Contemporary folklore reflects old psychology

This is a guest post from Joseph M. Stubbersfield. Read his article in ESIC 1.1: "Cognitive Evolution and the Transmission of Popular Narratives: A Literature Review and Application to Urban Legends"

when I was little, the neighbor kid (really mean boy) used to tell me that if I was standing in front of a mirror in the dark and spun around 3 times and said ‘Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary’ then a headless Bloody Mary would come thru the mirror and try to steal your head. He told me that he caught his sister doing that and dove and got her out of the way JUST in the nick of time.

This chilling story, a telling of the popular urban legend Bloody Mary, shows how contemporary folklore can exploit psychological dispositions. These psychological dispositions, which researchers call cognitive biases or cultural attractors, are often used to explain human belief in the supernatural or religious myths. However they can also explain the cultural success of more modern tales, such as urban legends and conspiracy theories. These cognitive biases may have evolved as a useful function in our evolutionary past. Just as our biological disposition for craving salt and fat make us susceptible to a hamburger and fries, cognitive biases disposing us to attending to information about our social environment (for example) might make us susceptible to content which ticks that cognitive box, like gossip magazines - or urban legends.

Emotions play an important role in memory and are also thought to be important in the passing on of beliefs. For urban legends, research has proposed an important role for disgust. The more disgusting an urban legend is, the more likely it is to be remembered and passed on. Stories involving deep-fried rats, pus-filled tumors in chicken burgers or accidental incest are more likely to be culturally successful than tamer, less disgusting, ones. Disgust might not be uniquely effective however; my own research found the level of emotion evoked to be the important element in the transmission of urban legends, rather than the type of emotion. Funny stories can be as successful as disgusting ones, and my analysis of urban legends collected online found funny stories to be more frequent than disgusting ones.

Some researchers have argued that human memory evolved to be ‘tuned’ towards remembering information about the locations of food sources and predators, suggesting a potential bias for survival information. Alternatively, human intelligence may have evolved to keep track of complex social relationships, suggesting a potential bias for social information. I tested these ideas using a ‘transmission chain’ experiment. Similar to the children’s game ‘Chinese Whispers’ or ‘Broken Telephone,’ this experiment involves participants receiving some material and reproducing it from memory. The product of their recall is then used as the material for the next participant, allowing for examination of the cumulative effect of transmission: which parts of the original story are preserved along the chain? Which parts are lost? And how does the story change? My experiment used urban legends, some with a focus on social information (e.g. a naked man being confronted by a surprise birthday party), some with a focus on survival information (e.g. a woman being killed by spiders who nested in her hair) and some which combined both (e.g. a woman being lured out of her apartment by a serial killer using a recording of a baby crying). I found that the urban legends containing social information were the most faithfully transmitted along the chain, significantly more so than those containing survival information. Combining both social and survival information had no effect, with those stories being as faithfully transmitted as those that just contained social information.

A key question in psychological approaches to religion and folklore is this: Why are supernatural concepts so culturally successful? Anthropologist Pascal Boyer proposed that humans have natural assumptions about how the world works and that concepts which breach these assumptions are counterintuitive. Importantly, a balance between a minority of counterintuitive and a majority of intuitive concepts is more memorable and more likely to be culturally successful. This is referred to as minimally counter-intuitive (MCI) bias. MCI elements are less common in urban legends than in traditional folklore (Bloody Mary being a notable exception) but are often reflected in conspiracy theories. This can be overt, such as the Lizard Elite theory, which suggests humankind is actually ruled by a cadre of shape-shifting alien lizards. More commonly MCI is less overt, being reflected in the powers attributed to the conspiring agents. Organizations such as the Illuminati or Deep State are portrayed as possessing organizational power and knowledge beyond what is seemingly possible. MCI powers once attributed to gods are now attributed to the conspiring agents thought to be behind world events who are portrayed as having nigh-supernatural levels of surveillance and control. This is well illustrated by the changing interpretation of the Eye of Providence, from a symbol of God’s omnipresence, to the watching eye of the Illuminati.

Another key cognitive bias that may lie behind people’s belief in conspiracy theories is Agency Detection Bias, the predisposition to perceive intentional agency where there is none. This predisposition is useful for survival, as it is better to jump at the wind rustling a bush than not to jump and get eaten by a bear when it’s not just the wind. This predisposition to perceive intentional agents being behind random events is one of the contributing factors to the origins of religious belief, and can also be seen in conspiracy theories. Tragic accidents are commonly attributed to the actions of conspiring agents. After Princess Diana was killed in a car accident, conspiracy theories quickly developed explaining that she was actually deliberately killed. This is particularly the case when explanations take time to be reached due to the need for gathering data, leading alternative explanations to fill the gap. While scientists were researching the Zika outbreak of 2015-16, conspiracy theories quickly provided answers: Bill Gates was behind the outbreak through genetically modified mosquitos, or the whole outbreak was a hoax. Psychologist Karen Douglas found a positive correlation between people’s tendency to attribute agency to inanimate objects and their belief in conspiracy beliefs, providing further evidence for a link between this bias and conspiracy theory belief.

Ultimately, we enjoy, tell and believe urban legends and conspiracy theories because they appeal to psychological biases. Urban legends telling emotive tales of survival or social interaction will be remembered and passed on, while our disposition towards perceiving powerful intentional agents as behind random events leaves us susceptible to explaining the world with conspiracy theories. The stories might be new compared to traditional tales and myths, but contemporary folklore provides something for our old psychological needs.

Joseph M. Stubbersfield is a research associate in the Anthropology Department of Durham University. He completed his PhD at Durham, investigating cognitive biases in the cultural evolution and transmission of urban legends, before working on a project examining the transmission of moral information in the School of Biology at St. Andrews University. He is currently working on a project examining the cultural transmission of health-related conspiracy theories.