Schank, Roger C. & Abelson, Robert P. (1995) Knowledge and Memory:  The Real Story.  In: Robert S. Wyer, Jr (ed) Knowledge and Memory: The Real Story.  Hillsdale, NJ.  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.  1-85.

Knowledge and Memory:  The Real Story*

Roger C. Schank
Northwestern University

Robert P. Abelson
Yale University

In this essay, we argue that stories about one's experiences, and the experiences of others, are the fundamental constituents of human memory, knowledge, and social communication. This argument includes three propositions: 1) Virtually all human knowledge is based on stories constructed around past experiences; 2) New experiences are interpreted in terms of old stories; 3) The content of story memories depends on whether and how they are told to others, and these reconstituted memories form the basis of the individual's "remembered" self". Further, shared story memories within social groups define particular social selves, which may bolster or compete with individual remembered selves.

Our style of presentation is discursive and probably prone to overstatement, as we seek to emphasize the differences between our position and competing views in cognitive psychology and cognitive science. Where suggestive empirical research is available, we adduce it. However, we do not believe that a definitive body of empirical evidence is presently available on one side or another, and we have not attempted to fashion a fully data-based theory here.

In the first major section, we lay out the shape of our overall argument. In following sections, we discuss each of our premises in more detail.


For thousands, maybe millions of years, people have been telling stories to each other. They have told stories around the campfire, they have traveled from town to town telling stories to relate the news of the day, they have told stories transmitted by electronic means to passive audiences incapable of doing anything but listening (and watching). Whatever the means, and whatever the venue, story telling seems to play a major role in human interaction.

However, the role of story telling and story understanding is far more significant in human memory than simply being an example of one kind of human interaction. The reason that humans constantly relate stories to each other is that stories is all they have to relate. Or, to put this another way, when it comes to interaction in language, all of our knowledge is contained in stories and the mechanisms to construct them and retrieve them.

Philosophers, psychologists, artificial intelligence types, and occasionally even linguists concern themselves with discussions of "knowledge." We talk about what people know, attempt to formalize what they know, make rules about what can follow from what they know and so on. But, with the exception of one part of the AI community, the subject of how people use what they know rarely comes up. It is in this discussion of the use of knowledge that the idea of knowledge as stories becomes significant.

Simply put, humans engage in two broad classes of actions involving language that depend upon knowledge. They try to comprehend what is going on around them and refer to what they already know in order to make sense of new input. And, they attempt to tell things to others, again referring to what they already know in order to do so.

Knowledge is Functional

It is important to recognize that knowledge is functional; it is structured not to satisfy an elegant logic, but to facilitate daily use. However, when we say that all knowledge is encoded as stories (plus mechanisms to process them), we must deal in our analysis with bits of apparent knowledge that don't seem to be stories, such "Whales are mammals," "I was born in New York," or "Stanford is in California." This we do in Section II. In Sections V through VIII, we cover the facilitory types of knowledge necessary to process stories.

The idea that knowledge is inherently functional, that it exists to be used for some purpose, imposes a constraint on how we talk about knowledge in this essay. We do not talk about what people know, but about the processes they engage in that utilize what they know. To this end, we can ask what people do that utilizes knowledge. Here are some of these things:

people answer questions
people make plans and inform others of them
people comprehend what others are saying
people inform other people of events that have taken place
people give advice to other people

This is not intended to be a complete list of what people do in their mental lives, but it is intended to characterize a great deal of what people do mentally that involves the use of language. In each and every one of the situations listed above, the knowledge that people use to help them is encoded in the form of stories.

The stories behind "facts"

When we find ourselves saying that "I was born in New York" we could be doing so for any of the reasons for talking stated above. We could be answering a question. We could be prefacing some advice that we are about to give (perhaps about what to see in New York). Or this could be part of an explanation of some events that have occurred. Whatever and whenever such a phrase is used, it is, fairly obviously, an abbreviation of a much longer story.

Human memory is a collection of thousands of stories we remember through experience, stories we remember by having heard them, and stories we remember by having composed them. Any story in memory could have gotten there in one of these three ways. The key point is that, once these stories are there, they are relied upon for all that we can say and can understand. Obviously, one can't recall where one was born. One is told the story of one's birth, and when required, one can tell others. There are many ways to tell this story, including the very short version -- "I was born in New York" -- that sounds like a mere fact instead of a story..

Such very short versions are not the results of "table-look up in memory" -- that is, finding the birthplace slot and reading its value. This may work for computers but it makes no sense psychologically. Search in human memory is a search for stories. The linguistic expression of those stories can range widely. We can say as much or as little as we like of the story. When we know that a story is funny or weird, we might digress and tell the best part. In fact, when one of us (RCS) is asked about his birth by someone who seems willing to listen he can tell two stories, one about why he was born in Manhattan rather than Brooklyn where his parents lived and the other about his short lived middle name (Wilco) that came from having overzealous Air Force officers for parents.

There are several stories of one's birth, and many more stories that comprise one's life. These stories get strengthened in the telling. The memories become more real because we tell them. When we tell them in the abbreviated way, they are simply that, abbreviated stories. Such really small stories should not be confused with factual knowledge. We propose that there is no factual knowledge as such in memory.

What about "Stanford is in California?" Surely this a fact in memory? Actually, it may be more of a derived fact than a fact that exists as such in memory. One of us was a professor at Stanford for five years. Ask him about Stanford and he can think of hundreds of stories, any one of which one could use to derive the needed information. Just as there is no slot for birthplace in memory, neither is there a slot for Stanford filled in with various characteristics of the place. It is possible to have memorized stuff about the acreage of the campus for example, but such memorized knowledge is hardly the usual sort of knowledge that we rely upon daily. The issue is not whether we can memorize facts, but whether that process has much to do with normal memory functioning.

Deriving static factual knowledge from stories we have in memory is of course quite possible to do. But, the fact that we can do this should not confuse us. This is yet again a very abbreviated story. In fact, even the phrase "Stanford is in California" is a story for one of us. When he was at Stanford he took a course in Yiddish. The first sentence the students learned to say was "Stanford is in California" since, as it happens, that sentence sounds exactly the same in Yiddish as it does in English.

Even such banal facts as "whales are mammals" can be stories. We need to guard against thinking that what we are talking about here is the attempt to understand such a sentence. We will deal with understanding later. Here we are discussing where and in what form that knowledge might reside in memory. In any discussion of static knowledge, particularly amongst those who believe in semantic memory, the whale issue is significant. For instance, knowing that whales are mammals we can predict things about how they suckle their young. But, as it turns out, we have never needed to use such knowledge. Whale suckling has simply never come up in any conversation we can remember. What has come up are discussions of how to represent knowledge. In these discussions we have always maintained that, despite what biologists have to say to the contrary, whales are better treated as fish since an intelligent system would learn much more about them than this one non-fact. The problem here again is the formalist's view of knowledge that stands in contradistinction to the functionalist's view. Formalists make up names like "mammal" in an attempt to make rules about knowledge that will be predictive. This is nice for them but has little to do with what human memory is actually like. In human memory whales are fish if they have to be anything at all, which they probably don't. The real role for whales in memory is as a part of Jonah stories, or Sea World visit stories, from which we really derive what we know about whales. Everything else is just rote memorization that we did in school.

Applying Old Stories to New Situations

What we know that seems factual is actually derived from personal stories. Similarly, what we can say about things that we believe is usually adapted from personal stories as well. When we ask someone for their opinion on a subject, and they produce what seems to be a truly creative response, that is, a response that surely they have never uttered before, careful examination tells us that old stories in memory are the ingredients of the seeming novelty.

To explore this idea, we asked the students in a graduate seminar why Swale had died. Swale was a racehorse that had won many important races and one day was found dead (at the age of three). This was told to the students and then they were asked to explain what had happened. They came up with some very creative hypotheses, including murder plots, drug overdoses, stress problems, and so on. The more we pushed, the more creative they became; for example, the "Janis Joplin Memorial Reminding" which basically said that Swale was too rich too young and couldn't stand the success so he overdid it by living "life in the fast lane."

The point is that even such new responses, explanations of totally new events, are really just rewrites of existing stories in memory, adapted to fit new circumstances. All of there new responses were already available in memory, or to put this another way, the responder already knew an answer. His problem was selecting from the stories he knew.

People have opinions about a large range of topics which are derived from the stories that exist in memory. They know what they think, and more importantly, they have already thought up what they are likely to say long before they say it. The respondent's actual task here was to determine which of the many already known answers was relevant to the question at hand.

Understanding the world means explaining what has happened in it in a way that seems consonant with what you already believe. Thus, the task of an understander who has a memory that is filled with stories is to determine which of those stories is most relevant to the situation at hand. He then uses the old story as a means for interpreting the new story. Doing things in this way makes a seemingly unmanageable task much simpler. Understanding the world is phenomenally complex. Finding a story that is like the one you are now seeing is much easier. The fewer stories you have in memory, the easier it is. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But if you have many tools, you had better have a good system for knowing when to use them.


In the mid-seventies at Yale, in our work on designing programs that understood English, or natural language processing (Schank & Abelson, 1977), we applied the concept of a script. A script is a set of expectations about what will happen next in a well-understood situation. In a sense, many situations in life have the people who participate in them seemingly reading their roles in a kind of play. The waitress reads from the waitress parts in the restaurant script, and the customer reads the lines of the customer.

Scripts are useful for a variety of reasons. They make clear what is supposed to happen and what various acts on the part of others are supposed to indicate. They make mental processing easier, by allowing us to think less, in essence. You don't have to figure out every time you enter a restaurant how to convince someone to feed you. All you really have to know is the restaurant script and your part in that script.

Scripts are helpful in understanding the actions of others as long as we know the script they are following. Scripts also enable computers to understand stories about stereotypical situations. When a paragraph is about a restaurant, we can realize with very little effort that we need not wonder why the waitress agreed to bring what was asked for, and we can assume that what was ordered was what was eaten. To put this another way, not everything in the world is worthy of equal amounts of thought, and restaurant stories are readily understandable by a computer armed with a good enough restaurant script. In fact, not too much thinking has to be done by a computer or a person if the right script is available. One just has to play one's part, and events usually transpire the way they are supposed to. You don't have to infer the intentions of a waitress if her intentions are already well known. Why concentrate one's mental time on the obvious?

Taken as a strong hypothesis about the nature of human thought, scripts obviate the need to think; no matter what the situation, people may do no more in thinking than to apply a script. This hypothesis holds that everything is a script, and very little thought is spontaneous. Given a situation, there are rules to follow, the way things are supposed to be. We can follow those rules and not think at all. This works for all of us, some of the time. People have thousands of highly personal scripts used on a daily basis that others do not share. Every mundane aspect of life that requires little or no thought, such as sitting in your chair or pouring your daily orange juice, can be assumed to be a script. In fact, much of our early education revolves around learning the scripts that others expect us to follow. But, this can all be carried a bit too far. Situations that one person sees as following a script may seem quite open-ended to another person. The more scripts you know, the more situations in which you feel comfortable and capable of playing your role effectively. But, the more scripts you know, the more situations you will fail to wonder about, be confused by, and have to figure out on your own. Script-based understanding is a double-edged sword.

