing the primum mobile of the second. For us they are complementary and equally necessary. Logic and coherence can operate only within a system of values whose meaning and relevance goes beyond logic and has to be argued, discussed and experienced before being valued. Conversely, values and meanings need logic to be argued coherently and systematically.

But logical reasoning and narrative thought are also different, and for an important reason. No matter how important the role of cognition is for decision and action, we know that when we tell or listen or read a story there is a “plus” that goes beyond cognition. All the processes of arguing and symbol-making, as well as the cognitive efforts that are required at the junction between choice and action, are clearly crucial but do not exhaust the role and specificity of stories.

This plus in stories, which takes us beyond cognition, is our emotional participation in them. Contrary to the paradigmatic model of communication, there is no story that is not meant to entice and involve us. We do not take part in what happens to variable x or y in an equation, nor do we feel anxious when the decision-maker in an economics textbook must choose between apples and pears in order to maximize his utility. But we might if these events were translated into a story (depending of course on how good the story is).

The question, then, is: what can we say about this plus, the emotional dimension of stories? Where does it come from? And how is it to be explained?

We may start by returning to Bruner’s original distinction between the narrative and the paradigmatic in order to discover what this additional qualification to the specificity of stories might be. Curiously, it was in a private email to Beach that Bruner, who was among those who inspired Beach’s research, stated the answer most clearly.

Where we seem to differ most is that I see a much greater discontinuity between the narrative and paradigmatic than you do. I grant that indeed one can convert a set of narratives into a paradigmatic, more general form. But the “plot” structure of narrative is simply lacking in that paradigmatic form! And while the paradigmatic form is used for formulating generalities, the narrative form is used to specify exceptionalizing particularities – and to do so with varying degrees of dramatism. Of course, that dramatism has as one of its major features that it deals with apparent departures from the expected – and “the expected” always has an element of the paradigmatic. But that element is there as part of the task of illustrating that “things ain’t always what they’re expected to be.” (Quoted in Beach 2010: 120)

Bruner who, like Beach, thought that paradigms evolved from the use of narrative mode, still insisted that there is a deep difference between them. It is not only that paradigms are the general way of thinking about or doing something, while stories deal with the particular. The fact is that stories also rest on rendering the particular exceptional, on challenging expectations and certainties. This out-of-the-ordinary character of stories and the way we tell them is an element of what has been called the dramatism of stories: stories, as already noted above, follow a movement that goes through a beginning, develops up to a climax that challenges that beginning, then reaches a resolution (Freytag (1900 [1894]).

4.3 The narrative arc

In fact, there is a paradox in stories. If, as Bruner (1990) observes, they deal with the vicissitudes of human intentions and actions, then there should be as many stories as our myriad intentions and the truly endless ways in which they manifest themselves. Yet, as many and various scholars of narrative have remarked, things are not this way. Stories appear to unfold around a “canonical,” permanent structure that involves the breaking out of an original steady state, a consequent crisis and a final redress.9 But, if storylines simply adhere to predictable and general canons, how can the exceptionalizing particularities of stories also be obtained?

Russian formalists emphasized two aspects of stories and introduced the distinction between fabula and sjuzet, or discourse and plot. Fabula represents the sequence of events that underlie the story, sjuzet, or plot, is the way those particular events are organized and arranged in the telling. It is through the plot that the reader becomes aware of the how, the when and the why of the events.

For example, the plot can start from a dream or shards of memories held by the protagonist and real events surface only indirectly through the fears and hopes that these states of mind reveal. Or the plot might zigzag between the past and the present, leaving it to the reader to reconstruct the real order. Or the plot might recount a conflict of interpretations of the meaning of the events, leaving the reconstruction of the underlying fabula blurred and undisclosed.

The same story-fabula, then, can be told in ways that are infinitely different and it is in these infinite variations that the out-of-the-ordinariness of stories rests.

The unique challenges and dilemmas that a story opens up go beyond the formalist distinction. They do not belong either to the fabula or the plot, to the underlying sequential theme or the specific discourse of the plot, but to the complex and changing ways in which these interact and are composed into a unitary structure that opens up conflicts and provides resolutions.

What keeps narratives captivating us, says Brooks (1992: 35), is our plotting need: “seeking through narrative as it unfurls before us a precipitation of shape and meaning.”

Narratives, while responding to the canons of dramatism, reach actual drama by constantly re-shaping these canons through a rich set of narrative strategies.10

4.4 Narrative strategies

Kenneth Burke, in his A Grammar of Motives (1969 [1945]), identified five elements that constitute the reality-base of a story: Action, Actor, Scene, Agency and Purpose. For Burke, it is from this basic pentad that a story unravels, creating and exploiting imbalances and inconsistencies that disturb or challenge the appropriate relation among them. A story, for example, can play on the contradictions that might arise between purpose and action, or the incongruities between actor and scene, or on the conflicts between action and the instrument of agency. These challenges to the canonical are, for Burke, the dramatic strategies that make a story meaningful and provide the grammar through which motives can be introduced and analyzed.

Yet for Bruner, dramatism does not belong only to the landscape of action, as it appears to be in Burke. The other dimension of a story is what he calls the landscape of consciousness, the territory within which the why, when and where of the action are transformed into the consciousness of the actors. And it is through the transformations and mismatches that arise between these two landscapes that a storyline acquires a meaning that is something more than a pure transmission of information (Bruner 1990: 50-51).11

The complex ways in which these transformations operate in stories is well analyzed by Tzvetan Todorov (1971, 1975, 1977). The relationship among the units of a story, so Todorov argues, stems not only from the principle of succession, from the temporal sequence, the “what happens next?” The relationship of the units must also be one of transformation (1971: 77), since it is through a set of simple and complex transformations that action and consciousness are woven together in a story. For example, a pure neutral act – x commits a crime – can undergo a series of transformations that emphasize the subjectivity of the action. The neutral act, then, can reveal intention – x plans to commit a crime; mode – x must/should commit a crime; result – x succeeds in committing a crime; or manner – x is delighted at having committed a crime (Todorov 1977).

More complex transformations, however, step directly into the mental states of the protagonists. This can be obtained by altering a sentence through the use of modifiers. For example, by adding to the original or main phrase what the protagonists feel – attitude; what they learn – knowledge; what they think – subjectivity; what they foresee – supposition; what they report – description; and what they pretend – appearance (Bruner 1986: 30).

In a text these transformations work as fictional triggers that set the imagination of the reader to work. Depicting reality through the internal eyes of the protagonists leaves the true reality of the events blurred, creating various degrees of indeterminacy that it is the task of the reader to untangle (Bruner 1986 and 1990).

For Bruner, there are additional triggers at work in a fictional text (Bruner 1986: 25-26). One is the creation of implicit meaning that triggers in the reader the formulation of interpretive presuppositions. Without triggering presupposition a story would reduce to being simply the communication of unadorned information and would annul the reader’s interpretive freedom. Another crucial trigger for Bruner is the creation of a multiplicity of perspectives, a strategy that keeps meaning open for the reader to explore. “Discourse,” then, “must make it possible for the reader to ‘write’ his own virtual text” (ibid.: 25).

Reading, too, then becomes an active, dynamic process where the reader systematically revises, reviews and changes the text (Iser 1978). Reading becomes a process of exploration (Rosemblatt 1938, 1994).

All these features – and possibly others – allow stories to be open-ended, to be told and recreated by the reader. It is in these features, in the ability of stories to trigger our active responses, in their capacity to involve us as active players, that we can start finding the reason why stories provide more than just cognitive frameworks for choices. Burke’s pentad, with its internal generation of conflicts, Todorov’s transformations, and Bruner’s triggers of presuppositions and meaning are all narrative tools that contribute towards challenging certainties, blurring reality, introducing doubts, and opening up paths for new interpretations and solutions. Contrary to paradigmatic discourse, narratives trade on indeterminacies that trigger imagination and interests, curiosity and pleasure.

4.5 Aesthetic preferences and the magic of stories

But why is it so? How can a story, with its recurrent crises and resolutions, involve us so fully?

These questions bring us to introduce the findings of a psychological literature on curiosity and aesthetic preferences that, from the 1960s on, has expanded rapidly. These findings seem to complement astonishingly well the specificity we have recognized in stories, their ability to forge links, as Bruner says, between the ordinary and the exceptional, and to provide a structured framework that allows deviations from the expected to be comprehensible (Bruner 1990: 47).

A pioneering figure in studies of aesthetic preferences was the psycho-physicist Daniel Berlyne, whose development of a “new experimental aesthetics” (1960, 1965, 1971, 1974, 1978, Berlyne and Masden 1973) involving laboratory research based on behavioral-science methods, still represents the reference point of much contemporary research on art (see Silvia 2005, 2006, Scherer et al. 2001, Bianchi 2016a).

Berlyne’s real breakthrough was the introduction of a specific set of variables that he posited were responsible for our emotional responses to art. Contrary to earlier received thought – in this context the early studies of Wundt (1896) – for Berlyne, pleasurable responses to a simulating event depend not on the level of a stimulus, but on its changes. The variables of change, dubbed by him “collative,” were those related to the complexity, novelty, uncertainty, surprise, ambiguity and conflict of a determinate event – a piece of music, a drawing, a poem, for example. He called these “collative” to indicate that, for judging whether a work of art is new, surprising, or complex one has to compare or collate two or more sources of stimulus or events. Surprise, for example, is the emotional response to something contrary to what was expected, while novelty and variety result from a contrast with the experienced. Ambiguity and uncertainty arise because of simultaneous and conflicting expectations, while complexity stems from perceived mismatches among the elements of an organized set (Berlyne 1960: 44, see also Bianchi 2016a).

In short, we may be attracted to a piece of art for the allure of its specific content, because it might evoke fear, elation or sexual tension, or for the intensity with which the elements of a story are treated, introducing more or less violent, or soothing, effects. For Berlyne, the most important source of emotional involvement comes from the variables of change, those related to novelty, variety and complexity.

How does this come about?

