Discussion Paper

No. 2014-23 | June 04, 2014
The Magic of Storytelling: How Curiosity and Aesthetic Preferences Work
(Published in Special Issue Economics, Psychology and Choice Theory)


Why do we love stories? That this is not an idle question is shown by the fact that we spend an enormous amount of time in our lives following stories: telling and listening to them; reading them; watching them on television or in films or on stage. Despite their recurrent similarity and even predictability, we continue to enjoy them. The paper brings to bear on this question two different strands of current literature in experimental psychology: the literature on aesthetic preferences, and the literature on curiosity and interest. The paper discusses how, in the case of storytelling in particular, though also of creative activities in general, there are two types of curiosity at work: explorative curiosity – associated with investigating new ideas for the simple joy of it and regardless of source – and specific curiosity, corresponding to focused exploration and aimed at solving problems for which the accuracy and relevance of information is of importance. In both cases curiosity is felt as an intensely pleasant experience, which is affected not only by external, but also by the internal stimuli of novelty and challenge. But how does interest/curiosity solidify into preferences that have stability enough to guarantee guidance yet sufficient flexibility to allow for change? The answer explored here highlights the distinction between comfort goods and activities and creative goods and activities. The latter, which allow for complexity, variety and multiplicity of dimensions have a transformative power that allows also for sustained stimulation and interest. The broader aim is to analyze the “behavior” of individual preferences in consumption activity, not only of art, the usual focus in discussion of aesthetic preferences, but also of all those goods and activities that can be called creative.

JEL Classification

D01 D11

Cite As

Marina Bianchi (2014). The Magic of Storytelling: How Curiosity and Aesthetic Preferences Work. Economics Discussion Papers, No 2014-23, Kiel Institute for the World Economy. http://www.economics-ejournal.org/economics/discussionpapers/2014-23


Comments and Questions

Anonymous - Invited Reader Comment
July 16, 2014 - 08:05

see attached file

Anonymous - Referee Report 1
July 24, 2014 - 10:41

See attached file

Anonymous - Referee Report 2
August 08, 2014 - 09:24

It is welcome to see a paper from the field of economics that tries to explore unusual issues and to deal with research from economic psychology. However, I feel there are a large number of gaps in this treatment of the subject of narratives.
My first issue with this paper ...[more]

... is that it seems to have a shortage of actual economic content. I do not say this purely because it is lacking mainstream formalism such as mathematical models. Even in its own discursive terms, there is a shortage of economic content. Very few references given are by economists.
Indeed, there are directly relevant works by economists which are not cited here. I am thinking specifically of the work of Thomas Schelling. In one of his works, he discusses the matter of people crying because Lassie the dog had died, in a film, as perplexing in the sense that an 'unreal' story had moved people. The notion of utility coming from commodities heavily imbued with fiction is relevant to the discussion here. Also there are a number of highly relevant papers by Jon Elster which are not discussed here. These are not about stories per se but they tackle the matter of the role of emotions and consider the problem that some sets of preferences which might seem quite interesting, in themselves, are irrelevant in terms of economic theory.
The latter is a criticism this paper needs to deal with. Why do we need to look at preferences which may play no role in determining outcomes.?Coming to the other key word in the title of the paper, Mossetto wrote a whole book attempting to apply economics (often simple supply and demand) to aesthetics.
I did not find his work a very successful attempt but it clearly covers ground which has an affinity with this work.

There is something of a 'straw man' caricature to the view of mainstream economics held here. Page 4 claims that the 'De gustibus non est disputandum' view is strongly held. It needs to be clarified by whom it is strongly held and in what way as there are currently many behaviouralist shifts in econmoics such as Neuroeconomics and 'Nudge Economics' which are never mentioned here. Even Becker (once he had been given a Nobel prize) gave some indications of a more relaxed positiuon.
The paper begins with the claim that it is based on recent work in experimental psychology. At various points we get summaries of this work but it is not used to challenge economics or to show a way in which it can be integrated into it. In addition to this, the experimental psychology discussed is often not all that recent and its contents are presented in a rather vague manner that may be helpful to readers unfamiliar with such literature.
Besdies such omissions, the paper is somewhat inconistent. It seems to flit from topic to topic. The first concern here is why storytelling? In general one gets the impression that this is taken to mean fictional printed literature. But this is not the whole corpus of storytelling. Stories are told in many other forms such as films, plays, television dramas, folk and songs etc. To be more precise this should really be about narrative, not storytelling, in the narrow sense used.
By the time we get to page 7, there is some attempt to explain what we might learn here that is new or useful. The idea that fear, violence, sex, or romance
contribute to utility in narrative form could be encapsulated in the long standing Lancaster goods characteristics framework. The main reference to work by economists which can take account of the position here is Scitovsky on p.14 but this is not really analytic. Rather it is just a continuation of the basic style of this paper which falls into the category of saying
(i) there are some interesting features of life overlooked by economists
(ii) here is a collection of things people in an other discipline say about them

Without a clear indication of where we end up from this process, the paper seems mainly rhetorical. It is not clear what contribution it is making to the analysis of behaviour.