Scripts are also a kind of memory structure. They serve to tell us how to act without our being aware that we are using them. They serve to store knowledge that we have about certain situations. They serve as a kind of storehouse of old experiences of a certain type in terms of which new experiences of the same type are encoded. When something new happens to us in a restaurant that tells us more about restaurants, we must have someplace to put that new information, so that we will be wiser next time. Scripts therefore change over time and embody what we have learned. For this reason, my restaurant script won't be exactly like yours, but they will both include information such as one can expect forks to be available without asking unless the restaurant is Japanese. Thinking in most contexts means finding the right script to use, rather than generating new ideas and questions; so, essentially, we find it easier to apply scripts than to reason out every new situation from scratch. But scripts aren't the complete answer. Obviously, we can understand some novel experiences even if no script seems to apply. We do this by seeing new experiences in terms of old experiences.

Beyond scripts: Indexed stories

When a prior experience is indexed cleverly, we can call it to mind to help us understand a current situation. This process can lead to brand-new insights. All people reason from experience. The differences among reasoners depend upon how they have coded their prior experiences in the first place. We are not all reminded of the same things at the same time.

If a prior experience is understood only in terms of the generalization or principle behind the case, we don't have as many places to put the new case in memory. We can tell people abstract rules of thumb which we have derived from prior experiences, but it is very difficult for them to learn from them. It is hard to remember abstractions unanchored in specific experiences, but it is relatively easy to remember a good story. Stories give life to past experience. Stories make the events in memory memorable, to others and to ourselves. This is one of the reasons why people like to tell them.

We are more persuasive when we tell stories. For example, we can simply state our beliefs, or we can tell stories that illustrate them. If John explains to Bill that he is in a quandary about whether to marry Mary or Jane, and if after listening to John's description, Bill responds Mary, his reply would usually be seen as useless advice. We need justifications for the beliefs of others in order to begin to believe them ourselves. If Bill responds, Mary because Mary is Irish, and Irish girls make good wives, he is being more helpful but not necessarily more believable. But, if Bill responds with a story about a similar situation that he was in, or that he heard about, and how the choice was made in that case, and how it worked out, John is likely to be quite interested and to take the advice offered by the story more to heart. Why?

Thinking involves indexing. In order to assimilate a case, we must attach it someplace in memory. Inaccessible information is not information at all. Memory, in order to be effective, must contain both specific experiences (memories) and labels (indexes) used to trace memories of experiences. The more information we are provided with about a situation, the more places we can attach it to in memory and the more ways it can be compared to other cases in memory. Thus, a story is useful because it comes with many indexes. These indexes may be locations, attitudes, beliefs, quandaries, decisions, conclusions, or whatever. The more indexes we have for a story that is being told, the more places it can reside in memory. Consequently, we are more likely to remember a story and to relate it to experiences already in memory. In other words, the more indexes, the greater the number of comparisons to prior experiences and hence the greater the learning.

Telling Old Stories

The "grandfather model"

With this in mind, let's consider what we might call the grandfather model of memory. The "grandfather" is one who seems to tell the same story over and over again. Everyone has heard his favorite stories many times, but they indulge him in hearing them once again. Every now and then, a new story appears, or at least one that no one is sure he remembers hearing before. When this happens, even the grandfather is surprised, and he enjoys telling the story more than usual. In some sense, the grandfather model is really just a crystallization of something we all do.

The logician model

The grandfather model of memory is in opposition to the more common logician model. This model is all too common in scholarly attempts to understand the nature of knowledge. For centuries people have been composing lists of what we know and rules for deriving logical inferences as if such models had something to do with normal memory processes. People are not really logical at all. The idea of logical people is parodied in the popular mind by the Mr. Spock character in Star Trek for example, and, in general, is an image associated with scientists. The idea behind the logician model of intelligence is that every problem can be reduced to first principles and decided on the basis of some logic. Knowledge, in this view, is about rules of inference, principles, not stories. In popular fiction, such logical characters often fail to have some emotional quality that makes them human in the audience's eyes. In fact, any live logician model would have two more serious problems in real life. The first is an understanding problem, and the second a discovery problem.

The understanding problem is simply that humans are not really set up to hear logic. People tell stories because they know that others like to hear stories. The reason that people like to hear stories, however, is not transparent to them. People need a context to help them relate what they have heard to what they already know. We understand events in terms of other events we have already understood. When a decision-making heuristic, or rule of thumb, is presented to us without a context, we cannot decide the validity of the rule we have heard, nor do we know where to store this rule in our memories. Thus, what we are presented is both difficult to evaluate and difficult to remember, making it virtually useless. People who fail to couch what they have to say in memorable stories will have their rules fall on deaf ears despite their best intentions and despite the best intentions of their listeners. A good teacher is not one who explains things correctly but one who couches his explanations in a memorable (i.e., an interesting) format.

Story telling and understanding

In the end all we have are stories and methods of finding and using those stories. Knowledge, then, is experiences and stories, and intelligence is the apt use of experience, and the creation and telling of stories. Memory is memory for stories, and the major processes of memory are the creation, storage, and retrieval of stories. To build models of intelligence, or simply to understand the nature of intelligence, we must understand the role that stories play in memory. We must know how events become stories and how these stories are stored and later retrieved. We must know the indexes we construct that label stories, and we must determine how and why such indexes are created. A good theory of mind must include theories about how the stories of others are decoded to find indexes to enable retrieval and storage as well as to determine how and why our own stories appear in our minds in response. It must also contain a model of how and why we create new stories and of what happens to experiences that do not get encoded as stories. What we know is embodied in what we tell, and as we shall see, what we tell strongly determines what we know. We know what we tell and we tell what we know.

The process by which this all works is the reminding process. Each story we hear reminds us of one that we know and, in a conversational situation we tell that story if it seems appropriate to the audience, adapting it as we go to make it more relevant.

In this way, it is clear that storytelling and understanding are functionally the same thing. Conversation is no more than responsive storytelling. The process of reminding is what controls understanding and, therefore, conversation. Thus, seen this way, conversations are really a series of remindings of already-processed stories. The mind can be seen as a collection of stories, collections of experiences one has already had. A conversationalist is looking to tell one of his stories. He is looking to tell a good one, a right one, but to do this he must be reminded of one of the ones that he knows.

Generating relevant stories

It is almost as if we never say anything new; we just find what we have already said and say it again. But, we don't do this freely or randomly. There is a method to this system. We are always looking for closest possible matches. We are looking to say, in effect, well, something like that happened to me, too or, I had an idea about something like that myself. In order to do this, we must adopt a point of view that allows for us to see a situation or experience as an instance of "something like that." In other words, we must evaluate experiences with an intention of matching them to what we already have experienced.

The story-based conception of generation presupposes that everything you might ever want to say has already been thought up. This is not as strange an idea as it seems. We are not suggesting that every sentence one will ever say is sitting in memory word for word. Rather, an adult has views of the world that are expressed by ideas he already has thought up and has probably expressed many times. When asked for your view of Reagan, for example, you don't usually consider the problem for the first time. What you say, however, may not be something you have ever said before. Nevertheless, what you say will have a certain familiarity to it and will be something that you have thought before and possibly expressed in other words. Your views evolve, so what you say one time will not be identical to what you say the next time. But, the relation between the two will be strong and will occur to you as you begin to construct your new thoughts. New ideas depend upon old ones.

So the main issue in generation is really the accessing of whatever you already think about something and the expression of those thoughts. When we tell a story, we are doing the same thing. We are accessing the gist of that story and then re-expressing that gist in English. The words we use are not identical each time, but the ideas behind them are more or less the same. We take the gist of a story as it exists in memory and then transform that gist into an English expression, one that perhaps leaves out one point or embellishes another. The words we choose may depend upon the audience. The ideas expressed may depend upon our re-interpretation of past events in light of events that have occurred since the story that is being told took place.

We get reminded of what has happened to us previously for a very good reason. Reminding is the mind's method of coordinating past events with current events to enable generalization and prediction. Intelligence depends upon the ability to translate descriptions of new events into indexes that help in the retrieval of prior events. One can't be said to know something if one can't find it in memory when it is needed. Finding a relevant past experience that will help make sense of a new experience is at the core of intelligent behavior.


In our introduction, we stated a very strong position on stories as knowledge, claiming that all of what people know is in the form of stories, and structures that expedite the storage and telling of stories. There are, of course, other positions. For Tulving (1993), there are five kinds of stored memories, of which the two most prominent are episodic memory and semantic memory. In these terms, we are saying that there is no distinct entity called semantic memory. This stance grows out of a point of view in artificial intelligence, where it has proven more fruitful to simulate episodic memory processes (Schank, 1982). Old episodes are applied to such tasks as explanation, planning, learning, and summary description. If there is any semantic content in the propositional knowledge base for these tasks, it comes in the form of generic episodes growing out of clusters of similar events.

A Variety of Theoretical Positions

The "kinds of memory" issue is provocative, and both cognitive psychologists and computer scientists debate it hotly. It would be nice if the empirical evidence were clear on this issue, but it is not. Even striking case studies of brain injured amnesiacs can be differently interpreted for their implications about episodic and semantic memory. On the one hand, amnesia can occur in chronological chunks, e.g., good memory for everything before a given date, but no memory of any experiences after that date. (See e.g., Sacks (1985), ch. 2.) This phenomenon is consistent with an episodic memory position, although not definitive. Tulving (1993), for example, asserts that amnesiacs suffer from loss of semantic memory.

Our very strong position on the episodic side of this debate will raise some hackles. In this section we discuss a somewhat milder position that will still maintain the central role of stories. (The one thing we won't do is to opt for the theory that all knowledge is propositional, leaving episodes out entirely.)


It is common in considering two theories, one stronger than the other, to refer to them as "the weak theory" and "the strong theory" (e.g., Searle, 1980). We prefer to follow the scheme used in grading the sizes of olives, thus contrasting "strong theory" and "very strong theory". In this section, we will attempt to outline a position that is (merely) strong We will do this by considering proposed types of knowledge that on the face of it seem unrelated to stories.

One category of knowledge often offered in contrast to the episodic type is knowledge of facts. We discussed this briefly in Section I, where we took the stance that facts either: 1) are learned by rote, and never used again (except to recite by rote, perhaps to impress the listener with one's mastery of the subject); 2) or function as indexes to stories, for example, about one's birth in New York or life in California.

This position may seem somewhat cavalier, but we think it holds true for isolated facts in social situations where people are genuinely communicating with one another. If we consider bundles of facts, such as knowledge of the street map of a particular town, and we ask what such bundles are used for, we run into episodic considerations again. If you stop on the intersection of Main and Lakeside Street, and ask a passerby how to get to the Fourteen Carrots health food store, she will probably recite for you a little script for getting there -- continue west on Main Street, bear left at the Y-junction, and in three-tenths of a mile you'll see a shopping center on your left, and then...

Such a response can -- arguably -- be interpreted as a narration of experience rather than as a manipulation of propositions about the local geography. The argument here essentially reflects a clash of views about expertise and "expert systems (Feigenbaum, et al. 1971). Should experts be modeled as users of "case-based" reasoning on stores of relevant examples (Kolodner, 1991), or as symbol processors employing "rule-based" reasoning? We are squarely in the first camp.

A more indirect challenge to a strong or very strong position on knowledge as stories arises in the case of beliefs. What, if any, relation could there be between beliefs and stories?


We will not attempt a systematic categorization of types of belief, but we will consider two major varieties, belief in the existence of some entity or phenomenon, and ideological beliefs. Together, these should give us a good feeling for the issues involved. (There are some distinctions between belief and knowledge (Abelson, 1979), but these are not especially relevant in the present context.)