According to Berlyne’s own experimental findings, feelings of pleasure-displeasure associated with novelty and the other collative variables can be represented by a curvilinear relationship taking the form of an inverted U-curve, where pleasure is highest at moderate levels of collation, that is, for levels of uncertainty, complexity, surprise, and novelty that are neither too high nor too low.

This means that there are two strategies for increasing the pleasantness and/or the interestingness of, say, an artwork. If the work is perceived as too challenging or new and complex, any device that increases the familiarity and the ability to appropriate it also increases pleasure. On the other hand, if an artwork is perceived as so familiar that it is redundant, an increase in pleasure can be obtained through an increase in complexity, surprise, novelty, or ambiguity. This explains why the changing mixture of deviations and permanence, variations around a stable structure, which we have also seen characterizing the specificity of a story, might be a source of attraction.

Yet, if novelty and familiarity are the possible variables that trigger aesthetic responses, they are also the variables that are at the basis of exploratory behavior and curiosity. It was in references to these classes of concepts – the collative variables and the arousal model of reward – that Berlyne first started his studies of exploration, curiosity and interest (Bianchi, 2014b, 2016b). He introduced the distinction, later to become the reference point of all studies on curiosity and interest, between diversive and specific investigation (see Berlyne 1960, 1965). The former is an exploratory response to situations felt as not very stimulating and corresponds to a deliberate looking for entertainment, relief from boredom, or new experiences that might come from sources of different kinds (Berlyne 1960: 80 and 1978). The latter is the exploration that corresponds to situations of high stimulus potential, those perceived as unsettlingly complex and uncertain and which require the specific, focused and interested exploration that might lighten this unpleasant state. Both these types of exploration and curiosity are felt as an intensely pleasant experience, supplying a sense of mastery and personal growth (Kashdan et al. 2004: 293, 302).

Within this enlarged framework, aesthetic preferences are not simply responses to given situations, but amount to an active process of search and exploration, motivated by interest and curiosity and involving the creation and re-creation of the new. But how does this model of bounded novelty help us to understand the dynamic of storytelling and its ability to attract?

Contrary to the other variables that might draw us to enter into a story – the various degrees of fear, love, danger, anger or jealousy a story weaves – collative variables can be manipulated at will (Martindale 1990), through operations that involve – as noted – increasing or decreasing the complexity, variety, novelty, or ambiguity of a story. Through this flexibility of treatment we can understand how the canons of dramatism can be re-fashioned in infinitely many and subtly different ways, ways that create a shifting balance between the known and the unknown, the expected and the surprising, the certain and the uncertain (Bianchi 2014a).

As Iser in his The Act of Reading (1978) has argued, the imbalances between the text and the reader, by disrupting textual coherence, create blanks and gaps that provide the stimuli for acts of ideation and act as a propellant for the reader’s imagination. This, indeed, is that “aesthetic pole” of the text that allows for the reader’s revelation of meaning.

Similarly, both Todorov’s transformations between the landscape of action and that of consciousness, and Bruner’s triggers, can be read as means to create gaps of interpretation that draw the reader into the play. It is through these gaps that the attention of readers may be attracted, their curiosity excited and their imagination set in motion. They start exploring how to close these gaps and how to reconcile them to the fabula and to the supposed sequence of the events. The arrangement of the gaps may be such that they are neither so minor as to damp the interest of the reader, nor so large as to frustrate any effort. Correspondingly, the provision of adequate clues for filling these gaps or uncovering new ones is cleverly balanced with the subtraction of clues (White 2007: 79).

As Brooks states in his Reading for the Plot, all narratives posit a deciphering Sherlock (1992: 34).12

The shifting balances of dramatism we have just described include, however, not only challenges to the reader’s skills of interpretations and knowledge, but also a mastery of time as a means of drawing the reader into the play.

4.6 The open-endedness of stories

In his Sei passaggiate nei boschi narrativi (Six Walks in the Fictional Woods), Eco devotes himself to disentangling, discovering and discussing the multiple layers of interpretation to which narrative lends itself. In so doing, however, he also indirectly reveals those strategies that, playing on collative variability, might entice and bewitch a reader.

One such strategy in particular is instructive to pause by. This is a strategy that Eco calls the “art of lingering.” When we act in the language of science, reason and logic, he says, the formulation and solution of a problem should follow the rule of economy, based on clarity, sparseness and rapidity. Not so in the language of narrative. Here, if there is something important to happen, if there is some dramatic resolution to expect, literary stories (and life stories too) “cultivate the art of lingering,” introducing pauses and suspension in the narrative (Eco 1994: 62). This art of delaying, of opening detours and deviations, does not obscure the resolution but makes it more valued and fascinating. Novelty, as we have seen, is a relative concept: it depends not only on the gap between the already known and the experienced, but also on the temporal distance between present and past experience. Dilating the time of the final resolution, creating distance and suspense, makes it more extra-ordinary and therefore more desirable. As in the case of the delectatio amorosa between two lovers, without the pang of delay, the cathartic, liberating end would not be so full and fully satisfying (ibid.: 62, 81).

The time spent lingering, of getting lost on unpredicted paths, is not however for Eco time lost in idleness, because delays also activate other faculties that involve the reader’s imagination and curiosity, urging anticipations and predictions.

Eco observes how, in his James Bond novels, Ian Fleming is able to involve the reader more fully thanks to his intelligent use of the timing within the story. He does this by somehow inverting the time of the action. When dealing with the inessential and the ordinary aspects of an action, those that would have attracted merely a passing attention, he slows down the pace of the narration. On the other hand, when the action has become crucial and essential, the pace of the plot accelerates.

A storyline that pauses on superfluities, points out Eco, allows the reader to identify with the characters more fully than when it focuses only on describing out-of-the-ordinary actions. The pauses, the lingering, the waiting are the moments in which the reader enters the story: participating, discovering, adding his own life experiences and opening a pact with the writer according to which both play at shifting the boundaries of the known and unknown.

And this process of meeting with challenges, says Eco, is just that passionate aspect of reading that excites the fears and hopes of the reader and elicits his identification with the characters and action of the story (ibid.:63; also Eco 1979, 1962).

Time, then, plays a crucial role in narrative. For Eco, there are three ways in which time appears in narratives. The time of fabula – the linear time of the events that underlie the narrative, the time of discourse or plot, and the time of reading. In narratives these three times rarely coincide. The one thousand years of the fabula can be contracted to one sentence, while the few minutes of a casual encounter can be dilated into a discourse that extends over many pages. These extensions and contractions of the time of narrative impose a time of reading on the reader too, who starts to look at events with a different eye (Eco 1994: 70) and to discover, in Joyce’s phrase, the epiphany of the ordinary.

This art of dramatism, of playing on opposites – unexpected-expected, complex-simple, known-unknown – brings us back to the considerations that accompanied our discussion of Flemish and Dutch still life. There too, objects of daily life, overlooked and forgotten in their ordinariness, become the center of a new visual adventure that breaks the boundaries of the paths experienced.

And there too the art of lingering, and of playing with time, is at work. Except that, as Eco suggests, in visual art the time of narrative is condensed within a space that can be embraced by one simple look. Yet the internal complexity of the art object imposes a time of reading that, as we have seen, goes far beyond the time of simple viewing, inviting new narratives to be written and enjoyed (see also Bianchi 2015).

This internal complexity and open-endedness of narratives, with their playing on collisions, on conflicts and on resolutions, explains why they are generative of new ideas and new intellectual connections, though also of engendering attention, interest and emotional involvement. They are both creative and re-creative. As Gianni Rodari stressed in his Grammar of Fantasy, the human mind loves opposites, it thrives on fights: just give it a pair of distant words – such as dog and wardrobe – and a whole new world of exciting possibilities opens up.

Chapter 5. The psychoanalytic approach

Without metapsychological speculation and theorizing –

I had almost said “phantasying”–

we shall not get another step forward

(Freud 1937: 225)

5.1 The garden of forking paths

We begin this chapter with a reflection on Ts’ui Pên, the main character in Borges’ short story “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Ts’ui Pên is writing a book that cannot come to an end because the author never makes a choice. Every time a bifurcation appears in his story, he is unable to choose one path and leave the other. He chooses one path first, follows this for a while, comes back again, tries the other way, comes back again, and so on.

In other words, whenever the characters come to a point at which more than one outcome is possible, all outcomes occur and none of them is fully explored. This causes the narrative to branch out into multiple universes, with no single one being fully realised.

The plot cannot unfold because all the paths remain available forever: multiple futures are possible, all of which start but none reaches an end or a complete unfolding.

No choice, no story, one could argue.

But the reverse holds as well. The inability to follow just one story, to prefer one narrative and make it real, while abandoning all other potential ones, means that no choice can take place. All the options hold and none are eliminated. While usually novels develop through a sequence of bifurcations, in this case the text grows as a labyrinth in all possible directions, without the emergence of a definite narrative line. The book is thus endless.

This literary case suggests some new considerations.

1. As compared to most works of fiction, where the character chooses one alternative at each decision point and thereby eliminates all the others, Ts’ui Pên’s story describes a world where all possible outcomes of an event occur simultaneously, each one leading to further proliferations of possibilities.

2. At the core of Ts’ui Pên’s non-choice there seems to be a conflict between the real and the possible: whenever he, as a writer, takes a path and starts following it, he is seduced by the possible not-yet-explored paths, and has to come back and start again. This seduction has to do with a fascination for the potential which is always brighter and more idealised than any real – and thus limited, imperfect choice.

3. When we make a choice, we set ourselves in a story and when we follow a story, it is the story that presents us with the options between which we may choose.

4. The choice process involves, simultaneously, acquisition and loss. A choice requires the acceptance of one possibility and the rejection of many others that remain virtual and unrealised.

5. Without renunciations, we enter a labyrinth, where no story is possible since multiple scenarios, each pointing in a different direction with other branching possibilities, remain open: all is imagined but nothing is realised.

