Why We All Love A Good Tragedy


MAUREEN: Oo, I watched a marvellous film on telly today. It was so sad. I had a lovely cry.

Maureen feels a warm glow after enjoying her sad film. Why? Sadness, grief, tragedy are negative emotions, surely. They make us feel worse, not better. Oddly enough, though, my favourite stories are all tragedies. People the world over tell each other frightening tales, tales of torture, setback, failure, and death. People love a good villain. Even if a story has a happy ending, it is required that the heroes of it go through some bad times. A story involving nothing but niceness all the way through is a boring story. Perhaps our heroes do overcome their problems, but they must have a tough time doing so, and we must fear for them as they struggle against the odds.

There must be a reason that people feel good for feeling bad. I suggest that the reason is that Nature is rewarding us for rehearsing bad emotions.

Imagine a tale in which a mother loses her child in the woods, and the child, who was of course virtuous and adorable, dies. The story could be a very good one, and if it were well told, could move the listener, perhaps to tears. The listener might then thank the teller for such a good story, while wiping away tears of grief.

That listener has felt an emotion which he doesnít feel in everyday life. The listener has probably never lost a child himself. He, I suggest, is rehearsing grief. Evolution has favoured people who rehearse nasty emotions, because those who do so then take steps to avoid having to feel the real thing.

If I hear a sad story which makes me feel grief, then I have some experience of what grief might be like. I go on a journey of the imagination, and experience a glimpse of what it would be like to lose a loved child. I then am likely to go to some lengths to avoid ever having to feel the real emotion. I donít want to feel real grief, so I will look after the safety of my future children. If the story is about a child who drowns, I am less likely to leave my children unattended as they play next to the canal. We usually think of grief as an emotion which we feel after losing someone we love, and we can be at a loss to explain why the emotion of grief evolved. I am suggesting that grief serves its function mainly as a preventative. It is because we know that we would feel grief in possible circumstances that we take steps to avoid those circumstances. Unfortunately, grief does have to hurt in order to work, and we must be genuinely capable of suffering grief in the future, for it to do its good today.

For this to work, we must be very good at telling fact from fiction. It seems that we are. We are very good indeed at telling one from the other, and this ability starts from a very early age. We witness hundreds of violent deaths on television, but these seem to affect us hardly at all. If we see news images of real people really being killed, then these images are for us far more powerful. We always want to know if a story is true or not. It matters to us, even if the events were far away in another time. No news item of a childís death affects us anything like as much as the death of an actual child we knew.

HARRY: I don't want to see a play about violence, misery, and arguments. I get enough of that at home.

If we are experiencing some emotion a lot, then we will not get much of a reward for experiencing a fictional version of it. My theory predicts that people who live in dire circumstances will prefer stories about success, escape, and romance. A person living in squalor will do well to feel just a ghost of the joy which might come from living in luxury. By hearing tales of such things, they get motivated to escape their squalor. Those in pampered circumstances will benefit most from enjoying stories of despair and pain. Interestingly enough, in the 1930s, Hollywood made most of its money making light-hearted romances, with jokes, songs, and dancing. In more affluent periods, disaster movies have been all the rage. Yes, gangster movies were big in the 1930s, but then they were set in the present, and that made them relevant. Even then, the portrayal of gangsters was usually glamorised and often associated with romance, showgirls, and the like. If you want nasty realistic gangster movies, look to more recent works.

So, we feel a warm glow of pleasure whenever we are moved by fiction to feel some emotion which is inappropriate to the situation we are in. This happens to motivate us to appropriate behaviour in the future. As long as we know what is fiction and what is fact, the mechanism works. Today, most of us in the developed world live quite comfortably, and so we love a good tragedy. I imagine few people whose father-in-law killed their father, and then married their mother, would have Hamlet as their favourite story, but to be fair - that probably doesnít reduce the potential audience for that play by very much.


BACK TO EVOLUTION MENU

Article Written by Nikolas Lloyd