Existence beliefs

Popular existence beliefs include belief in God, in the reality of UFOs, in the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, and so on. In each case, the core belief is that something that seems fantastic is really there, is really true. Let us take a fourth example, belief in the existence of extra-sensory perception (ESP).

Some years ago, one of us (RPA) understood an exploratory interview study of the nature of belief in ESP, soliciting volunteers with strong belief in the existence of psychic phenomena. A point of major interest was whether the respondents, when asked, "Why do you believe in ESP?", would respond by reference to some source of data, or the feats of a purported psychic, or, rather, would they report a convincing personal experience.

External "facts" never turned up. One after another, subjects told stories. One woman reported that at noon one day, after a fight in the morning with her husband, a construction worker, she suddenly had a feeling of foreboding that her husband had suffered a terrible accident. Sure enough, at 11:59, a heavy crane had toppled on him and killed him.

An aspiring artist gave an account of an experience that led him to realize that he was clairvoyant, he said. He was on the fifth floor of a well-insulated building when he felt himself suffused in the sound and mood of a particular Mozart quartet. On going downstairs to leave the building, he discovered that someone on the ground floor was playing a record of this very quartet. He attributed this experience to his artistic sensitivity, one aspect of which was the ability to perceive the world in ways going beyond the ordinary five senses.

A third respondent, a man with a six-month old son, claimed that a few weeks before, he noticed when he came into the living room that his son was sitting facing three-quarters the other way. He tried sending a telepathic message to the baby to turn his head and look at him, and it worked! He said that since this incident, he had tried repeating his telepathic commands, and though he wasn't always successful, he felt that his technique was improving.

And so it went, one personal experience after another. these people insisted that ESP was possible, because they had witnessed it first-hand. Now, a skeptic could fairly readily debunk these reports; for instance, the construction worker was at a site two short blocks from his wife's office, and it is entirely possible she heard a crash. Furthermore, her ready admission that they had been fighting suggested that she might often have wished him harm--perhaps repeatedly having (gleeful?) forebodings. We might also regard these respondents as naive or neurotic, or whatever. But such skeptical comments are not to the point. The important observation is that we found ordinary people readily giving autobiographical experiences, not abstractions, as support for their belief in ESP. In fact, we can find very well-educated individuals giving comparable testimonials. Irvin Child, a respected scholar who supports empirical study of ESP (Child, 1973), writes that his view of the possibility of psychic influences was radically altered by an experience reported by his uncle, who accurately predicted a tragedy 30 miles away.

We suspect that several other existence beliefs--those whose truth is known to be subject to intense debate--are also apt to form indexes to stories. A popular sort of competition among UFO buffs consists in who can tell the most exciting story without violating present lore on the proclivities of space aliens. (You can't say that you were taken to Alpha Centauri, for example.)

A belief that commands high cultural consensus, on the other hand, such as belief in God, seems less likely to index striking personal experiences. In our acquaintance, when believers are asked by they believe in God, they tend to say that there must be a God, or that everyone in their family believes in one and they never questioned it, or give other propositional responses. The conclusion for our strong story-based position, therefore, is that in general, existence beliefs are closely bound to stories, but that there may be exceptions.

Ideological beliefs

Ideologies, whether political or religious, have morality plays at their core (Roseman, 1993). There are good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys, using illegitimate methods, are trying to bring about an evil state of affairs. This can only be averted if the good guys mobilize their forces, recruit people from the sidelines (who are in danger of being seduced by the bad guys), and press forward to glorious victory. Such a scheme was found in interviews by Roseman to characterize both anti-nuclear activists and anti-Communist hawks--with different content, or course. Abelson (1973), in a conceptual and computer simulation of the Cold War ideology of Senator Barry Goldwater, outlined a master story (or "Master Script"), which made possible a large number of coherent (if unsophisticated) hawkish responses to foreign policy questions.

The perspective on ideological systems is consistent with a storytelling model of belief. In effect, when an ideologist is challenged, he will tell you a story--the plot of the morality play or master story. The supportive "facts" given will tend to be stories, too, episodes illustrating the venality of the opponent or the effectiveness of mobilization of the virtuous.

Which comes first: the belief or the story?

It might be argued that the beliefs could stem from other sources, or hidden motivations, and that the personal or political stories are merely justifications for beliefs otherwise formed. A strong case can be made that people have no access to the real reasons for their behavior (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977), and research on cognitive dissonance theory indicates the facility with which subjects rationalize foolish or insensitive words or acts (see, e.g., Aronson, 1969). Politicians are even more facile at justifying almost anything (as we will see in Section VII). Which, then, comes first: the belief or the story?

With respect to the point of view we urge in this essay, it makes no difference whether the story is cause or consequence of the belief. They end of packaged together, so that the belief indexes the story, and the story supports the belief. Mention ESP to the wife of the construction worker, and she will tell the story of her husband's death; ask her instead what the foreboding about someone death might signify, and she will report her belief that it very well could be the omen of an actual tragedy. Ask the model, or the real Barry Goldwater, to defend his foreign policy beliefs, and he will tell you a story of the struggle between good and evil. Tell him a story of communist malfeasance, and he will immediately point out the confirmation of his beliefs. (Tell him a story of benign Communist behavior, and he won't believe it.)

We pursue the role of beliefs in indexing stories further in Section III.

Lexical Items


How does knowledge of the meanings of words figure in our position? The lexicon seems to be preeminently of a semantic rather than episodic nature, and this would compromise the very strong position that "all knowledge is stories."

There are a fair number of cases in which individual words, while not themselves stories, do serve to index stories. In Section VII, we discuss "betrayal" as an index favor a generic story skeleton, to which a number of particular stories attach. And many names of individuals and places evoke stories: the Alamo, Paul Revere, and Henry VIII, to name three examples. Yet such example-giving merely forestalls the inevitable conclusion that the lexicon is really essentially semantic. To claim that every word is a story would lead to the unsupportable position that interpretation of the meaning of phrases and sentences is achieved through a process of combining stories. (A whole sentence might index a story itself, but it wouldn't be made up of mini-stories.)

Posing such challenges to the very strong version of our position, however, is like the political game of "Gotcha!" It misses what we consider to be the important issues by switching the level of analysis. Our concern is with meaningful social communication, and such communication does not ordinarily consist of single words. To see the significance of this observation, suppose that conversational turns were restricted to a single word at a time. Then these utterances, we claim, would become a vocabulary of story indexes. Picture a group of rumpled academics, sipping port in the common room. The collage has just passed a regulation that no member may say more than one word at a time. What sort of conversation can they have?

One scenario might go like this: "Revolution!" says the first speaker, trying to stir up something. A second says, "French", suggesting a stock example. "Cahiers", chimes in a third, who likes to put on airs. (He is referring to the bills of complaint sent in by groups of ordinary citizens during the French Revolution.) "Ineffective, " opines a fourth. And so on. Each word indexes a story, or extends a previous story.

Or imagine a word-at-a-time exchange touching on daily concerns. "Grading," says the first professor. "Staircase?!", suggests the second. The third shakes his head. "Dean," he warns. Again, each word is a story. Our basic point is that whatever the size of basic conversational chunks, each chunk will usually be story-relevant. Linguistic units smaller than a chunk shift the focus to a lower level of analysis.


Numerical elements, like words, don't seem to be story-related. For convenience, let us focus on whole numbers. The situation here is similar to that with words. We certainly would not deny that people have arithmetic knowledge that has little to do with stories.

We can't resist, however, pointing out that particular numbers can index stories. As Bill James, the baseball statistician says, " those baseball numbers, even though they might hate math: They love the stories the numbers tell...the great rookie year followed by years of unfulfilled potential...a trade...the slow decline of the aging player..." (James, Albert, & Stern, 1993).

Later in this essay, we refer to the classic story of the prisoners who refer to jokes by number, thus allowing jokes to be efficiently retold simply by calling out numbers. One of us haphazardly chose to illustrate the prisoners' joke-telling with the number 42, which reminded the other of a story given in Adam's (19 80) zany book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It seems that a committee of scientists had programmed the most powerful computer in the universe to solve the riddle of the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. the computer whirred and crunched, and worked on this conundrum for several million years. Finally, with a breathless crowd waiting for the answer, the computer printed out, "Forty-two."

The astonishing number theorist, Srinivasa Ramanujan, was the protagonist of several number stories. One of these tells of the occasion when a colleague visited him and remarked that he had come in a taxi with the dull identification number 1729. Ramanujan instantly replied that on the contrary, 1729 was a very interesting number, being the smallest integer that equals the sum of the cubes of two integers in two different ways. (See Humez, Humez, and Maguire (1993) for this anecdote and many other tales revolving around numbers.)

As was the case with words, we concede the reality of a type of knowledge that--except for a few entertaining examples--is basically different from story knowledge. But again, numbers and numerical operations, if engaged in by people at all, do not ordinarily enter into social interaction.

Rule Systems

Another type of knowledge category that does not seem to involve stories might be called "rule systems". by this we mean a symbolic domain with a set of constraints on permissible transformations of state. The influential work of Newell and Simon (1972) promoted the concept of mind as an information processor analogous to a computer. This analogy focused attention on the particular class of mental activities involving rule systems, such as theorem proving, puzzle solving, and chess playing.

The limitation of all this is that very few people spend time trying to prove theorems (Fermat's Last notwithstanding), and when they do, they don't ordinarily talk about it. The same holds essentially true (with less force) for problem solving and chess playing. And when people do talk about these things, they tend to become more story-like.


A better candidate for a symbolic domain, universally practiced, in which remembered experiences play little or no role is grammar. Most people learn grammatical rules without awareness of that learning, and are typically unable to articulate what those rules are. Why does one say, "I can hardly wait", but not "I can wait hardly"? Is it because adverbs go before verbs? No, "I can walk slowly" is all right. There must be a perfectly simple answer, but we confess we don't know what it is. Nor, like most people, do we particularly care (except out of idle curiosity). For purposes of dealing with spoken or written language, we can place reliance on subconsciously developed intuitions about what is grammatically correct, and what is not.

Perhaps the best way to characterize our position on memory is that virtually all its interesting features arise within the context of stories. Stories based on personal episodes have both cognitive and social advantages. Variously experienced by different individuals or groups, they are eagerly shared in conversations and mass communications with other individuals and groups. They span historical time and social space, spreading object lessons and encouraging social solidarity.

Stories are very flexible; they can be copiously indexed to help interpret a variety of new circumstances. They can be jointly constructed by two or more individuals. They are the stuff of conversation. By contrast, we are hard pressed to imagine useful conversations about theorems or grammar or whether a flounder has gills.

Linguists who admire the elegant formal properties of language will disagree (perhaps violently) with our judgment. They might argue, for one thing, that without knowledge of grammar, communication could not occur, and that therefore, grammar is the most important knowledge we have. Our counter argument would be that first of all, communication is certainly possible with a minimum of grammar. Make ideas nevertheless scramble him words. Second, grammar is only a vessel for conveying messages, not to be confused with the messages themselves. When someone gives a great speech, we do not praise the microphone and the amplifier (nor the speaker's grammar). Third, grammar has very little social function, other than the unfortunate use of the quality of grammatical construction to guess the social class background of the speaker.

If the reader feels that our view of the very dominant role of autobiographical experience in the totality of people's knowledge is overstated, please wait and see where this position leads us.