Tsui Pên’s story exemplifies a crucial aspect of choice: we do not enter into relationship with facts, but with the meanings that we attach to them. Consequently, we choose within the space of meanings. Meanings guide us toward one thing instead of another, thus making one scenario more solid, more comfortable and more adapted to us than another. Instead, if we do not manage to make sense of the options that become available and to attach personal meanings to them, we fall into a labyrinth of potentialities that has no exit, exactly like Tsui Pên. It is thus particularly important to understand how we build up meanings and make sense of the world around and inside ourselves.

In the following chapter, we will consider the contribution of psychoanalysis to this topic. We will argue that psychoanalysis offers us sophisticated conceptual instruments to unlock the black box in the mind of social agents and reflect on the roles and potentialities of the unconscious. In introducing the psychoanalytic perspective, our intention is not simply confined to a better comprehension of the mind at the theoretical level. As recent achievements outside the psychoanalytic field have established, the unconscious deeply affects behaviour and choices. In a seminal contribution on the “unbearable automaticity of being,” Barg and Chartrand (1999) explain that most of our mental functioning takes place outside awareness. Automaticity affects: perception, mental representation, cognitive goals’ activation, behavioural goals’ activation, emotions, moods, and evaluations and judgements. Our ability to understand behaviour is thus very limited if we do not take the unconscious into account. Furthermore, the automaticity of being is not a disadvantage as it mostly works in our interest by anticipating and incorporating our preferences and tendencies.

As regards storytelling, we will show how the unconscious affects the pathology of narratives but also contributes to their intrinsically creative nature.

5.2 A space for psychoanalysis

Although psychoanalysis is often taken into consideration for its clinical application, it is not only a therapy. Since its inception, it has also been a theory of mental functioning and normal psychic development from infancy to old age. By explaining how the human mind works and develops, it can offer insights into many different fields of human experience, such as art, politics, education, group and social behaviour, philosophy and literature, law and family studies (to mention only a few possibilities that have already been explored).

Freud (1927) himself described psychoanalysis as a science of the human being whose practice should not be restricted to physicians. A strong point in favour of this view is the fundamental continuity between normality and pathology in the psychic functioning of individuals that Freud often advocated. When working with hysterical patients, he believed that the psychological mechanisms leading to their symptoms were the same as those recognisable in any individual.

The distinction between a hysterical patient and any other normal individual was of quantity, not quality... The focus of interest shifted from studying the various categories of pathology and the characteristics that differentiated each from the others to studying the universal mechanisms of all behaviour, whether clinical syndrome or mundane experience, with the recognition that normality and pathology were expressions of the same fundamental processes, and the individuals were neither one nor the other, but rather both. (Michels 2015)

In the following, we will argue that psychoanalysis can inform our comprehension of the narrative function of the mind, both by explaining why thinking can be interpreted as the construction of a narration and by highlighting the importance of making personal sense in the development of subjectivity.

In psychoanalytic terms, the activities of the mind are considered as largely unconscious. Recent research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience confirms this basic hypothesis. Indeed, most of our mental activities, including perceptions, memories, motivations, feelings, thoughts and affective states are inaccessible to consciousness, or become conscious only partially (Bargh and Chartrand 1999, Bargh and Morsella 2008, Bornstein 2010, Solms and Turnbull 2011). For Freud, the unconscious13 is a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that are unacceptable or unpleasant and thus are kept outside of conscious awareness (e.g. repressed) as a mechanism of defence. Notwithstanding their unconscious nature, these psychic contents continue to shape our behaviour and experience. It is our goal to show how unconscious thought may affect storytelling. The main authors to whom we will make reference are Donald Winnicott and Wilfred Bion.

Winnicott was an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst who studied child development for almost 40 years. By focusing on the relationship between mother and infant in the first year of life, he viewed the key aspects of healthy development as rooted in the quality of this first affective relationship and in the existence of a “facilitating environment” in the affective world of the infant. Among his many theoretical achievements, he is well-known for the concept of the “transitional object” and for the importance that he gave to play, both in childhood, when play is connected to the development of a self capable of authenticity (True Self), and in the rest of life, when play takes the form of a cultural and creative experience.

Born in India in 1897, W. R. Bion first came to England at the age of eight. After studying history and medicine, he developed a growing interest in psychoanalysis. He focused his clinical attention on psychotic processes in schizophrenics, arguing that the same processes are active in the primitive mental processes of every individual. We all have psychotic and non-psychotic elements that coexist and sometimes take charge of individual lives, groups and institutions. Bion devoted much of his research activity and clinical practice to the study of groups.

As we will argue, both Winnicott and Bion made a significant contribution to the comprehension of thinking and creativity, in normal and pathological development, in individuals as well as in groups and institutions.

The psychoanalytic perspective that we are about to introduce also allows us to underline the existence of a plurality of languages for the phenomena that concern choice. Storytelling, meaning-making, narratives, emotional involvement, creativity – to list only a few processes – are explored in different fields of knowledge, each of which offers a specific angle of observation and, by so doing, contributes to a reflection on the complexity of human decision-making. There are, meanwhile, some crucial aspects that many streams of research share. Among them is the idea – which the short story of Ts’ui Pên illustrates well – of choice as a process that involves simultaneously both acquisition and loss, each of which is filtered, and thus lived subjectively, through the personal experience of the choice maker.

5.3 Stories: fiction or truth?

After forty years of writing fiction, after exploring vari­ous roads and making diverse experiments, the time has come for me to look for an overall definition of my work. I would suggest this: my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language. (Calvino 1988: 11)

This is how Calvino opens his first chapter of Six Memories for the next Millennium, which is devoted to “Lightness.” Further into the chapter, he recalls the myth of Perseus and Medusa.

As is well known, Perseus was able to cut off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone because he did not look at her directly, but only through a mirror. The beheading, however, does not conclude the story. Perseus puts the head of Medusa in a sack and takes it with him. By so doing, he creatively transforms the menacing head into a personal weapon that can be used against his enemies.

Calvino makes a crucial comment on such a choice and its symbolism:

Here, certainly, the myth is telling us something, something implicit in the images that can’t be explained in any other way. Perseus succeeds in mastering that horrendous face by keeping it hidden, just as in the first place he vanquished it by viewing it in a mirror. Perseus’s strength always lies in a refusal to look di­rectly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live; he carries the reality with him and accepts it as his particular burden. (Ibid.: 12-13)

Indeed, Perseus is able to survive and live together with the monsters of his world through a twofold strategy that involves not looking at them directly, but also not abandoning them. He finds a way to remain constantly in contact with the still frightening head of Medusa, through hiding it in the sack and never being separated from it.

This myth, and the interpretation of it that Calvino suggests, can be used to reflect on the roles of fiction in our daily life (Baldini 2017).

As Freud first suggested, the unconscious is not accessible to us in all its dimensions. We may succeed in understanding some, but not all of it. For the same reason, a dream can never be interpreted completely; it will always maintain an area of shadow, of meanings that fade away before we can grasp them. Meanwhile, the unconscious, even the part of it that remains unreachable, is constitutive of our identity. We need it. We need to carry it always with us in order to feel integrated and to experience authenticity. But how can we be in touch with something that we do not know? Something that is so deeply ours but unrecognisable and evanescent at the same time?

These questions evoke the relationship between fiction and truth that criss-cross our lives. For us human beings, there is always a part of reality – both within ourselves and outside – that remains mysterious, for it cannot be reached through the cognitive channels at our disposal. We always maintain a distance from truth, the ultimate essence of things, or “the thing in itself,” as Kant called it.

However, we can try to get closer and closer to it through the mediation of symbols, in particular, of words. As far as our internal reality is considered, language is the most powerful key we have to unlock unconscious contents. When something can be named and said, it can be “appropriated,” it becomes an ingredient of meaning and of our capacity to signify.

With reference to dreams, Freud argues, for example, that there is a difference between the manifest dream-text – that is what we remember on waking – and the dream that we actually had (the latent text). They describe the same subject matter “in two different languages.” Indeed, the manifest content is a “transcript” of the dream “into another mode of expression” that pertains to consciousness.

The unconscious has thus a linguistic nature, it is a language that we cannot understand as such and that underlies the language we speak, the manifest language of the dream. Lacan (1956-57) develops this point further by suggesting that we can improve our understanding of the unconscious only by the mediation of symbols, first of all of words.

From this perspective, stories, which are made of words organised into a plot, function as the sack of Perseus. They represent the expedient that we use to remain in touch with what cannot be seen and accessed directly, but, nevertheless, is a constitutive part of our identity. Through fictions, through stories, we generate transcriptions and produce meanings that represent our approximation of truth. We make discoveries, we put into words contents that we do not know yet and cannot access directly.

Fiction, as Calvino puts it, is a work of subtraction because it allows to get closer to a world of meanings and sensations that would have been too heavy to be sustained otherwise. Or too threatening and dangerous, as in the Perseus myth.

5.4 Inventing from scratch

Coming back to the problem of how we construct meaning, a crucial insight is offered by Winnicott when he speaks of the “primary creativity” of the infant. He argues:

The world is created anew by each human being, whose start on the task begins at least as early as the time of birth and of the theoretical first feed. (Winnicott 1988: 110)

Through these words, Winnicott introduces the concept of “found-created” that is pivotal in his understanding of our relationship with external reality. He first explores the meaning of the concept in early infancy. A newborn baby does not know that everything outside was already there prior to her arrival. When the baby encounters her mother’s breast, she may cultivate the illusion that she is magically creating it as a result of her sense of hunger and her desire to placate it. The breast becomes a “found-created” object, both perceived and illusionary, created anew by the infant.14

The illusion of creating anew is the starting point of a constructive modality of relationship with the external world in which agency plays a key role. In such a modality of relationship, we do not see ourselves as passive and we do not have to accept external conditions without margins of participation. On the contrary, we can participate in a relationship with others and with facts by transferring our needs and specificities in it, without being overwhelmed or annihilated. In the example quoted above, the baby is not forced to accept the rhythm of her mother, the intermittence of her presence and her absence: if she is hungry she can cry, call the mother and make her appear. At the illusory level, the mother is created by the baby:

What the infant creates is very largely dependent on what is presented to that infant at the moment of creativity, by the mother who makes active adaption to the infant’s needs, but if the creativity of the infant is absent, the details presented by the mother are meaningless. We know that the world was there before the infant, but the infant does not know this, and at first the infant has the illusion that what is found is created. But this state of affairs is only achieved when the mother acts well enough. This problem of primary creativity has been discussed as one of earliest infancy; in point of fact it is a problem that never ceases to have meaning, as long as the individual is alive. (Ibid.: 110-111)

Primary creativity is thus the product of a good affective relationship: what the infant creates depends crucially on the capacity of the mother to respond to her needs. If the mother does not see these needs, the infant will not see them either and will not create anything to fulfil them: the breast, even if present, will be meaningless because it is not connected to any need, and so not to any potential satisfaction.

