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Narrative approach to Folk-psychology

Page history last edited by philosophyofsocialcognition 13 years, 5 months ago

Narrative approach to Folk-psychology




One of the pioneers in the narrative approach to understanding folk psychology is Jerome Bruner. According to Bruner, cultures create unique folk psychologies as systems for everyday making sense, and these folk psychologies are constructed and expressed through narrative.  Bruner’s paper, The Narrative Construction of Reality (1991), gives an overview of his ideas in this area and touches on many of the issues in narrative theory as relevant to psychology.



There is strong evidence for a connection between narrative skills and social intelligence. Attachment style, which is developed throughout the relationship of an infant and its primary caregiver (Bowlby, 1971), is carried later into life as a predictor for behaviour in relationships. Secure attachment style is associated with healthy personalities and strong relationships, and infants with secure attachment styles are rated as most desirable across cultures (Harwood & Miller 2001). The strongest predictor of a secure attachment style between an infant and their primary caregiver is the narrative coherence of the primary caregiver (Siegel & Hartzell 2003). Furthermore, people who read literature, thus demonstrating a value for narratives, enjoy qualitatively better social interactions (J. Vervaeke, PSY 371 “Higher Cognitive Processes” lecture, March 12, 2008).



Recently Daniel Hutto (2008) has put forth the Narrative Practice Hypothesis as a better formulation of our folk psychological abilities than either, the Theory-Theory of mind (TT) or the Simulation Theory (ST).  For Hutto, neither the first-person perspective of ST nor the third-person perspective of TT, properly reflects our ability to interpret the behaviour of others.  Instead, he suggests that our interpretation of others is based on second-person narratives.  These narratives are socio-cultural constructs that are passed from one generation to another through certain types of storytelling, which help children acquire narrative skills.



Taking shape in a number of forums, these ideas are gaining a good deal of attention.  In July 2007, for example, Hutto and Shaun Gallagher co-organized a 4-day international conference focusing on ‘Narrative Alternatives to Theories of Mind’.  Supported by a grant of roughly €29k from the European Science Foundation the conference attracted many important speakers in folk psychology. Despite Hutto’s construal of the narrative approach, there is no reason that a narrative approach to folk psychology need necessarily be at odds with the more standard approaches of TT or ST.  Our narratives may operate somewhat like a Theory of Mind, or may run of off simulations of others—or both.  



Daniel Siegal works with the notion of narrative as an integrative tool.  He explains that narratives consist of weaving together stories to explain the logical relationships of events in our lives.  This requires aspects of ‘left-brain’ reasoning such as sequential-ordering and language, while incorporating ‘right-brain’ artistic aspects to grasp the ‘big picture’ (Siegal 2007). This echoes back to Bruner’s formulation whereby narrative is “the mode of mental life in which we understand the actions of people…who pursue goals by means of plans that meet vicissitudes.” (Oatley 2002).  Narrative allows us to incorporate emotional reactions to obstacles with linear plot-lines in order to make-sense of the world, including the behaviour of others.

The exact role that narrative plays in folk psychology has yet to be determined.  What we know for sure is that narrative skills are linked to social intelligence in important ways, and that many researchers are currently engaged in projects to further explicate the narrative approach to folk psychology.





  • Bruner, J. (1991) The Narrative Construction of Reality. Critical Inquiry, 18:1, 1-21.
  • Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss. New York: Basic Books.
  • Harwood, R.L. & Miller, J. G. (1991). Perceptions of attachment behavior: A comparison of Anglo and Puerto Rican mothers.  Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 37, 583-589.
  • Hutto, D. (2008) Folk Psychological Narratives: The sociocultural basis of our understanding reasons.  Cambridge: MIT Press.
  •  Oatley, K. (2002). Emotions and the Story Worlds of Fiction. In Melanie Green, Jeffrey Strange and Timothy Brock (Eds.), Narrative Impact: Social and cognitive foundations. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Siegal, D.J. & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York: Penguin Putnam.
  • Siegal, D. (2007) The Mindful Brain.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company.




 - Padraigin Murphy, University of Toronto


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