People are only able to comprehend a small part of what is being said to them. Most of what we attempt to understand contains many aspects, including ideas, people, events, opinions, and so on. It all comes by at a very rapid rate, and our minds can only do so much with this barrage of information. We get reminded by everything, names, places, words, beliefs, situations. All these remindings proceed in parallel until we can stand no more, until we can listen no more. Once we find an interpretation, we have made our choice. We cannot think about all the possible ramifications of something we are being told. We pay attention to what interests us. We settle on a story we have been reminded of, and in effect, we hear no more.

We select the mental paths to take on the basis of what interests us. We express our interests by focusing on certain indexes, those that we can say we have been looking for, ignoring the potential indexes we are not prepared to deal with. Since we can only understand things that relate to our own experiences, it is actually very difficult to hear things that people say to us that are not interpretable through those experiences. In other words, we attend to what we are capable of understanding. When what we are attempting to comprehend relates to what we know, what we care about, or what we were prepared to hear, we can understand quite easily what someone is saying to us. If we have heard the same story or a similar story before, we can also understand more easily what we are being told.

Old Stories

Understanding, for a listener, means mapping the speaker's stories onto the listener's stories. One of the most interesting aspects of the way stories are used in memory is the effect they have on understanding. Different people understand the same story differently precisely because the stories they already know are different. Understanders attempt to construe new stories they hear as old stories they have heard before. They do this because it is actually quite difficult to absorb new information. New ideas ramify through our memories, causing us to have to revise beliefs, make new generalizations, and perform other effortful cognitive operations. We prefer to avoid all this work. One way to do this is to simply assume that what we are seeing or hearing about is just the same old stuff. The real problem in understanding then, is identifying which of all the stories you already know is the one that is being told to you yet again.

The number of old stories

In the shallowest form of understanding, a hearer has only one story he wants to tell. No matter what you say to him, he tells you this story --like the grandfather in an earlier section. He understands what you say as something that reminds him of the story he wanted to tell in the first place. Thus, his understanding algorithm need have no more in it than a detector for when you have stopped talking, and perhaps he doesn't even need that. One typical case of this kind of understanding involves people who we might label as crazy or senile, people who just rattle on without regard to the world around them.

A less shallow form of understanding takes place when a listener with many stories to tell pays enough attention to what you have said so he can relate the story in his repertoire that is most closely connected to what he has heard. In a sense, this still seemingly shallow understanding may be all we can really expect most of the time. This view may seem rather radical. After all, we do see and hear new things every day. To say that we never have to understand any brand new story may be overstating the case. But often, we understand new stories mistakenly.

Specifically, we don't understand them as new stories. They may be new enough, but we nevertheless persist in seeing them as old stories. To understand what we mean here, consider the possibility of this hypothesis in its strongest form. Let us assume an understander who knows three stories. No matter what story you tell him, he will tell one of his three stories back. If understanding means matching the story we are hearing to the stories we have already heard, the strong form of our hypothesis states that an understander must decide which of the three stories he knows is most applicable. When he has found some way to relate the new story to an old one he knows, we can claim he has understood the new story as well as could be hoped for.

Looked at this way, the strong hypothesis appears somewhat silly. Why should we label as understanding a process that merely differentiates among three stories? In some sense, we shouldn't. But, let's consider the same situation if the understander knows 10,000 stories. When he selects one as a response to the new one he has heard, he will most likely seem more profound than the understander who has only three stories. If he has used sound principles for selecting a story to tell from his data base of 10,000, we are unlikely to dispute his having understood the original story. But, the process of understanding in both cases is identical; only our subjective judgment allows us to decide that one understander seems to have "really" understood. We cannot look inside people's heads to see what the difference in their understanding of a new story is; therefore, from an objective evaluation of the output alone, we still can only measure understanding by how effectively and reasonably we think the responsive story relates to the input story.

The selection of old stories

Our argument here is that what someone is doing when he understands is to figure out what story to tell. Thus, the understanding process involves extracting elements from the input story that are precisely those elements used to label old stories in memory. In other words, understanding is really the process of index-extraction. This is an idiosyncratic process that depends upon what stories you have stored away and what indexes you have used to label those stories. In some sense, then, no two people can really understand a story in the same way. You can't understand a story that you haven't previously understood because understanding means finding (and telling) a story you have previously understood. Finding some familiar element causes us to activate the story that is labeled by that familiar element. In this way, we find things to say to those who talk to us. These things differ considerably from person to person, thus accounting for the very different ways in which two people can understand the same story.

People have powerful models of the world. Through these models, which are based on the accumulated set of experiences a person has had, new experiences are interpreted. When new perceptions fit nicely into the framework of expectations that have been derived from experience, an understander believes himself to have understood the experience. Understanding something is, after all, a relative issue. We only understand part of what could have gone on in a situation that is being described to us, for example. But, we can act as if we have understood when we can derive information from the description that we know how to place properly in our memory store. In other words, understanding, rightly or wrongly, usually means being able to add information to memory.

Anomalies in Stories

But we dislike failing to understand. When what we have been asked to understand is anomalous in some way, failing to correspond to what we expect, we must reevaluate what is going on. We must attempt to explain why we were wrong in our expectations. A failure to have things turn out as expected indicates a failure in understanding. People desire very much to remedy such failures. We ask ourselves questions about what was going on. The answer to these questions often results in a story.

People are constantly questioning themselves and each other in a quest to find out why someone has done what he has done and what the consequences of that action are likely to be. Thus, in order to find out how we learn, we must find out how we know that we need to learn. In other words, we need to know how we discover anomalies. How do we know that something doe not fit?

The premise here is that whenever an action takes place, we need to discover what might be anomalous about it. Anomalies occur when the answers to one or more of those questions is unknown. Then we seek to explain what was going on, and then we learn.

To get a handle on this process, we must attempt to sort out the kinds of anomalies there are. Knowing the kinds of anomalies gives us two advantages. In order for us to see something as anomalous, we must have been unable to answer a question about some circumstance. So, first we must discover the questions that are routinely asked as a part of the understanding process.

Every time someone tells us something or does something, an observer, in his attempt to interpret what he is observing, checks to see whether the actions involved make sense. But, actions do not make sense absolutely. That is, we cannot determine whether actions make sense except by comparing them to other actions. In a world where everyone walks around with his thumb in his mouth, we don't need to explain why a given individual has his thumb in his mouth. In a world where no one does this, we must explain why a given individual does have his thumb in his mouth. Clearly, making sense, and thus the idea of an anomaly in general, is a relative thing.

Relative to what? Naturally the answer is, relative to the stories one already knows. We are satisfied, as observers of actions, when the stories we hear match our own stories. When the match is very similar, we tell our version of the story. When the match is hardly a match at all, when we have a contradictory story, we tell it. Actually, the middle cases are the most interesting--when we have no story to tell. What do we do then? We look for one. We do this by asking ourselves questions.

People are not processing information with the intent of finding out whether something is anomalous and needs explaining, at least not consciously. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. An understander is trying to determine the place for an action that he observes. To do this, he must find a place in memory that was expecting this new action. Of course he may not find one since not everything in life can be anticipated. A tension thus exists between the attempt to find a story that allows us to think no more, and the desire to see something as new, and worth thinking about. So, an understander asks himself, unconsciously of course: Do I know a story that relates to the incoming story, and is it one that will allow me to rest from mental processing or one that will cause me to have to think?


Consider the following two stories:

Once while watching the demolition of a building in Chicago, I was struck by how ineffectively the work was being done. The wrecking ball hit one of the concrete supports near its center again and again with little result. It was frustrating to watch the lack of progress.

This poorly executed demolition reminded me of the time I saw a bull-fight in Spain. The matador kept dealing out blows to the bull with his sword with seemingly little effect. The failure to execute a "clean kill" made the whole affair grotesque.

The index that links these two stories has something to do with the way in which the goals of the two observed agents, wrecking-ball operator and matador, were not being achieved. It also has to do with the failure of a prediction task, namely, the prediction that the column (and the bull) will fall. The index is formed from the anomaly of a prediction failure. Anomaly is at the heart of index formation for reminding. Any anomaly is set against the backdrop of expected relationships among the salient details of a story.

Anomalies serve as the trigger for memory access. Because we have found an anomaly, we are forced to think about it. We want stories to be non-anomalous, to match directly to stories we have already understood. In a sense, finding a story anomalous forces us to find stories in memory also, but now we are looking for a different type of remembered story, this time one that we have not understood so well. In a sense, there exists a memory base of previous stories that fall into two classes; the first includes stories we feel we have understood. An understood story is one for which we have many examples. One could claim that these stories represent our beliefs. A belief under this view is a point of view we can illustrate with a number of good stories. (They tend to be of the form: "You know X never works out. Remember that old example of X we both knew? And there was another type of X I saw once, too.")

The second type of previous story we use to help us understand consists of stories that we found interesting but somewhat incomprehensible. The "steak and the haircut" story (given below) fits into this class. Most obvious remindings, the ones that make us feel that we have been reminded, as discussed in Dynamic Memory (Schank, 1982) are of this type. They rely on expectation failure. Expectation failure derives from anomaly. However the stories of which we are reminded during expectation failure have a different role in understanding. Their role is to begin the process of belief formation.

Thus, in the first case, non-anomalous story reminding, we are reminded of a story by a new story and feel compelled to tell that story as a response. In a sense, our old story is the means for understanding the new story, so overpowering the new story that we remember little of it. In this sense, we cannot understand anything new.

In the second case, anomalous story reminding, we are reminded of an old story, and it feels somewhat peculiar to have that reminding. Rather than feeling compelled to tell our reminded story, we feel curious about the reminding, wondering how we happened to think about it. In the "steak and the haircut" example, one of us was lamenting that his wife never cooked steak as rare as he liked, and the other was reminded of an experience in England years before, when a barber seemed unable to cut his hair as short as he wanted it. This type of story reminding is not reflective of existing beliefs. In fact, we don't yet believe anything because we are at the stage of pre-beliefs. We will soon believe something because we are comparing similar anomalous stories in the attempt to form a new generalization, which will likely yield a belief. In the steak/haircut example, the emerging belief has to do with the behavior of people who have adapted to a habitual range of variation in activities they perform for others. Requests made outside that range cause disbelief that the request could possibly be so extreme.

The demolition/bull-fight reminding is somewhat more elaborate. It may be seen in a variety of ways:

1. The frustrated observer (laborious destruction, botched kill)
2. The inept agent (crane operator, matador)
3. The blocked goal (destroy building, kill bull)
4. The noble object of destruction that holds up against all odds (pillar, bull)

While all these interpretations are plausible, only one consistent and coherent rendering is responsible for the formation of an initial indexed probe of memory. For the demolition/bull-fight example, aspects of the building demolition situation may give rise to many kinds of causal theories about the origin of the arrangement of collapsed building components, theories of decay to explain the pealing paint of the crane, explanations for the noise of the diesel engine, etc. However for the specific reminding in this example, the anomaly is in the theory of planning which generates the expectations that a worker with a task to do will select an appropriate plan with the right resources (methods and tools) to execute the plan expeditiously. It is also the viewer's inference that the crane operator has selected the same causal model of planning, but has picked an inappropriate method of the plan. Seeing the futility of the crane operator's and matador's actions, in the presence of an aesthetic goal to see the job done cleanly, produces frustration or disappointment, a type of behavior expectation failure.

In general, an anomaly-based index is a system of interrelated goals, expectations, events and explanations. The index needs to include causal information about events and expected outcomes as contrasted to real outcomes. It is the contrast between causal theories and causal realities that serves as the means for finding prior stories with the same anomalous character.