Moreover, as the quotation highlights, from the start Winnicott points out that the ability to see what we encounter in a new and personal way, without rendering it meaningless, remains significant well beyond infancy. It is instrumental to feeling alive and rewarded in our relationship with reality, which already exists and precedes us.

Compared to its meaning in adult life, Winnicott provides a further case in point when he speaks of his own scholarly activity:

I could look up creativity in The Oxford English Dictionary, and I could do research on all that has been written on the subject in philosophy and psychology, and then I could serve it all up on a dish. Even this could be garnished in such a way that you would exclaim: “How original!” Personally, I am unable to follow this plan. I have this need to talk as though no one had ever examined the subject before, and of course this can make my words ridiculous. But I think you can see in this my own need to make sure I am not buried by my theme. It would kill me to work out the concordance of creativity references. Evidently I must always be fighting to feel creative, and this has the disadvantage that if I am describing a simple word like “love,” I must start from scratch. (Perhaps that’s the right place to start from.) (Winnicott 1970: 41)

The situation described by Winnicott is very similar to that of the researcher who addresses a certain topic, which is new to him. He will have a pile of articles already written by others, a certain amount of pre-existing literature. When he starts to read to understand the topic, to orient himself, he may become overwhelmed by the feeling that everything has already been said. The researcher who from the start takes on the task of examining all the literature on a topic to understand it, whether and on what terms his thinking might distinguish itself from that of his predecessors, risks being defeated by the complexity of the task. The vitality of his still unformed thinking is in danger.

It is easier to proceed in another way: read and study for a while, but then close all the books, other people’s articles, silencing all the other voices, whether external or internalised, and start writing, as if one’s insight were the first and there were no tradition to contend with. Dealing with history remains essential, but could very well come later, once one’s thinking has emerged and become clearer. At that point, the researcher’s primary creativity, his ability to create anew the view of a certain fact, will be protected, and the already existent literature will function as a prologue without assuming the guise of the dead man who grabs the living and drags him along, as Marx would put it.

We could say that, from the cradle to society, our passage was short. As children, the family constituted our initial condition; as adults, the threshold that each of us constantly crosses has become more extensive, including the sphere of social relations and its institutional creations. But it seems that the need to create from scratch, each time through ourselves in that moment, continues to keep us vital and active in our relationship with facts (Patalano 2016a).

In terms of external reality, starting from birth, we have an important creative capacity, which changes form over the course of our lives but whose function remains the same: to give meaning to the world, at the point it is introduced to us or reaches us.

5.5 The ingredients of meaning

We shall now expand this point by suggesting which “ingredients” contribute to the construction of meaning.

Making personal sense does not correspond to information processing, nor to the arid elaboration of data that could also be achieved by a computer programme. It is not exhaustively described by the categorisation and mapping of perceptions and their organisation. Instead, it consists of the appropriation and interpretation of reality from a personal viewpoint, with a simultaneous activation of thoughts and feelings, at different levels of consciousness.

In the psychoanalytic approach to thinking, emotions and thought are born together and do not exist one without the other. They are not separate processes that eventually sum up, interfere with each other or interact. Indeed, the ability to think starts developing in early infancy within the relationship between child and mother and, as we have just observed, it can be inhibited when such a relationship is dysfunctional (Bion 1962, Fonagy and Target 1996, Heimann 1952, Stern 2000, Trevarthen 1987, Winnicott 1965). The form it takes and maintains over life, its efficacy, and its subjective peculiarities depend on this unique affective bond.

Moreover, the relational/affective nature of thinking is preserved for life. In an adult mind, thinking can be interpreted as the building of an imaginary relationship with an ‘object’ (e.g. a representation) that activates feelings and states of mind. Feelings as well as higher cognitive mechanisms co-participate in the development of thought and the production of knowledge (Bion 1962, Piaget 1954, Vygotsky 1962, Winnicott 1971). Furthermore, as Winnicott suggested, they subsume the creation of personal meaning because the capacity of inventing from scratch, and re-inventing again every time we are confronted with facts, starts developing in early infancy within the mother-infant relationship and maintains the ‘quality’ of this first affective imprinting for the rest of life.

Making personal sense also has a historical and social dimension, for it requires the existence of other, consolidated interpretations, in terms of a shared stratified culture, which is the root from which personal thought grows:

Needless to say, from both a developmental and conceptual perspective, there is no possibility for symbolic formation outside of a network of already constituted signifieds. It is upon and within this web that the subject’s work of recreating what is already there takes place. The psychic subject, therefore, is neither abstracted from social reality, nor condemned to be a mere reflection of that social reality. Her task is to handle creatively the permanent tension between a world that, although preceding her, is open to her efforts to be a subject. (Jovchelovitch 1995: 7)

Due to the capacity for re-elaboration that characterises individuals, in social exchanges knowledge of reality is not simply transmitted from one person to another but also transformed in the process of transmission (Lawrence and Valsiner 1993, 2003, Jovchelovitch 1995, 1996, Patalano 2010).

The process of making sense starts by building up mental representations that come into being through an inextricable and simultaneous activation of intellectual functions and emotional states.15 Representations constitute a first template through which perceptual data are categorised and interpreted.

Their static nature, however, makes them more similar to a photograph than a movie. Representations are useful for capturing the meaning of a contingent experience, such as our impressions in a specific moment of the day or our idea of a certain object, but in order to reproduce the sense of continuity that experience normally involves for us, representations must be connected with each other and become parts of a story.

Differently from a representation, a story also includes a developmental dimension. Through its construction, we not only make sense of the present moment but also set this moment and its meaning in the flow of time and sense. This is particularly important because it opens the possibility of building up a creative relationship both with the past and the future.

As far as the past is concerned, certainly time is not reversible and past events cannot appear under different conditions again, that is to say, they cannot be changed. Nevertheless, the individual and collective interpretation of ‘what has happened’ continuously evolves. The process of remembering itself has a mainly reorganising nature, for it involves a recombination of memory traces with present information, and leads to the emergence of new narratives of past events (Patalano 2007).

Concerning the future, stories function as a projection in time and provide the building blocks of expectations. They set up a first narration of the world that we consider to be more likely (or desirable).

As we have argued already, Bruner devoted much of his interdisciplinary research activity to the comprehension of the genesis and roles of storytelling in structuring experience. For him, making sense and storytelling are two overlapping activities that contribute to each other.

On the one hand, meaning has a central place in any human activity and culture is constitutive of meaning because it contains the symbolic systems “already ‘there,’ deeply entrenched in culture and language” (Bruner 1990: 11), which individuals find at their birth. On the other, storytelling is a mode of thinking, a sort of inner template for ongoing sense-making that human beings share and use both for structuring action, and for defining self-identity.

The two modes of reasoning that Bruner identifies, the paradigmatic and the narrative ones, differ in their relationship to truth: the first can be true or not true with regard to a certain procedure of verification or, at least falsification. The latter, instead, has to do with “verisimilitude and lifelikeness,” in other words, it appeals to plausibility. Plausibility does not mean truth: it works until it is believed to be credible.

As we have seen, logical and narrative thinking also fulfil different purposes:

Analytic, abstract thinking is ideal for reporting the regular, the expected, the normal, the ordinary, the unsurprising, the mundane, the things we often take so much for granted that we are hardly conscious that we know them at all.

By contrast, narrative thinking, encapsulated in stories and storytelling, is ideally suited to discussing the exceptional. Narrative thrives on the disruptions from the ordinary, the unexpected, the conflicts, the deviations, the surprises, the unusual… Storytelling doesn’t replace analytical thinking. It supplements it by enabling us to imagine new perspectives and new worlds, and is ideally suited to communicating change and stimulating innovation. (Bruner 1990)

Storytelling also represents a form of communication that allows us to empathize with others.

According to the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, narratives strengthen our morality, for they expand our capacity to experience emotions and understand other people. Indeed, a narrative is a ‘view of life’ for, in a story, the style, the content, the connections among facts and their prominence, the atmosphere, all of this offers the reader a window on life, through which a set of values and meanings can be perceived, a sense of what matters and what does not. In her words, “the novel presents itself as a metaphor. See the world in this way, and not in that, it suggests. Look at things as if they were like this story, and not in other ways” (1995; quoted by Worth 2008: 55).

Of particular interest to our purposes in this book is the idea that our way of reasoning, whatever its form, generates knowledge and does not simply represent it. Furthermore, it generates a perspective on life that entails meanings – narratives develop sense – but also includes an image of ourselves and of ourselves in relationship with external reality – narratives define our degree of participation with facts. In the following chapter, we will develop this point further by discussing two case studies that highlight the deep intermingling of storytelling and decisions and shed light on the roles and potentialities of the unconscious in guiding behaviour.

Chapter 6. Storytelling: pathology and potentialities

Our previous discussion has shown that the development of a human being cannot be equated to the simple accumulation of experiences, but is rather an operation of constructing meaning, an activity that takes place uninterruptedly over the course of life. Through making-sense we find our personal way of conceiving the world and our place within it. Storytelling is the main tool at our disposal to create meanings and develop novel perspectives on “facts,” as we have argued.

We will now take two case-studies into consideration in order to suggest that the functioning of our mind and its narrative dimension, in particular, far from being a preoccupation solely of psychologists and social scientists, concerns us all intimately and may produce concrete consequences on people’s everyday lives.

6.1 Case study 1. Storytelling in financial markets

The first case concerns financial markets. This kind of market has specific characteristics that make the process of meaning-making particularly demanding, both in terms of cognitive resources and in terms of the consequences that follow choices.

In financial markets, information is scarce or too abundant, must be selected rapidly, interpreted even more rapidly and decisions must be taken without the time that problem-solving commonly requires. Uncertainty dominates the scene and there is a limited base, or limited time, to evaluate risk in probabilistic terms. Emotions, intuitions and fears influence decision-making well below consciousness. This would be a possibility in any kind of situation but is more likely to happen when decisions must be taken rapidly and in a climate of diffuse uncertainty.

This situation brings us back to the distinction we have encountered between an intuitive, experiential, affective system (System 1) and an analytical, deliberative processing system (System 2) (see above and also Frankish and Evans 2009, Evans and Stanovich 2013). The first is more likely to activate in conditions of fear, danger or time pressure (Schneider and Schiffrin 1977a, 1977b, Tversky and Kahneman 1983, Kahneman 2011).16 However, if we exclude situations in which decisions must be taken in a few seconds – such as in cases of extreme danger – the two systems do not exclude each other but rather activate different mental processes at distinct levels of awareness. Furthermore, they both depend on experience and are both susceptible to error.

Narratives, emotions and unconscious reactions are all well represented in the investors’ mind. Following an inquiry into decision-making in this mental set, in 2008 the psychoanalyst David Tuckett and the economist Richard J. Taffler published the first results of their research on financial market instability and its consequences – in particular the Internet bubble – that placed the process of storytelling in the front line.17 Their research project is based on an innovative analysis of economic behaviour and is supported by 52 field interviews with financial workers in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Asia.18

In resonance with the approach already developed within cognitive economics, what goes on in the mind of the agent is considered as the main determinant of behaviour. Differently from any other authors, however, Tuckett and Taffler focus on the unconscious dimension and its impact on economic choices and reactions.

They start from the fact that “financial markets appear to be the quintessential example of a market which depends nearly entirely on human imagination and emotion” (Tuckett 2011: 25). Due to ambiguity of information and its continuous production, a wide range of possible outcomes in terms of gains and losses can be imagined at any point in time: uncertainty leaves space for the unconscious both in the creation of expectations and, moreover, in the selection of the scenarios that are considered as more likely. In particular, the reactions of agents to news that appears in the market will depend not only on fluctuations that regard concrete risk assessment but also on fluctuations that affect their trust in the likelihood of one or two scenarios, among the many that are deemed possible.

In this kind of situation, there are two main binding elements: the quantity of information is too great and its nature too ambiguous, while attention is a scarce resource. In order to concentrate attention on a few, significant aspects that can guide agents in the midst of uncertainty, a story is needed to give information a meaning and to decide on which data is worthy of attention.

A second crucial idea concerns the fact that by buying and selling assets, individuals not only modify their financial situations, they also enter into a relationship with imaginative objects, which is what the assets represent in their mind. To buy a new asset thus not only involves a financial investment but also an emotional one on the fantasy that is triggered by possession of the asset.

In order to explain the emotional trajectory of financial choices, Tuckett and Tuffler (2008) introduce the concept of “phantastic objects.” Fantastic objects generate excitement and are felt as a source of unlimited satisfaction; because of this, they are strongly idealised.19 In particular, in the months that preceded the internet bubble, investors unconsciously attributed to internet stocks the qualities of fantastic objects that could magically break the rules of ordinary life and grant access to things previously considered impossible. These kinds of fantasies “had the power to over-ride more realistic calculation and the judgement of the facts” (ibid.: 396).

Interestingly, unconscious fantasies about financial products emerged in the form of narratives. Fundamentally, these were stories with strong emotional content: once a story had become ingrained in the mental life of investors, they could not see information about stocks as simply regarding shares in real companies. Rather, they saw such information as regarding the opportunities to realise the particular story that they had in mind.

In a situation like this, risk becomes an imaginary construct that enters the narrative as many separate ingredients. Its real consistency is lost in light of the role that it plays in the plot. The rational evaluation of real risk loses weight and importance compared to the ‘risk in the story’ which, in the case at hand, was low and under control.

Underestimation of real risk went hand in hand with the prevalence of ‘wishful thinking,’ a form of thinking shaped by desires, over realistic thinking, that is, thinking that portrays reality for what it is (and not what we would like it to be):

Active investors did not ‘think’; rather, Internet stocks were ‘felt’ to be a good buy. and other ‘new’ technology stocks came to dominate the financial markets and the financial indices, generating such extraordinary expectations that demand grew exponentially; investors competed with each other, perhaps creating further unconscious competitive excitement but certainly driving prices higher and higher. (Ibid.: 396)

The subsequent rise of prices acted as a signal of the apparent wisdom of the investment, thus convincing other investors to increase their demand.

A parallel mechanism of contagion took place at the aggregate level through the creation of a ‘cover story.’ The latter is a rationale for the behaviour of investors as a group, in their aggregate dimension, which supports and justifies their increasing demand for stocks. The development of a cover story satisfies the need for “a superficially-plausible popular theory that justifies” (Schiller 2000, quoted by Tucket and Taffler 2008: 397); its character is public in the sense that it is shared, legitimised by the media and may even be quoted in political speeches.

Such a public story supports and reinforces the private narrative in which these investments appear as a good deal. Implicitly, it reinforces the fantasies that motivated the investments in the mind of agents:

During the Internet bubble the cover story, which became current and apparently able to capture thinking and so perhaps to justify what was happening, was the ‘New Economy.’ The idea offered in most intellectual circles was that information technology, in particular the Internet, could transform productivity in the US and other economies in ways hitherto unimagined (Hall 2000). Cover stories appear to capture some essential sharable and simple element of the new phantastic object inventions and so provide a rationale even if it is only vaguely understood (Tuckett and Tafler 2008: 398).

The diffusion of a convincing cover story contributed even more to reduce the sense of reality of agents whose perceptions appeared to be oriented by wishful thinking: “It is because caution, anxiety and alarm were unable to stem the flow of enthusiasm sustained by the weak cover story just discussed, that we suggest that the key to understanding such bubbles lies in the way normal reality-oriented thought, including the capacity to be anxious about potential loss in risky situations, is overridden” (ibid.: 399).

It thus seems of primary importance to understand the role that story-telling has played in this distortion of reality. Before entering into detail, we would like to stress that the goal of our reflection is not a normative one. We are not interested in how the mind should work, our main purpose is descriptive. From our brief analysis of Tuckett and Tafler’s model, the following processes seem to be at work.

1. Telling stories is a basic mechanism of the mind that helps us to structure present but mainly future experience. Indeed, stories function as a projection in time and provide the building blocks of expectations, in particular when novelty is implied.

2. At the basis of this mechanism of projection, there is a potent process of interpretation of ‘the new’ through ‘the old’ or through ‘the desired,’ whose effects are amplified in situations of uncertainty when novelty can be destabilising and anxiety for the unknown needs to be reduced. According to Tuckett (2011), financial assets differ from standard goods as they are surrounded by such an amount of uncertainty that the decision to buy or sell an asset necessarily requires a subjective interpretation of ambiguity. Such an interpretation crucially depends on the individual hic et nunc perceptions and on the personal experience that the agent has gained through time.

It also depends on the agent’s own capacity to manage uncertainty.

3. In the presence of diffuse uncertainty, old mental schemes are commonly used to interpret the new. In particular we tend to typify situations according to past experience, cultural norms and shared ways of seeing. Through this fast and frugal process of typification, we gain an illusion of control over the unknown and lose the chance to perceive its novel character by fitting its manifestations into a script that is already familiar.

At the unconscious level, this kind of attitude is motivated by the need to reduce anxiety and to maintain control. However, as the case-study shows, this attitude also offers the chance to fill the ‘holes’ that exist in information and certainty with personal and shared dreams. Wishes become part of the story that is built up to interpret the present and to imagine the future. They intermingle with real facts and suddenly become inextricable from the latter: reality and fantasy become entwined and cannot be easily disentangled once the story has become convincing and plausible.20

4. Price changes that occur in the market can confirm or disrupt the story that agents have been using to interpret information, and the reaction to such changes is fundamentally subjective. This state of affairs challenges the traditional view of financial markets as guided by rational agents that choose according to what probability suggests:

Because my financial actors were not able to see the future with certainty, their thinking about the value of securities was saturated with the experience of time, the memory of past experience, experiences of excitement and anxiety and of group life, as well as the stories they told themselves about it all. From this perspective, rather than describe financial markets as trading in probabilistically derived estimates of fundamental values, as in the standard text books, I will suggest they are best viewed as markets in competing and shifting emotional stories about what those fundamentals might be. (Tuckett 2011: xviii)

As in gambling, however, this mixture of ad hoc reassuring narratives and the uncertainty of pure chance was very exciting.

6.2 The pathology of storytelling. Part 1

Further reflections on the case study suggest that we should focus on four crucial aspects of the relationship between storytelling and decisions.

The first concerns the ingredients of thinking.

In line with a psychoanalytic tradition started by Freud and developed further by Klein, Winnicott and Bion, Tuckett interprets the process of thinking as the building of an imaginary relationship with an ‘object’ (e.g. a representation) that activates feelings and states of mind. Thinking consists of establishing an emotional link between subject and object that allows thought to develop. Moreover, knowledge and its construction are conceived as inherently emotional activities that require the activation of feelings as well as of higher cognitive mechanisms.

From this perspective, unconscious fantasies consist of representations of things, persons or ideas that generate excitement in the subject because they offer gratification on a phantasmatic plane, one that corresponds exactly to the subject’s desires and ideals.21 They are formed both at the private, personal level and at the aggregate one: in either case they shape and orient perceptions and narratives, mostly out of our awareness.

A second important point refers to the different degrees of realism that can be achieved in the process of thinking. Due to the role that investments played in terms of fantastic objects, the economic agents’ mind-set became dominated by wishes and correlated good feeling. This went hand in hand with a loss of capacity for reality-based thinking.