Commonalities between old and new stories

We might be tempted to imagine that we only create questions for ourselves when our curiosity is aroused by confusion about something in the world that we have observed, but we are also often forced by social circumstances to create questions for ourselves to answer. When somebody says something to us, we are supposed to say something back. But what? Is there always something worth saying? Whether or not we have something important to say, given that we have to have something to say, and given that this happens to us all the time, we have developed various methods of coping with this situation. We ask ourselves questions.

Clearly the questions we ask ourselves about what others have told us cannot be solely dependent upon what we have heard. In a sense, since we are both asking and answering these questions, we need to know that we can answer a question before we ask it. That is, the questions we ask serve as memory calls, requests to get information from memory that will be of use in the formulation of a response to what we have heard.

We are concerned here with input stories that are responded to by stories. In other words, we want to know what questions one might ask oneself in response to a story that would allow a story of one's own to come to mind. We can start simply by considering the paradigmatic case where the response to a story is a story where one says, "The same thing happened to me." However, the call to memory that might retrieve a story where the same thing happened is not likely to be: look for the same thing.

Obviously, the exact same thing never actually happens to anybody. What actually occurs are episodes in memory that bear some superficial similarity to the input story. Probably more differences exist in an "identical story" than similarities. Certainly places and people, time and context, are usually quite different. What is the same then?

Sameness, at the level we are discussing, exists with respect to plans, the goals that drive those plans, and the themes that drive those goals. Thus, when someone tells you a story, you ask yourself, Are there any events in my memory where I had a similar goal for a similar reason? In other words, when we hear a story, we ask whether at the broadest possible level of interpretation we already know a story like the one we are hearing. But, possibly the similarity would not exist at the level of plans. That is, one could easily recognize a similar situation and suggest an alternative plan that might have been followed, based upon one's own experience. So we can match new stories to old ones on the basis of identical goals. Therefore one question we can expect people to ask themselves is: Do I have a story in memory where the main goal is the same as that being pursued in the story I am hearing?

One thing we do when we understand a story is to relate that story to something in our own lives. But to what? One thing seems clear. Potentially, we can see any story in many ways. What does it mean to see a story in a particular way? It means that one has constructed an index that characterizes a "point" that one derives from the story. This point is usually highly idiosyncratic. Usually the points one derives from stories relate to goals, plans, beliefs, and lessons learned from a story. Here we are back to interestingness again. We don't consider points that fail to relate to beliefs we already have. We look instead for stories that verify beliefs we already have. When a new story can be absorbed into our memories as a "natural fit" with stories we already know, then we feel we have understood the story.

Consider for a moment what it might mean for an understander to believe something and not be able to give evidence justifying why he believes what he believes. Certainly inarticulate people have difficulty with that sort of thing. And, in fact, we do treat the ability to justify one's beliefs as a measure of intelligence and reasonableness. In other words, we expect intelligent people to have a story to tell that explains why they believe what they believe. But, how can they do this? The mental mechanisms that are available must be ones that connect beliefs to stories. The fact that we can do this is obvious. It follows, therefore, that beliefs are one possible index in memory. Construct a belief, and you should be able to find a story that exemplifies that belief.

We find what we want to say effortlessly and unconsciously. But, to do so, we must construct complex labels of events that describe their content, their import, their relation to what we know and what we believe and much more. It is effective indexing that allows us to have stories to tell, and enables us to learn from the juxtaposition of others' stories and the stories we are reminded of.

How Do We Understand?

A key point is that there is no one way to understand a story. When someone hears a story, he looks for beliefs that are being commented upon. Any story has many possible beliefs inherent in it. But how does someone listening to a story find those beliefs? He finds them by looking through the beliefs he already has. He is not as concerned with what he is hearing as he is with finding what he already knows that is relevant. Picture it this way. An understander has a list of beliefs, indexed by subject area. When a new story appears, he attempts to find a belief of his that relates to it. When he does, he finds a story attached to that belief and compares the story in memory to the one he is processing. His understanding of the new story becomes, at that point, a function of the old story. Once we find a belief and connected story, we need no further processing; that is, the search for other beliefs is co-opted. (This is the essence of Kelley's (1971) "discounting principle.") We rarely look to understand a story in more than one way. The mind cannot easily pursue multiple paths.

Telling stories back implies understanding

We tell stories for many reasons, one of which is to indicate to our listener that we have understood what he has said to us. Assessing understanding by assessing the relevance of a story that we hear in response may be the only avenue open to us. If we choose to measure understanding by the ultimate impact of a story on our permanent memory structures, we may be very disappointed. To the extent that people do understand anything at all, we can identify three different features of understanding:

1. Matching indices for story retrieval
2. Adding aspects of a new story to empty slots in an old one
3. Seeking further evidence for stories that were only tentatively regarded as correctly understood

Thus, the very strong hypothesis is that as understanders we are always looking for stories to tell back. We do this by extracting indices from what we hear and by using these indices to find stories we already know. When we find them, processing stops, and we wait to tell our story. We only incorporate what we have heard into memory when we feel that our own stories are inadequate in some way, for example, if a story is missing a piece. Such pieces can be supplied by other people's stories. We may find a story inadequate when we use it to exemplify a belief that we are not quite sure we hold. We are willing to consider new stories as evidence for or against those beliefs and, therefore, to record and to remember better the stories of others.


We all understand differently--this much is obvious. The reason we understand differently is that our memories are different. Our experiences simply aren't yours. In order to understand anything, we must find the closest item in memory to which it relates. In Schank and Abelson (1977), we claimed that understanding required one to find the correct knowledge structure and to use that structure to create expectations for what events were likely to take place so that new events could be understood in terms of what was normal. Thus, when a story about a cocktail party was being told, an understander brought out his cocktail party script which told him about what ordinarily happens at cocktail parties, and he used that script to guide his understanding of the story he was about to hear.

Idiosyncratic scripts

In Schank (1982), this concept was extended to allow a more idiosyncratic view of understanding. The concept of a dynamic memory was proposed, one that changed in response to what it had understood as time went on. The conception of understanding developed there was that one's knowledge structures were more idiosyncratic than just standard scripts. Each of us has his own conception of a restaurant, formed after numerous restaurant visits. Although we all know what kind of standard expectations there are, we know what information is shared across a culture about restaurants; we also know that sometimes what we expect to happen next comes entirely from our own personal experiences. We get reminded of past experiences by current ones, and we use those past experiences as a kind of guide to help us process new experiences.

The reason we get reminded while processing something new is to help us by providing the most relevant knowledge that we have in memory. If knowledge of restaurants in general is useful when you enter a restaurant, then it follows that knowledge of Taillevant is useful when you enter Taillevant and that knowledge about prior circumstances where you have taken a date to a fancy French restaurant in order to impress her is especially useful when you are about to try the same thing again.

Beliefs and ideas

Reminding is very useful for planning and therefore for understanding the plans of others. When someone tells you a story, however, he is talking not only about plans but often, as we have noticed, about beliefs. When what is to be understood in a story is about beliefs, the kind of guidance we need changes. We don't need to know what will happen next. When we hear such stories all we are trying to do is understand them. If we are passively viewing a movie for example, understanding the movie means being able to follow what is going on by relating what we are seeing to what we know, learning something from the movie, in a very weak sense of learning. In a conversation, understanding means being able to respond to a story. In both of these cases, then, understanding means attempting to extract indexes such that old stories can be related to new ones. For movies the intent is recognition, for conversation, the intent is to be able to respond.

When stories are about ideas rather than plans, the problem for the hearer is to respond to the ideas. But ideas are much harder to get a grip on than plans. We may all agree on the plans a murderer was following when we finish a mystery novel, but such agreement is more difficult to come by when we attempt to discuss the key ideas in a novel about people and their relationships. A murder mystery has a plot, which means an involved set of plans, so when the understanding process involves plan extraction from a text, the process is fairly straightforward and not especially idiosyncratic. But when a novel has no plot, when no clear plans are being stated and followed, finding the ideas that are being expressed becomes a problem of belief extraction. This extraction of beliefs can be especially difficult because often actors and even the writers who create fictional actors don't know what their beliefs are. Actions can express beliefs, and so as understanders, our job is to find the beliefs that are inherent and implicit in a given action.

When the understanding process gets complicated, the primary mechanism we have available to us to guide understanding, namely reminding, must work especially hard on rather scanty evidence to find something to get reminded of. The main fodder for reminding in such circumstances comes from beliefs that have been extracted from a text. Such beliefs cause our own personal stories to come to mind when those beliefs happen also to be indexes in our own memories. But then a funny thing happens -- we feel compelled to tell those stories. Why we desire so strongly to tell our own stories is something we have already discussed in part and to which we shall return later. The point here is that once we have found our own story, we basically stop processing.

The reason for stopping is partially based upon our intentions in the first place. Since most of the time we were really just looking for something to say back in response, having found something, we have little reason to process further. But more important, what we have found usually relates to an arguable point, an idea subject to challenge, a belief about which we are uncertain. As understanders, one of our goals is to gather evidence about the world so that we can formulate better beliefs, ones that will equip us better to deal with the real world. Once we have found a match between someone else's experience and our own, we are excited to begin thinking about the connections so that we can add or subtract beliefs from our own personal data base.

The paradox of understanding

There is an odd side effect to all this. We are not likely to directly learn from other people's stories. In getting reminded of our own stories, ones which of course have more poignancy and more rich detail than the ones we are hearing, we tend to get distracted into thinking more about what happened to us. The incoming story can get recalled in terms of the story of which we were reminded, but in the end, we rarely recall the stories of others easily. More often than not, other people's stories don't have the richness of detail and emotional impact that allows them to be stored in multiple ways in our memories. They do, on the other hand, provide enough details and emotions to allow them to be more easily stored than if the teller had simply told us his belief.

So we are left with a paradoxical picture of understanding. We do not easily remember what other people have said if they do not tell us in the form of a story. We can learn from the stories of others, but only if what we hear relates strongly to something we already knew, and causes us to rethink our own stories. We hear, in the stories of others, what we personally can relate to, by virtue of having heard or experienced, in some way, that story before. Understanding is an idiosyncratic affair. Our idiosyncrasies come from our stories.


The idea that new experiences get interpreted by adapting old stories is quite closely related to the psychological concept of stimulus generalization. The original form of the idea, in Pavlovian conditioning, had to do with the decline in strength of a conditioned response as the conditioned stimulus was shifted along a continuum of stimulus similarity away from its original value.

In this and other simple, well-defined situations, the decline is said by Roger Shepard (1987) to follow a strict mathematical form, which he believes warrants being called the First Law of Psychology. As a psychophysical statement, based on quantifiable responses to quantifiable stimuli, the First Law is very powerful. Unfortunately, it doesn't help us much when we ask how interpretations of stories change when they are altered away from prototypical stories. In this context, the idea of similarity is vague, but nevertheless compelling. In addressing the nature of similarity of stories, we will cite a couple of lines of research, and also tell a story.

Interpreting What You Don't Understand

Chance situations with "skill" indexes

In her seminal work on the "illusion of control", Ellen Langer (1975) proposed that people have great difficulty interpreting chance processes such as lottery drawings and roulette wheel spins. The lumpy disorder of chance processes is hard for the ordinary individual to appreciate, much less apply to a single chance event. Accordingly, success and failure at gambling on strictly chance events is typically stored in memory as a set of experiences (such as, "the time I hit eight in a row at the roulette table at the Taj Mahal"), rather than as summary statistics (such as, "in roulette, betting on red or black, I won 203 out of 400 bets, but by a chi-square test, this is not significantly different from the expected number, 191 of 400").