According to Bion (1970), the agents’ state of mind shifted from a state in which reality is perceived and acknowledged, to a split situation in which wishful thinking dominates and the conflict with reality is avoided by pushing it under the threshold of consciousness. In this latter state of mind, doubts and anxiety are kept unconscious because they generate pain. In the case at hand:

conflict about taking on risk is split off from awareness so that information is evaluated only to create ‘good’ excited feelings. A phantastic object can now be enthusiastically pursued as though it was a reality, and the view that it is much less risky to invest than to miss out on investing in stocks can become dominant. In this state the judgements of economic agents are based primarily on their excited and wishful feelings and they disregard the countervailing anxiety which would otherwise be awakened by traditional valuation methods. (Tuckett 2011: 401)

As this quotation suggests, in a split state of mind, information is processed differently than in an integrated one: any piece of information that could trigger anxiety or be a reminder of the risk involved becomes non-salient and is kept out of the story.

A third interesting aspect concerns group thinking. In the analysis of Tuckett and Taffler, an important mechanism of contagion emerged when the personal, private story about new financial products and their magical properties intersected with a public cover story that offered legitimation and support to the private one. At this point of intersection, a mind-set dominated by unconscious relationships with fantastic objects became shared. As a consequence, perceptions, mental models, emotional and valuation procedures were modified to further support its existence.

It is when a private narrative, a story for a few, overlaps with a public one that is amplified by the media and confirmed by authorities that the personal unconscious fantasies find legitimation and multiply their effects. In particular, when the inner discourse meets the public one, the boundary between what is internal and subjective and what is external and based on data becomes evanescent: there is no longer an external, objective reality to confront.

The fourth aspect addresses a resistance to learn from experience that took place after the financial bubble burst.

During the financial crash of April 2000, the riskiness of the investment practices that had always been there but removed from consciousness became evident. Cover stories immediately appeared as no longer credible. Interestingly, however, investors never engaged in a constructive analysis of their behaviour, nor did they develop a more accurate capacity to perceive reality that would have stimulated a recognition of responsibility. In place of a real working through, they shifted from enthusiasm to anger, from omnipotence to denial, an urge to find a scapegoat emerged, while the sense of guilt was avoided (Tuckett and Taffler 2008).

In fact, investors remained in an altered mental state in which the relationship with financial assets was of an idealised type: idealisation simply turned suddenly from positive to negative. The assets that had long been seen as the source of extensive and easy profits became an evil that misled markets, with no evident participation or complicity of investors. Personal involvement and mistakes were not recognised. A new story emerged that absolved financial investors of their responsibilities and, what is worse, prevented them from learning from experience (Tuckett 2011).

This case-study also sheds light on two further aspects of our mental functioning. The first concerns the excitement that is triggered by risk and gambling. Such excitement can be so intense and passionate that it needs to be managed, and storytelling helps in this, for it offers containment and structure to a complex and intense group of emotions that would be hard to maintain outside of a frame. Together with the need to reduce anxiety, the necessity to contain excitement contributes to the explanation of why we are strongly motivated to embrace a story if it seems plausible. We need it. Our mental functioning depends on containment that sets boundaries on excitement without reducing the pleasure that we experience from it. Instead of wild, uncontrolled excitement, we take risk within the comforting cover of a story.

The second aspect has to do with our need to follow dreams. This need is at the basis of human creativity as it triggers the motivation to imagine reality differently from how it is. Without the dream of something that does not exist, we would be trapped in a representation of the world that has no desired evolution, or in a story with no possible surprises. However, the relationship between reality and dreams has to be explored further since it can be creative but also problematic. It is an opportunity but also bears some risks, as this case study helps clarify.

Reality, as Freud first pointed out, is hard to accept and the shift from the reality to the pleasure principle remains a lifetime temptation. Situations in which ambiguity and uncertainty predominate make mental escapes easier to realise, as if they were one possibility among others, waiting to be grasped. This is the fundamental basis on which wishful thinking develops. Storytelling offers wishful thinking a space to grow and branch out, to articulate in different possible scenarios, each with further narrative possibilities. It is the ideal script in which to cultivate dreams, under the illusion of truth.

6.3 Case study 2. Storytelling and terrorism

On November 2002, the Congress and President of the United States created the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States to investigate the facts and circumstances relating to the September 11 attacks. The final report of the investigation is a public document available online.22

After two years of work, the Commission concluded that before September 11, the whole defence system of the US was calibrated on the “wrong enemy,” an enemy that was substantially different from the one that actually planned the attacks. The discrepancy between the imagined enemy and the real one left Americans particularly vulnerable and unprepared.

Moreover, this discrepancy was not due to a lack of information but to a “failure of imagination”: an expression used in the report to address the incapacity to make sense of the data about the risk of future attacks once they have been collected.

In fact, a large amount of data was available to the intelligence services and could have helped to foresee the September 11 attacks with much greater accuracy, had they been deemed valuable and taken into consideration. But the data were integrated in the wrong story (Patalano 2016b). In other words, they were used to create a narrative and a set of expectations about potential attacks that, although coherent with the data, were very distant from reality and thus unsuited to prevention.

The discrepancy between the imagined story and the one that really happened is not simply a topic for philosophical speculation. In fact, National Defence being an institution with concrete and serious duties, to look at security through the lens of a wrong story has meant to make wrong decisions in terms of prevention, with the tragic consequences that we all know.

But let us analyse the report in more depth.

“The 9/11 attacks were a shock, but they should not have come as a surprise,” the report says.

Why did they take us unawares in this way?

First, much of the thinking used to interpret the information available before the attacks was unsuited to the situation at hand. It was outdated, developed for the Cold War period and not adapted to the new terrorist challenges. The feeling that things had evolved since then and could result in a different scenario was present as a sporadic and vague premonition, but never became central enough in the geography of collective thought.

The idea that aeroplanes could be used as weapons was suggested, but the US authorities did not give much weight to this intuition. The institution to which the idea was communicated considered it more appropriate to fiction than reality.

Furthermore, idealisation seems to have presented a consistently biased view of terrorism. As the Commission argued, the enemy personified by Al Qaeda was imagined as omnipotent and extremely adaptable or, at the other extreme, as poor and completely disorganised. These idealised images had the effect of either lowering or overvaluing government effectiveness. The result was the creation of a collective story about the potential enemy that appeared to be tailored on this idealised version, either positive or negative, while diverging significantly from the real one.

Realism in our thinking activity may not be easy to achieve. According to Bion, in order to develop a realistic picture of the Other, we should avoid the tendency to ‘close’ our thoughts on him too early. Precocious closeness may be functional to maintaining a single vertex of observation, while preventing others from emerging. Before September 11, there were some facts that collective thought avoided considering: that the enemy was able to organise an attack even with scarce economic resources; that the enemy was ‘inside’ and not simply abroad; that the enemy was using internal resources to become more powerful, e.g. to learn how to pilot an aeroplane; that the US was not invulnerable, as many preferred to believe.

Information that could have made all these facts imaginable was available but not considered. And the private narrative of a visionary person, in which the possibility of aeroplanes used as weapons had been included, was not sufficient to inform, or even alert, group-thinking. The shared collective story remained stuck to what was preferable to imagine and such intuition, although coherent with available data, was downplayed.

6.4 The pathology of storytelling. Part 2

The report confronts us with a significant question. Having understood how problematic the idealisation of the Other can be in the realm of foreign policy, in particular when terrorist challenges are considered, how can we promote the capacity for realistic thinking at the social level and prevent policy from losing contact with reality?

As we know from the first case-study, the realism of thinking is connected to the psychic growth of the individual. Tuckett (2011) showed with great clarity how disastrous its lack may be among financial market traders. The report on September 11 highlights another field in which such a lack can bring heavy consequences for society as a whole.

A further important aspect that emerges from the report is the intrinsic plurality of possible stories: many stories can be developed at any time from the same set of information. Such a plurality is a richness in itself, but it also generates an over-determination problem (Patalano 2016b, 2017). Even if it is triggered by verified objective data, storytelling has many possible outcomes, for the same ‘ingredients’ can be combined differently, can be given different weight or be inserted in many different plots.

When data about reality intersects with imagination, on the one hand, and subjective experience, on the other, the mix gives rise to unpredictable combinations. This proliferation of outputs can be considered a symptom of creativity, and indeed it refers to the fact that there is always a multitude of channels for personal expression through fantasy and thought. But, the same phenomenon can also become a serious problem, as in the case of conflictual geopolitical scenarios.

Consider, as a mental experiment, the situation in which intelligence services collect data about possible attacks in five different countries: how can they choose then which scenario is more real or more urgent among the five towards which the data point? On which story it is worth investing the available, but limited, resources?

The relationship between storytelling and choice is even more cogent in the presence of economic constrictions. Limited resources impose a budget constraint and in order to put forward a policy of prevention, the question must find an answer: which narrative about the future will become true – and thus, the one on which we bet today – among the many that can be imagined?

In such a situation, it is not surprising that the wrong story can be selected.

This can happen because that story seems more plausible than others. But, as we already know, plausibility is a slippery concept that can be seriously influenced and distorted by wishful thinking. The latter, as we know, is the expression of our capacity to desire, a typical human capacity that fuels motivations and creativity when its integration with realistic thinking is maintained. Its existence, however, needs to be recognized and understood as situations that resemble infantile omnipotence – that is, a mental situation in which only desires count and reality is completely overridden – are always a potential risk.

Before September 11, storytelling was used to support the desire for stability and safety: likelihood and truth were put aside in favour of a story that could minimise anxiety and fear.

The passage from individual to collective thought amplifies the power of private narratives, if they make sense or are felt as good ones in a group, which is to say, if they correspond to collective unconscious desires. A story about the US and a story about Al Qaeda prevailed among the possible many because they were syntonic with ‘the preference’ of Americans and with the self-image that America wanted to maintain (Patalano 2016b).

From this perspective, it seems to us that the pathology of storytelling is a problem with concrete and widespread implications. Before September 11, there was a story in the US about the enemy that seemed plausible and emerged almost spontaneously as the right one. National defence was calibrated on such a story and its fallacy carried a high price.

6.5 The constructive role of storytelling: what we cannot do without a story

The second case study offers us the chance to reflect on the choice process that is going on in many countries that have recently suffered from terrorist attacks.

Let us consider the case of Europe, which, at the time of writing has, in the last year been the target of four main attacks (Paris 11/2015, Brussels 5/2016, Nice 7/2016, Berlin 12/2016) and several threats. Soon after each of the attacks, a debate began on the topic of prevention. This is reasonable and we are not concerned here with prevention itself. What we would like to suggest is that behind the association attack prevention that has emerged after each episode of terrorism in Europe, and has rapidly spread in public communication, monopolising debates and opinions, storytelling has apparently collapsed.

In the automatic sequence attack prevention, an action (the attack) can be identified and also a reaction (prevention), but no explicit room has been left for thinking through a possible story about us (our plans, our past errors, our resources) and the enemy (which enemy, how well-equipped, with which intentions, etc).

Moreover, in the sequence there seems to be a lack of a dynamic reconstruction that could put together past, present and future rather than collapse into a single and uniform dimension. In particular, behind the idea that, if we have been attacked today the only thing we can do is to prevent a new attack tomorrow, there is a future that is lived as the present. In other words, the present as it is today is simply projected in time to create a future that is a replication of the present situation: we will be attacked tomorrow as we have been in recent months. In this way of seeing, in this annihilation of the future in the present, there is no space for imagination and no space for change.

Furthermore, in such a static and closed perspective we have no responsibilities and no duties for what will happen tomorrow: this view on prevention as the only option at our disposal absolves the past – what, for example, we did in Iraq – and absolves the future: we are victims and cannot be something else.

But, as Lawrence and Valsiner (1993, 2003) argue, imagination does not develop on the register of as-is only. Imagination requires the double existence of an as-is perspective and an as-if one, that is, the capacity to keep in mind simultaneously and differentiate ‘reality as it is’ from ‘reality as it could be.’ The as-if perspective is the same that exists in pretend play, a particular kind of play that emerges between the third and fifth year of life and specifically involves the use of objects and situations in their material but also symbolic dimension, as-if they stood for something that is actually absent (Winnicott 1971). A child may play with an empty box of biscuits and treat it as if it were a truck, for example.

Despite its importance for play, the relevance of as-if thinking is not limited to childhood, for it also represents an important channel through which individuals promote social change. In particular, imagining society as if it were different represents a first step in the attempt to avoid sclerotic modalities of organising relationships, meanings and values that are both openly and tacitly ingrained in institutions. By focusing on, and then re-imagining, the representations that support the current structure of society, individuals discover new interpretative possibilities and are able to create unpredictable ways of responding (Patalano 2007, 2010).

From this viewpoint, the as-if thinking that we learn to use in infancy when our capacity to symbolise starts to develop offers a simple, yet profound, contribution to the understanding of social evolution. At the root of this evolution, the same mechanism that is involved in pretend play activates: a symbolic re-representation/re-signification of what already exists, which aims at imagining something different and more aligned to shared feelings.

In this process of re-signification, storytelling plays a pivotal role for at least two main reasons:

1. It is a space for an as-if perspective.

2. It allows us to reconstruct the temporal and causal dimension underlying events.

To build a story about our relationship with the Middle East, for example, may help us to institute a causal and temporal nexus both with the past – what has happened between Europe and the Middle East since September 11 – and with the future – what may happen tomorrow.

Being in a narrative relationship with the past and the future means that they can be consciously seen, accepted and criticised. Most of all, they can be re-imagined, thus creating an image of the ‘world to be’ that can be confronted with the ‘world as it is’ and is not its automatic, implicit repetition.

Without storytelling, we are not conscious of the cause and effect nexus. On the contrary, in a narrative, the past that enters the story can be felt as familiar, recognised and also challenged. It is our past, for which we are responsible and from which we can differentiate ourselves. The future, in contrast, is open and must be ‘invented’ by the authors of the story.

Moreover, we are part of the story. We have contributed to define what has happened up to today and we have the duty, but also the pleasure, to imagine what will happen tomorrow. If we accept that we are part of the story, we can challenge it and try to contribute to a different one.

In our view, this is the main and most creative function of storytelling, to give us back our role as authors.


On January 15, 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549, piloted by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles, took off from LaGuardia Airport bound for Charlotte International Airport. A few minutes into the flight, a flock of Canada geese struck the plane, causing a disabling fire in both engines. Judging it impossible to reach nearby airports without thrust, Captain Sully decided that his only option was to chance an emergency landing on the Hudson River. He duly effected this, the landing was successful, and all 155 people aboard were rescued safely with only minor injuries. Sullenburger was hailed as a hero by the press and the public.

Probably all those who went to see Clint Eastwood’s movie, Sully, knew about this ill-fated flight and its dramatic and miraculous ending. Still, the movie is as gripping, tense and surprising as if the real event it depicts was completely unknown. The movie opens with shocking imagery of a steeply banked plane flying between Manhattan skyscrapers, a wingtip failing to clear a building and causing fiery devastation that immediately evokes the 9/11 terrorist attack of 2001. Viewers, however, are quickly made aware that this horrible seeming replay lives only in the nightmares of the protagonist, Captain Sully, played by Tom Hanks. We see him awaking in a hotel room where he has spent the night after his masterful landing prevented this nightmare from becoming a reality. He is still in town because he must appear before officials of the National Transportation Safety Board, who are obliged to inquire whether Sully’s landing on the river was really the only option left to him, since his decision, though it met with success, had exposed both passengers and crew to immense risks.

These are the premises from which the movie unfolds: we see the engines lost to flames, we see the aeroplane gliding towards the Hudson, while the passengers scream in terror and send last messages to their loved ones. We see the landing, the adventurous rescue of the passengers and the surprise and bravery of the rescuers. But these actions and events are also constantly re-played and re-lived through Sully’s consciousness. We witness his emotions and fears, filtered through flashes of his past, we see the lost comfort of his family life and, despite the immediate public acclaim, the self-doubts and solitude he experiences for the new trial that awaits him, the inquiry.

In the movie, then, the climax of the landing is played against another climax, related to the investigation. Initial computerised simulations had indeed showed that the plane, even with disabled engines, could have landed safely either at LaGuardia or at nearby Teterboro airport. The same results were obtained when real pilots re-ran the simulations. The stakes here for Sully were very high. If found to have been at fault, his impeccable 40-year career would end, added to which his forced retirement would probably be on a reduced pension.

At a final suspenseful hearing, Sully argued that in real life the pilots could not have known in advance what was going to happen and would have needed time to react and think through their options. Moreover, the time taken to arrive at a real-life decision would have been longer than that allowed for in the simulation. When the simulations were re-run, allowing an additional 35 seconds before turning the plane back towards LaGuardia or Teterboro, it emerged that neither of these airports was a real option. The video of the simulations showed the plane ploughing into fields, hedgerows and houses well short of a runway.

Through Sully’s story, we are brought back to many of the themes and ideas addressed in this book.

First, the complex interactions between the sequence of events – the fabula – and the plot, through which the fabula is decomposed and recomposed in ways that open up the many strategies of dramatism. Second, the way the landscape of action is played against the landscape of consciousness, and vice-versa, allowing for a whole range of transformations that unveil the inner world of intentions and dramatic alternatives. Thanks to them, and despite the fabula being widely known, we are still involved in making presuppositions and predictions, and envisaging different possible endings. We empathise both with Sully’s heavily felt responsibility and the dreadful fears of the passengers. Third, the art of lingering that opens detours and deviations, a process that does not obscure but enhances the resolution. In the movie, the relatively short real time of the events – the take-off, the incident, the landing, the miraculous rescue of the passengers and the efficiency of the rescuers – becomes dilated, fragmented and refracted in Sully’s self-doubts, fuelled by the investigation, and re-played in memories that blur reality and imagination. The descent of the plane, faltering and shuddering towards the river, each time shown from a different angle, returns as a punctuation of the protagonists’ emotions, as a revelation of the unmanageable emotional expansion of the events themselves.

Dramatism here – as in any story – is not a rhetorical device, nor an added psychological ‘special effect.’ Dramatism is what allows the reader to enter the story, to understand and to empathise, to focus attention and begin exploring, and sharing the creativity of the solution.

The story of Sully also tells us something else, namely, that human decisions require emotional adjustments, a process of evaluation that calls into question past experience and skills. Here, this adjustment, the decision not to turn the plane back to a nearby airport, took ‘only’ 35 seconds. But in these few seconds was compressed a lifelong experience of taking off and landing, an experiential lode that far surpassed – this is the story’s comforting ending – that of a computing mind.

What we see at work here is the double mind system that activates itself in decision-making. System 1 – the fast, automatic and heuristic one – that may be the only one that can save our life in conditions of serious danger that require an immediate response – and the slow, analytical System 2, which there was in fact no time to deploy.

It was through System 1 that Sully, in a few short seconds, was able to imagine a novel solution to a problem. Imagination guided him away from the default option – landing at a nearby airport – that, according to his pilot’s experience, he did not deem possible. Inventiveness, experience, intuition and trust seem to be the main ingredients of what in fact constitutes a stroke of genius. It would be interesting to reflect on how much of this way out of a disaster was indeed possible because rationality had insufficient time to interfere. Had Sully started logically reasoning through the available alternatives – by calculating distances, speeds and time, as the computer did in the simulation, he would have had no time to imagine the only feasible option that could save, and indeed did save, 155 passengers.

But Sully did not invent his solution from scratch. There was already a story concerning an aeroplane flying among the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the tragic one that we have known since September 11. This pre-existent story introduces in Sully’s mind a serious and further level of complexity because it constitutes an antecedent, and a particularly dramatic one. The planes that were deliberately crashed on September 11 are a traumatic memory for us all and in this form they reappear to Sully in nightmare fashion at the beginning of the movie.