Langer goes on to hypothesize that unintelligible abstract chance situations are mentally transformed into skill situations with which the individual is familiar. There are many features of chance situations that correspond, or can be made to correspond, with features of skill situations. The list of such features would include facing a competitor, having choices, feeling involved, and being familiar with the paraphernalia of the game. These may be thought of as low-level indexes to clusters of past experiences. The more skill-related features a chance situation has, the more it will be understood in terms of skilled activity. A consequence of this misinterpretation is that people come to believe they can to some extent be skilled, or at least systematically lucky, in lottery drawings and other totally random events.

In testing this hypothesis, Langer ran a series of experiments following a standard design. A lottery was announced to a pool of subjects. Then, in selling them the tickets, only a random half of the subjects were exposed to one of the skill-related factors. For example, for the "choice" factor, the lottery tickets consisted of bubble gum cards of athletes. The experimental subjects were allowed to choose which athlete they wanted to represent them in the lottery drawing, whereas control subjects were assigned an athlete. Later, under a pretext, all subjects were invited to sell their tickets to one of a group of newcomers who belatedly wanted to enter. For a $1 ticket, the average asking price was above $8 for the choice group, but under $2 for the control group. In other words, chosen tickets were much more highly valued than assigned tickets, despite their objectively equal chances to win the lottery.

In another paradigm, subjects were pitted in a simple card selection game against either a nattily-dressed, confident opponent, or a sloppy, indecisive, nerdy competitor. On each trial, the players selected a card blindly from a deck of playing cards, and the player with the higher card won or lost from the experimenter the amount of money he had been willing to bet on that trial (amounts ranging from 5 to 25 cents). Subjects pitted against the confident player risked far less money than those facing the nerd, despite the objective fact that confidence has nothing to do with the proclivity for drawing high cards.

Langer's experiments well illustrate the phenomenon of interpreting poorly understood situations in terms of similar, familiar ones. This research further demonstrates the usefulness of conceptualizing the similarity of new and old experiences by means of "common elements" (Tversky, 1977 )-- in our terms, shared indexes.

A later experiment by Ayeroff and Abelson (1976) applied the same reasoning to an even more unfamiliar experience: a mental telepathy experiment. Subjects were brought into separated rooms and told that they would take turns "sending" a series of impressions of simple objects depicted on a deck of cards, as a test of a controversial aspect of extra-sensory perception.

These subjects faced an extraordinarily cryptic experience. Not only were they confronted with the trial-by-trial vicissitudes of chance, but almost none of them had ever before participated in a systematic, "scientific" mental telepathy test, and none of them knew exactly how to send or receive telepathic symbols.

Now, what type of familiar experience is similar to this unfamiliar experience? Ayeroff and Abelson asserted that the task is reminiscent of the interpersonal experience of having "good vibes" with someone -- feeling that communication is effortless, that two spirits are one. Accordingly, for half the subject pairs, an experimental manipulation was introduced to produce good vibes between the partners while preparing to try telepathy. These pairs were given five warm-up trials in which they could practice their telepathizing while conversing into open microphones. A typical conversation would go something like this:

Sender: I've got it focused now. What are you getting?
Receiver: A top hat?
Sender: That was my second choice. This one is bumblebee.
Receiver: Oh, yeah. Focus it a bit more.
Sender: Okay...(Pause)...Now I'm beaming it like a laser.
Receiver:...(Pause)...Oh, wow! I've got a buzzing bee! Great!

Pairs in the control condition also had five warm-up trials, but instead of talking, they practiced with the microphones off, and wrote down what they were thinking. This condition was designed to restrain vibes.

On the 100 real trials following the warm-up, the subjects' belief in their success was measured by having each member of the pair indicate to the experimenter whether he thought they had scored a hit on that trial, or not. Since there were five equally numerous symbols in the deck, the chance level of success was 20%. (The actual success rate was 19.6%.) On the average, subjects in the good vibes condition claimed hits on 54% of the trials, compared to the no-vibes subjects' mean estimate of 37%. The authors' interpretation of this result was that the unfamiliar experience of attempted telepathy was interpreted in terms of the very familiar experience of two people attempting to understand one other in a social interaction. When the similarity to successful social episodes was increased by providing warm-up trials with good vibes, the participants' subjective estimates of telepathic success increased significantly.

Thus far, we have reported research on the (mis)interpretation of unfamiliar situations by analogy with familiar situations. We advanced the proposition that the more aspects the new situation has in common with the prototypic familiar one, the greater the reliance on the latter.

Let us now consider what specific common aspects (indexes) might be rather compelling, that is, likely to dominate the choice of the particular familiar experience used in interpreting the cryptic one. (Here is where we tell a story.)

The misunderstood Peace Corps volunteers

In the early 1960s, an erstwhile Harvard cognitive anthropologist named Volney Stefflre spent some time at Yale working on various eccentric research projects.

His (unpublished) magnum opus was a study of the reactions of Indian natives in remote villages in Chile to the arrival of handfuls of Peace Corps volunteers. These volunteers, fresh from a month of insufficient training, were thrown into strange territory with no clear conception of how to use their limited engineering, public health, or organizational skills to help somebody down there. (Anybody!) And their Regional Coordinator had long since gone native, and could not be located.

Nevertheless, they were earnest and undaunted, and kept recommending projects to the Indians. These natives, for their part, were puzzled. They had never met any visiting people who behaved quite like this. Why had they come, offering help and advice in such a polite manner? What was the story?

As befits this essay, Stefflre's hypothesis was that people in unfamiliar situations behave as they would in the familiar situation most similar to the new one. Prior to the arrival of the Peace Corps, the natives had been visited by soldiers, teachers, and government officials, among others. But none of these groups behaved in the eager, earnest, talkative manner of the Peace Corps volunteers. The natives observed for a while, and finally decided that these new people were ministers. Thereafter they acted with appropriate reverence but paid no attention whatsoever to advice on medical care, birth control, sewage treatment, etc. After all, what would ministers know about medicine, sex, and digging ditches?

We see in this story a tension between different bases for experiential similarity. On the one hand, the personal manner of the unfamiliar volunteers was a very good match to the style of known ministers. On the other hand, the content of the volunteers' apparent interests did not fit with that of the ministers. It is to be expected that in some ways, the new experience would match the old, and in other ways, not. If an old experience matched a new one perfectly, then the new experience would not be unfamiliar.

A mix of similar and dissimilar features is found also in metaphor (e.g., Gentner 1983; Ortony 1979). Thus one might be tempted to say that remindings are metaphorical. Whether it helps in constructing a theory of reminding to say this, we are not sure. The key question is what aspects of experience (which indexes) are dominant in matching a reminding to a new situation.

The characteristics of the story actor

We have a small hint in the Peace Corps example that matching the personal characteristics of the actors in the new story to actors in the old one may be an especially strong principle of reminding, and thus understanding. A study by Lamb, Lalljee, and Abelson (1992) makes the same point. Subjects in their study were given thumbnail sketches of four men, each a different prototypical criminal: a purse-snatcher, an embezzler, a terrorist, and a bank robber. Then stories were presented in which each of these men was involved in an ambiguous action sequence which might or might not be interpreted as a particular crime. For example, one character (the embezzler) was previously described as a smooth-talking executive who had been involved in a celebrated stock swindle, and was now in desperate need of money to cover gambling debts. This character then appears in a story as a man sitting on an airplane aisle, with an odd-looking package under his seat, and an elderly woman with heart problems sitting next to him. He calls the stewardess to give her a note he has just written. She looks troubled, and hurriedly walks front to the pilots' cabin. The task for the subjects is to interpret what is going on. Is it a hijacking, or a medical emergency concerning the elderly woman?

In other combinations presented to different groups of subjects, a prototypical terrorist (interested in political causes, loyal to a group in the Middle East, etc.) appears in the airplane story, and the prototypical embezzler appears in a story about a company Vice President who often works late at night at a computer terminal.

There was an almost unanimous tendency for the subjects to infer the presence of a crime when the actor was prototypic for it, but much less of a tendency when the actor was nonprototypic (e.g., the terrorist was judged to be hijacking the plane, but the embezzler usually wasn't; he was getting aid for his sick mother).

To carry further this notion of story interpretations driven by the perceived personality characteristics of the actor, such an effect seems of a piece with what Ross (1977) calls the fundamental attribution error. When we perceive an actor behaving a certain way in a given situation, we tend to perceive the cause of the behavior as something about the individual, rather than something about the situation. An alternative label for this effect might be personality-driven reminding. In such a reminding, the personality characteristics of the main actor in the new experience serve as useful indexes for previous experiences with that type of person. This possibility is not always relevant (the lottery example, for instance, has no main actor), but we suggest that when available, personality-driven remindings tend to outcompete remindings driven by other features of the situation.

The Story Model of juror decision making

A vein of relevant research in this latter category arises from Pennington and Hastie's (1992) Story Model of juror decision making. They maintain that jurors' natural inclination in making decisions in criminal cases is to organize the evidence into a story structure with initiating events, goals, actions, and consequences. In several mock jury studies, factors facilitating story structures were found to lead to more confident verdicts in the direction of the bulk of the evidence. Interestingly, although subjects in story-inducing conditions organized their stories well, their recall for facts in the case was no better than that of other subjects. This result is consistent with much of the research on "transmission set". However, the orientation of jurors toward the information about a crime is a mixture of a transmission set--they know they will have to share their judgments with other jurors--and a receiving set--they know they should wait for all of the evidence.


Social psychologists have often relied on the concept of the salience of different features of a situation. In unfamiliar or unstructured settings, there are different interpretations the individual can come up with. What the person is most compellingly reminded of will, we have proposed, guide his subsequent behavior. But the reminding process is delicately triggered -- an individual placed a second time in the same new situation (with amnesia for the first) might not be reminded of the same prior experience. In part, the salience of one reminding rather than another is due to situational influences: the individual's interpretation of what is going on can be manipulated by hints and symbols. A blatant literary example of this is the influence of Iago over Othello. Iago drops innuendoes of Desdemona's unfaithfulness each time an ambiguous behavior of hers is seen or heard of by Othello, until at last the tragic Moor accepts this totally false interpretation.

Experimental manipulation of salience

Salience has been systematically manipulated in psychological research on persuasion, impression formation, and other topics. Price (1989), for example, showed that members of a group can be led to the interpretation that their interactions with another group are conflictful, by making salient some issue between them. "Humanities and science majors clash over curriculum change," says the bogus headline, and presto -- students who happen to be humanities majors start resisting persuasive communications from science majors on other issues. Such demonstrations of the effects of reminding [sic] people of their group identities go way back to the 1950s, when Kelley (1953) showed that Boy Scouts sitting at a Boy Scout meeting in full uniform were much more resistant to a speaker who made fun of hiking and camping activities than were Boy Scouts at an undesignated meeting who were exposed to the same speaker.


Modern research workers in the field of social cognition usually use the terms availability and activation to distinguish two sources of salience. Availability (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973) refers to the ease with which a given idea, judgment, or evaluation comes to mind. For the present paper, we would translate this into "the ease with which a given experience comes to mind". Availability arises from repetition of an experience. Thus scripts in particular have high availability -- they tend to be triggered as first-choice interpretations of any situation in which script-related cues are present. Also, strong attitudes have high availability (Powell & Fazio, 1984), which increases with repetitive exercise, especially via the expression of those attitudes (Downing, Judd and Brauer, 1992). This implies, for example, that the bigotry of the bigot increases as his expressions of intolerance increase. In the context of story interpretation, telling someone a story about your experiences might be expected to increase the availability of that story on future occasions.


In contrast to availability, which signifies the internal priorities of different experiences, activation refers to external factors affecting the choice of interpretation. Iago might be said to have activated Othello's jealousy story. The Boy Scout and humanities majors studies also merit the label of activation. In the former case, the presence of peers in uniform presumably activated Boy Scout camping experiences. If these had been fun, this would undercut the speaker's trash talk about camping.

A currently very popular class of experimental methods for producing activation is "priming". This refers to the incidental or sometimes subliminal introduction of an idea in order to activate extensions or related ideas. As cognitive psychologists and social cognitionists will know, the priming concept was introduced by Meyer and Schvanevelt (1971) in a study of "semantic priming". These investigators presented subjects with short strings of letters on a succession of trials, and the subjects' task was to decide as rapidly as possible whether each string was a word or a non-word. The experimenters had the hypothesis that words would prime (activate) the perception of similar words that immediately followed, reducing reaction times to the second word. Sure enough, as illustrated by their now standard example, reaction time to NURSE was faster when preceded by DOCTOR than when preceded by an unrelated word such as LAWYER. Other examples with the same structure also produced the same effect. Activation effects have since been obtained in many areas, the most popular of which appears to be the priming of expectations about the traits of an unfamiliar person (Higgins, Rhodes, & Jones, 1977).

Priming also occurs with sentences, and even paragraphs as stimuli. Sharkey and Mitchell (1985) showed that scripts could be primed with introductory sentences such as, "The children all brought their presents to Mary's house." Such introductions speeded the lexical decision response to script-related words presented immediately afterwards (e.g., subjects were faster to recognize CANDLES as a word when it followed the introduction of the party script, as opposed to a non-party introduction). Seifert et al. (1980) demonstrated a priming effect of proverb-related stories on other stories illustrating the same proverb. Indeed, priming can be conceptualized as the (usually implicit) activation of particular story indexes.

Psychological theorizing and research is amply supportive of the idea that new stories are understood in terms of similar old stories. Search for old experiences from memory requires some kind of indexing scheme for picking relevant stories, and we have suggested three conditions affecting the implicit choice of indexes: 1) When applicable, indexing in terms of the personality characteristics of the main actor in the new story tends to be preferred; 2) When aspects intrinsic to a particular type of old experience are added to the scenario of a new experience, search tends to be influenced by these common aspects; and 3) In any experience, situational factors or the actions of other people can affect the interpretation of that experience by selective activation or priming.


Stories, as we have noted, are the basis of our understanding. Understanding means retrieving stories, and applying them to new experiences. The consequence of this is profound for models of memory. If active memory is really a beehive of activity involving story retrieval and story application, then what it means to remember needs to be reinterpreted.

Researchers have often viewed memory as a kind of warehouse, a place where events are placed and then retrieved when needed. The problem with this point of view is that it assumes that events are discrete items, made up of discrete parts. Thus we assume that when something happens to you, it is labeled as event497, with parts 1-27. A view of memory of this kind essentially buries two key aspects of memory. First, memories for events are indexed by our understanding of the events themselves. Our trip to Maine is not labeled event456 or even "trip to Maine, 1975." Rather, the event would be indexed by a characterization of the events that it comprises. This means that "the time I almost drowned" or "the best lobster I ever tasted" might be two of the many indexes such an event might have in memory. Second, and most important, we must consider how such indexes might have been constructed in the first place, since in their construction in memory and by memory, they have a serious effect on the stories we subsequently tell.

Constructing the Story of an Experience

When we construct an index we do so not by saying "Well, what would be a good name for this event that I wish to store away in memory?" People are not so conscious of their internal processes as to be able to ask such a question. Rather, we proceed through life having experiences and in no way attempting to store them away. We are not trying to remember, at least not consciously. But, of course, we are remembering. How?

Telling is remembering

The answer to this is: by telling stories. Storytelling is not something we just happen to do, it is something we virtually have to do, if we want to remember anything at all. No one who has recalled a lobster dinner as "the best one I ever had" could have possibly have done so without consciously thinking that thought. And, most likely, that person would have expressed that thought as well, to a dinner companion perhaps, or to someone who asked about his trip to Maine. While it seems less likely that it would be absolutely necessary to tell someone about a near drowning in order to remember it, people nevertheless do seem to feel compelled to tell about such salient experiences. It is in the story telling process that the memory gets formed.

This happens in the following way. We form an opinion, a viewpoint, or indeed, a good story about what happened to us. We retrieve other details of the story, such as where we stayed, and who we were with in that context. But, over time, we have difficulty remembering the surrounding details. We tend to just remember the story we have constructed. Everything else has to be re-constructed. To put this another way, the stories we create are the memories we have. Telling is remembering. Everything else, what we fail to tell, gets forgotten, although it can often be reconstructed. The effect of all this is very interesting. Not only do our memories become a function of what we talk about, but if these stories aren't sufficiently rehearsed, that is, told often enough, we begin to forget them as well. And because of this a curious thing happens.

The dangers of misremembering

In our desire to tell a story in the first place, we resort to certain standard story telling devices. Those devices are part of our cultural norms for story telling and they reflect what is considered to be a coherent story in a culture. Since, in telling one's story to others, one wants to be coherent, one has to structure one's story according to these norms. This means, in effect, that one has to lie. Nothing in life naturally occurs as a culturally coherent story. In order to construct such a story we must leave out the details that don't fit, and invent some that make things work better. This process was seen in Bartlett's (1932) work on Eskimo folk tales which were remembered by British subjects many years later as coherent stories while the original was certainly not coherent in a British context. This same process is at work when we tell our own stories. We tell what fits and leave out what does not. So, while our lives may not be coherent, our stories are. The danger here is that we may come to believe our own stories. When our stories become memories, and substitute for the actual events, this danger is quite real. We remember our stories and begin to believe them. In this way, stories shape memory profoundly.

When something important happens to you, you feel compelled to tell someone else about it. Even people who are reticent to talk about themselves can't help telling others about significant events that have just happened to them. Let's consider how this process might work.

Imagine, for example, that you have just returned from a vacation or that you meet someone who knows that you have recently been on a date that you were especially looking forward to. In either of these situations, when you are asked how it went, you can respond with a short pithy sentence or two, or you can begin to tell a story that captures the essential parts of the experience.

Changes in Stories When Retold or Not Retold

Now imagine that another person asks you substantially the same question. How different is your second story likely to be from the initial story? Of course, the time you have in which to tell the story, or differences in intimacy with the person you tell it to may affect the telling, but the likelihood is that on a gross level, the subsequent stories you tell will leave out or emphasize the same things. The stories will be, from a index point of view, substantially the same. In other words, while telling about a trip to a great restaurant, if you don't tell about the lovely park you visited beforehand, the park episode will eventually cease to be part of the story.

The process of story creation, of condensing an experience into a story-size chunk that can be told in a reasonable amount of time, is a process that makes the chunks smaller and smaller. Subsequent iterations of the same story tend to get smaller in the re-telling as more details are forgotten. Of course, they occasionally get larger when fictional details are added. (The old psychological terms for these two alternatives are "leveling" and "sharpening" (Allport and Postman, 1945).) Normally, after much re-telling, we are left with exactly the details of the story that we have chosen to remember. In short, story creation is a memory process. As we tell a story, we are formulating the index to the experience which we can use to create a story describing that experience.

Losing access to details

If we don't tell the story soon enough or often enough after the experience, or if we don't tell the story at all, the experience cannot be coalesced or indexed since its component pieces begin to mix with new information that continues to come in. We cannot remember a great restaurant if we keep eating in ones quite like it day after day.

Losing generalizations

In other words, while parts of the experience may be remembered in terms of the low-level memory structures that were activated--a restaurant may be recalled through cues having to do with food, or with a place, or with the particular company--the story itself does not exist as an entity in memory. Thus, without telling a story, any generalization that might pertain to the whole of the experience would get lost. We could remember the restaurant, but we might forget that the entire trip had been a bad idea. We might be able to reconstruct generalizations about the trip as a whole, but this process would require doing exactly what one would have had to do in the first place. That is, reconstruction with an eye towards generalizations creates indexes as stories. In other words, we tell stories in order to remember them.

Motivated forgetting

The opposite side of the coin is also true. We fail to create stories in order to forget them. When something unpleasant happens to us, we often say "I'd rather not talk about it" because not talking makes it easier to forget. Once you tell what happened to you, you will be less able to forget the parts of the story that you told. In some sense, telling a story makes it happen again. If the story is not created in the first place, however, it will only exist in its original form, i.e., in a form distributed among the mental structures used in the initial processing. Thus, in the sense that it can be reconstructed, the experience remains. When the experience was a bad one, that sense of being in memory can have annoying psychological consequences. If we encounter a particular setting or prop, unhappy remindings may well occur when not expected.

Adding embellishments

When you begin to tell a story again that you have retold many times, what you retrieve from memory is the index to the story itself. That index can be embellished in a variety of ways. Over time, even the embellishments become standardized. An old man's story that he has told hundreds of times shows little variation, and what variation exists becomes part of the story itself regardless of its origin. People add details to their stories that may or may not have occurred. Why should they be able to remember? They are recalling indexes and reconstructing details. If, at some point they add a nice detail, not really certain of its validity, telling that story with that same detail a few more times will ensure its permanent place in the story index. In other words, the stories we tell time and again are identical to the memory we have of the events that the story relates. Stories change over time because of the process of telling, because of the embellishments added by the teller. The actual events that gave rise to the story in the first place have long since been forgotten.

Memory for Daily Events

The man with the special day

Let's imagine a day in the life of a man living alone in a city. He works by himself and for himself. He sees and talks to no one about his particular experiences during the course of one day. He gets a haircut. He buys some groceries. He shops for new shoes. He fills out tax forms at home and watches some television. The next day he resumes a more normal life, interacting with people and talking about his experiences, but for some reason he never speaks to anyone about the day we have just described. Now, the question is, what can he remember about that day?

The answer to this is complex because we don't know two things. First, how unusual is this day for him? And, second, how much rehearsal has occurred? Let us explain why each of these questions matters.

What makes an event memorable is both its uniqueness and its significance to you personally. For example, we easily remember the first time we do anything of significance. So, if this man has never spent a day alone, or if he was deliberately trying out such a life style, or he had been designated "King for a Day? he would probably remember the day. Or would he?

At first glance, it seems probable that he would remember such a unique or significant day; therefore, how easily can we imagine the man never telling anyone about it? If people are incapable of not telling others about significant events, then this man, too, feeling that the day was important, would be likely to mention it to someone.

This brings up the question of rehearsal. One phenomenon of memory is that people talk to themselves, not necessarily aloud of course, but they do tell themselves stories, collecting disparate events into coherent wholes. So, let's imagine that while this man talked to no one about his day, he did talk to himself. What might he have said? If rehearsal entails storytelling, he would have had to compose a story with some pertinent generalizations or observations drawn from the day. Moreover, he would have had to keep re-telling himself that story in order to remember it.

What happens if he fails to tell anyone, including himself, about his day? Does he fail to recognize the grocery store where he shopped when he sees it again next week? Does he fill out his tax forms again? Of course not.