Not only did the pilot in the movie create a novel possibility for the landing in a short time and in a situation of extreme emotional stress, but he also managed to do this notwithstanding the already-known and traumatic script that – we, as viewers imagine – could not but echo in his mind.

We find in the movie of this episode a significant example of the enormous power of the stories we build up, and in which we place ourselves, in order to make a choice. There is the power of counteracting expectations and opening novel scenarios, even when other mental resources, most of all rationality, are kept in check by the contingencies of the situation.


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1. For Shaun Hargreaves Heap 2016, for example, so-called behavioral anomalies are best understood as evidence that we are unsure of our preferences and that to some degree we are always engaging in creative decisions and experimentations.

2. In a set of experiments, Zukier and Pepitone1984 examined people’s choices in the process of making social inferences. Also in these experiments, and in accordance with neo-behavioral findings in economics, people do not follow simple probabilistic rules. Yet these experiments also show that such choices are not the result of a fallacy of reasoning, but of a strategy that takes into account the context of the action and embeds information in a connected story with internal coherence.

3. The generation of value plays a crucial role in Michael Hutter’s The Rise of the Joyful Economy (2015). In this new economy, for him, value is no longer generated from physical substances or from a gain in knowledge. Rather, it is drafted from clashes, or disturbances between structured sets of rules that are meaningful and valuable to the various players. This makes the experiential dimension of today’s economy of increasing importance, as it does the analysis of its joyful component.

4. Recently, for example, an interesting debate about the methodological status of mathematical economic models has led several authors to compare these models to stylized stories and hypothetical worlds. Though the story that is attached to their formal structure carries only a loose connection to reality, still, the argument goes, such formal structures can be instructive points of departure for drawing inferences about the world (Morgan 2007, Rubinstein 2012, Sugden 2013). We would add, however, that stories are the indispensable tool for sense- or meaning-making without which the same model could not be thought.

5. The two modes of explanation also, and constantly, intersect in economics. Since 1990, economist Deirdre McCloskey has distinguished two ways of understanding things, through stories and through metaphors, or models of rationality. These two modes perform different tasks but act in a complementary way and answer each other’s “whys.” Economists, she tells us, despite their claim to be the physicists of the social sciences, do their best work when they combine the two (McCloskey 1990: 9). See also Earl 2011.

6. There is a capability in stories of not telling everything, of opening gaps that must be filled and discovered. This brings us to Cambridge psychologist F.C. Bartlett’s experiments with the processes of thinking. For Bartlett (1958), thinking means to use information about something present to go somewhere else: a possibility of succession or of making a series of interconnected steps. If there are gaps and incomplete evidence, thinking is the process that provides the necessary filling. It does this by recurring to other sources of information that supplement evidence in accordance to that which is available. Thinking, for Bartlett, has always a character of direction (and this, he adds, is what makes thinking a process that can be made subject to empirical tests, ibid.: 74).

7. Carr also maintains that, contrary to some structuralist approaches, the narrative form (both historical and fictional) is not something imposed on a non-narrative reality. In fact, for him history and fiction can both be truthful and creative (1986: 131), since the structure of action is common to art and to life (ibid.: 121).

8. Economists Earl and Potts (2013) alert us also to an additional feature that storytelling can perform, namely keeping attention alive in the acquisition of knowledge. As Kelly (1955) showed, they say, decoding sensory information involves the creation of ordering and classificatory patterns. Yet human attention and processing abilities can be kept alive only if incoming sensory inputs continue to pose a challenge, otherwise they turn off (ibid.: 155).

9. Christopher Booker, for example, who has sifted through centuries of literature in all its variety and forms, identifies just seven basic plots that repeat themselves across quite different times and places (Booker 2004). Not only that, but, and not differently from Propp’s basic functions, these apparently universal plots conform to a narrative structure that follows recognizable patterns of obstacles and resolutions (Booker 2004: 65). These patterns can be made more complex and multiplied, subdivided or truncated, but they continue to punctuate and give rythm to the unfolding of the plot (see Bianchi 2014a).

10. For Brooks, the plot is the very logic and dynamic of a narrative and narrative itself is a form of understanding and explanation (1992: 10). This conception, for him, is compatible with Aristotle’s representation of the plot (mythos) as the combination of incidents and things done in the story. Plot and action (praxis) are prior to the other parts of the story, including characters. Aristotle derives three consequences from this view (ibid.: 11). The first is that the plot must be bounded and complete in itself. The second is that it must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Lastly, like a painting that has to be of a size that can be captured by the eye, the plot must be of such a length that it can be taken in by memory. This last is important to stress, says Brooks, because memory is the faculty that can set the evolving of the story in time (see also Brooks 2005).

11. The Australian psychologist Michael White has applied Bruner’s concept of dual landscape to therapeutic practice: narrative structures, for White, also have practical implications. Through practices such as re-authoring and remembering new meanings can emerge that provide richer alternative narratives of one’s real-life episodes (see White 2007).

12. But how did this pleasure for storytelling evolve? This problem is nicely framed by Gotschall as the riddle of fiction, which is part of a larger biological riddle, the riddle of art. Evolution, he notes, is ruthlessly utilitarian. How, then, has the seeming luxury of fiction not been eliminated from human life? (Gotschall 2012: 24). There have been several solutions posited (Bianchi 2014a). Some have argued that narrative strengthens human abilities such as empathy and other social skills, since it provides a model of people’s intentions and their interactions (Oatley 2012, Dunbar et al. 2010). Additionally, by allowing us to identify with characters in situations that we do not experience in everyday life they can promote personal change (Oatley 2011: 23). Others have stressed their role as cognitive aids: stories equip us with workable templates for problem solving (Pinker 2009), they create patterns and meanings that reduce disorder (Gazzaniga 2014, Bruner 1986, Gottschall 2012). Similarly, for Heath and Heath (2007), stories, acting to create a “curiosity gap,” become a sort of template for the growth of knowledge.

13. The concept of the unconscious has evolved significantly since Freud’s seminal contribution. See Stern (2003) and Eagle (2011) for updated discussions.

14. “The idea of the found-created object is that the maternal environment which presents the breast at the proper time and in a manner suited to the infant enables the latter to have the productive illusion of being able to ‘create,’ via hallucination, the breast that he or she actually ‘finds’ through perception… Maternal adequacy transforms that primitive hallucination into a positive illusion that supports the infant’s belief in her capacity to produce a satisfactory world.” Roussillon 2010: 280.

15. As attachment theorists explain (Bowlby 1969/1982, Main 1983, 1994), since childhood the security of attachment influences the development of mental representations – defined as “internal working models” – and these also portray affective relationships. Initially, they include simple conceptualisations and expectations of the infant about the behaviour of caregivers. As the years pass, they become the blueprint for the development of more sophisticated images and beliefs about the self and its way of being with others (Fonagy and Bateman 2008, Thompson 2009). Being based on making personal sense, creativity throughout the life span is strongly influenced by modalities of thought and models of ‘being with others’ that are learned in infancy and are embedded in representations.

16. For a more accurate description of the model and its implications, see Brocas and Carrillo (2014).

17. The pivotal role of narratives in financial markets has been addressed also by Akerlof and Schiller (2009) in their book Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism. In their words, “the human mind is built to think in terms of narratives, of sequences of events with an internal logic and dynamic that appear as a unified whole. Life could be just one damn thing after another if it weren’t for such stories. The same is true for confidence in a nation, a company, or an institution. Great leaders are first and foremost creators of stories.” As this short quote shows, the authors share the idea, already developed, as we have seen, in various fields of inquiry, that telling stories is a basic mechanism of the mind for structuring experience. In a more recent contribution on the role of narratives in economic decision-making, Akerlof and Snower (2016) suggest that narratives are the sources of mental-models, that is, they help focus attention and provide the cognitive schemes through which the environment can be interpreted.

18. In 2011, Tuckett published Minding the Markets: An Emotional Finance View of Financial Instability, in which the research described above is commented on more fully.

19. “A phantastic object is a mental representation of something (or someone) which in an imagined scene fulfills the protagonist’s deepest desires to have exactly what she wants exactly when she wants it. We might say that phantastic objects allow individuals to feel omnipotent like Aladdin” (Tuckett and Taffler 2008: 395).

20. Again here, our goal in considering the interaction between reality and fantasy in the genesis of stories is purely descriptive. We try to suggest that wishful thinking is one of the thinking modalities at our disposal and it could be helpful to explore its functioning further – both its potentialities and its distortions.

21. Unconscious fantasies, like dreams, respond to the pleasure principle and not to the reality one.

22. The document has been the object of strong criticisms. For a comprehensive review of its strengths and weaknesses, see Patalano (2016b).

About the Authors

Marina Bianchi is Professor of Economics at the University of Cassino. She has written on the theory of the firm and consumer theory, with a specific focus on the problems of change, learning, and the emergence of social rules. In recent years her main research interest has become the analysis of consumer choice, preference formation, and the role of novelty in consumption.

Marina's approach is interdisciplinary, drawing freely upon: microeconomics and game theory, economic history and the history of economic thought, evolutionary economics, psychology and social psychology, and literature.

In a number of articles and two edited books - The Active Consumer: Novelty and Surprise in Consumer Choice, 1998, and The Evolution of Consumption: theories and practices, 2007 - she has analyzed the characteristics of creative goods and the limits of the traditional economic framework in explaining choices concerning them.

More recently, her interests have focused on the role of curiosity and exploratory behavior in shaping aesthetic preferences.

Roberta Patalano is assistant professor at Università Parthenope (Naples, Italy). She works at the intersection between economics, psychoanalysis and philosophy and has published several articles and one book (La mente economica. Immagini e comportamenti di mercato, Laterza, 2005) on imagination and its functions in society. Her research interests include the role of mental representation in interpersonal exchange, the affective dimension of narratives and the process of change in individuals, groups and institutions.


Text copyright © 2017 Marina Bianchi and Roberta Patalano

Cover image: © 2017 Katya Zenina

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