Obviously, we can remember events that we have not discussed with anyone. But how? How are events like going to the grocery store remembered? Certainly such events never become stories, so they are not maintained in memory by repeated telling. How, then, are they maintained?

Many psychologists have claimed that memory for facts must be organized hierarchically in a semantic memory. Others have argued for a memory which is more episodically based, and still others have suggested combining the two. A neatly organized hierarchy of semantic concepts is easy to imagine, but the world is full of oddities and idiosyncratic events that fail to fit neatly into a preestablished hierarchy. For example, we may "know" from semantic memory that female horses have teats, but we may more readily access this fact from an episodic store if we witnessed our pet horse giving birth and then suckling its young. Our first memories of playing ball may very well come to mind when the word "ball" comes up, and the properties we ascribe to "ball" may well be ones that a particular ball we remember actually had. In short, the semantic-episodic distinction does not seem to be sharp and clear.

Story-based vs. event-based memory

A more useful, process-based distinction can be drawn between story-based memory on the one hand and a generalized event-based memory on the other. To understand this distinction, let's go back to the question of where our hero's grocery store, tax form filling, and reading experiences are stored in his memory.

We know that he can recall what he did in each instance, so how is this ability to recall different than his ability to tell a story? Probably, he cannot tell the story of his day, while he can recall certain aspects of his day. This difference reflects itself in a kind of abstract idea of "place" in memory. To "recognize" the grocery store visit means he knows he has been there. Had something interesting happened there, especially an event that taught him something new about the operation of grocery stores, for example, we can feel sure that he would remember it. But, how can we make this assertion when he probably won't be able to recall this day if he never talks about it to anyone? We seem to have paradox here, but, in fact, we do not.

When someone has an experience in a grocery store, they update their knowledge of grocery stores. This is how grocery store scripts grow and change over time, in response to actual changes in grocery stores that occur over time and as a way of organizing pointers to personal odd experiences that have taken place in grocery stores. When shelf arrangements change in a particular grocery store, the patron's memory must change as well. Sometimes it takes a few trials--a patron might keep looking for milk in its old location for some time after a change in the placement of the dairy section, but eventually changes in memory follow changes in reality. So, people learn from their experiences, but where does this learning take place in the mind?

People need a file of information about grocery stores that includes specific information about where their favorite grocery store keeps the milk and what it wants from you in order to cash a check. This file must also include general information about grocery stores apart from your favorite, however. When we enter a new grocery store, we want to be able to utilize expectations about our favorite store that will help us in the new one. For example, we want to predict that the milk will be near the cottage cheese in any grocery store and that a new one might not take our check. In other words, we are constantly drawing upon our file of knowledge about grocery stores and adding to that knowledge when new experiences teach us something worth retaining.

What we are decidedly not doing, however, is updating our memories on what we might call a daily unit basis. That is, we are not making note that on October 16, we bought a quart of milk and six oranges. We could try to do this, of course, but we would have to try very hard. We might make up a poem about what we bought on that day and then memorize the poem, for example. But if we do not take some extreme measure like that, we will simply fail to remember the experience unless something rather strange or important occurred at the same time. Why can't we remember what we bought in the grocery store on October 16, 1982?

One obvious answer is that it would be absurd to remember such a thing. Human memory must be selective to function well. One aspect of this selectivity in memory is the recognition of the distinction between events that are to be added to one's internal storehouse of generalized events and those which need to be summarized and indexed and told as new stories to be added to story-based memory. Memory is looking for knowledge that tells it something about the nature of the world in general. This storehouse of knowledge is on its face analogous to the notions of semantic memory. But, of course since it is based in actual experience, it is really quite episodic. Although the notion that semantic memory should be devoted to such general knowledge seems inherently correct, the notion seems equally wrong that such knowledge would not have at its core a seriously idiosyncratic component. We may all know that a flounder is a fish and that a fish has gills, but we do not all know that our father used to eat flounder every Tuesday, and therefore, so did we, and we refuse to eat it ever again. Yet, this latter fact is just as much a part of the definition of flounder for us as is the fact that a flounder has gills--maybe more, since one fact is far more real to us than the other.

Building up event memory

Any general storehouse of knowledge, then, is likely to depend very strongly upon the expectations about various objects and situations that have been gathered over a lifetime of experience. Thus, when a new experience occurs that speaks to what we already know about something, perhaps updating it, perhaps overriding it, we add that experience to our memories. This is why we remember filling out the tax form. We add the experience of filling out the tax form to our general storehouse of similar experiences. That experience then becomes part of our general knowledge of tax-form filling and updates what we already know.

Similarly, when we read something, the facts we garner from our reading go to particular places in memory, to the structures that we have that are repositories of information about those subjects. Information about restaurants updates what we know about restaurants, stories about travel to exotic places causes our memory to add new information about those places to existing knowledge about those particular places and to general information we may have about exotic places. Of course, the actual updating of knowledge structures is much more complex than this. In Dynamic Memory (Schank, 1982) it was proposed that pieces of memory structures, once altered, update those same pieces as instantiated in other structures. Thus, for example, if you learn something about paying with credit cards in a restaurant, that new information needs to update how to pay in a department store and at an airport as well. The way this happens is through sharing of standardized smaller knowledge structures of which "paying" would be one, and "credit card paying" would another even smaller structure.

Through such structures, and through the sharing of smaller structures by larger structures, we build up event memory. Every time we use a particular body of knowledge in our interactions with the world, that knowledge gets altered by the experience. We cannot fill out a tax form without using the prior experiences we had in filling out tax forms as a guide to help us through the experience. But because that knowledge is being used as a guide, it changes. We add new information about tax forms, about the experience of filling them out, that overrides what we previously knew. When we are finished doing anything, therefore, our memories are altered by the experience. We don't know what we knew before.

The process of updating our event-based memory every time we have a relevant new experience has an odd side effect, however. The construction of a memory that organizes information around repetitions of events events destroys the coherence of any particular sequence of events. The dynamic nature of event memory causes the experiences of walking to be placed with prior ones of walking, those of shopping to be placed together with others of shopping, and so on. Constant updating of a memory for events causes a general storehouse about typical events to be built up by destroying the connectivity of one particular event to another particular event. A particular event of walking, therefore, becomes disconnected from its intended purpose of enabling one to go shopping at one particular time, for example, thus rendering our hero useless when asked how he got to the grocery store. His only recourse is to make an educated guess: I must have walked; it's not far, and I usually walk if it's a nice day, and it was June after all.

The need for story-based memory

Because of this need of memory to effect a constant disconnection of events from those that follow, we feel a need to undo this process when something of significance occurs. We can stop the dynamic disconnection from taking place and remember events in sequence by consciously giving our memories an event to remember that is a unit, specifically, a unit that we have rehearsed, sometimes frequently. In this process, the role of stories in memory comes into play, and motivates the concept of story-based memory that is the core of this essay. Stories are a way of preserving the connectivity of events that would otherwise be disassociated over time.

For stories to be told without a great deal of effort, they must be stored away in a fashion that enables them to be accessed as a unit. If this were not the case, stories would have to be reconstructed each time they were told, a process that would become more and more difficult with time as the connections between events fade from memory. Telling a story would require a great deal of work to collect all the events from memory and to reconstruct their interrelation. Further, stories would be quite different each time they were told. Reconstruction would not be the same each time, and instead, different stories would result depending upon what parts of memory were looked at during the time of telling. This kind of story-telling does occur, of course, especially when stories are being told for the first time, but most storytelling requires so little work and is so repetitive, each version so much like the other, that many stories must be stored and retrieved as chunks.

A different type of memory process, then, must be active here. Our hero who fails to tell one or more stories from his isolated day will understand and remember what has happened to him in the sense that the facts will be available to him. But they will be available to him only when the various segments of his day are accessed for some reason, when someone asks him about his favorite grocery store for example. What he will lose is the ability to tell a story about that particular day. The day will disappear as a unit from memory, as will various aspects of the day. In other words, events of the day will no longer be accessible by asking oneself about what happened today; after a while they can only be found in the other parts of memory which will have subsumed them. What is remembered, then, will be in terms of what one knows about grocery stores, not a story in and of itself arising from the events of that day. To find that kind of story in memory, one must have put it there consciously in the first place, either by telling it to somebody or to oneself.

Story-based memory, then, is a different kind of memory from the memory that contains general event knowledge. Story-based knowledge expresses our points of view and philosophy of life. It depends upon telling and gets built up by telling. The consequences of this process are interesting when one considers what we tell and why since we are, quite unconsciously, making decisions about what to remember.


Human beings have large collections of stories. They accumulate stories over a lifetime, and when they are given the opportunity, they select an appropriate story and tell it. They determine appropriateness by a variety of factors, such as familiarity, emotion, the potential for shared viewpoint, and the need for approval. As we have seen, the story indexes can be selected for a variety of different purposes. The stories we tell are strongly affected by whom we are telling them to. In any situation where we finds ourselves telling an old story, we might reasonably wonder why we have chosen to tell a particular story.

The Teller and the Listener

The influence of the listener

One must decide on the appropriateness of a given story, and one usually seeks the approval of the listener either to elaborate or to tell another story. The listener, then, performs a very important role for a storyteller. He reveals, usually implicitly, which stories he wants to hear. He may like ones that show how important or powerful you are, or he may think such stories are exaggerations or simply ought not be told. He may want to learn some specific thing from your stories, or he may simply want you to finish up so he can tell his story in response.

Consequences for the teller

The trick for any listener is to send out the right signals, those that encourage the telling of the stories that the listener wants to hear. In the selection and evaluation process, eliciting the listener's approval is very important. We want to please our listener, but pleasing is a fairly complicated idea. If we know that we are our listener's hero, we might tell stories about our successful exploits in the world. If we know that our listener admires sensitivity, we might alter our stories to reflect that sensitivity.

But a story need not be favorable for the presentation to be favorable. Consider a person who often tells stories in which he has been a nerdy, sad sack character. (He locked himself out of his house at 3:00 am in his pajamas, he called his fiancee by the wrong name, he gave the finger to a motorcyclist who turned out to be a policeman, he painted two sides of his house and then ran out of paint and discovered that the color could no longer be matched, etc.) If these are not the only type of anecdotes he tells, and they are told to share a laugh about human foibles, we do not think ill of the teller. In fact, we may like him the more because he doesn't take himself too seriously. He is prone to "endearing pratfalls" (Aronson, et al. 1966).

An interactive storyteller, one who tells his story in parts while being interrupted by his listener, alters his story according to the interruptions. Thus, when a listener makes it clear by his reactions that certain kinds of stories interest him more than others, he is likely to alter his stories accordingly. A teller tries to tell the story his listener wants to hear.

The telling of one's old stories is a process not without consequences. The outside world determines which of our stories are worthy of telling by the way it listens to them. These stories then become our own definition of self. We are the stories we like to tell. (Singer & Salovey (1993), in their book on autobiographical memory, call our biased collection of memories the "remembered self.")

If we surround ourselves with people who agree that certain kinds of stories are wrong to tell, clearly, we will tell those stories less frequently. Stories that make us feel good to tell need willing listeners if we want to feel good. Similarly, those stories that put the teller in a bad light may well find willing listeners, but the effects may be quite harmful in the long run. Being defined by a set of negative stories has its limits. Overdone, it can be deleterious to one's mental health.

Of course, we don't only tell stories we have told before. Which events we choose to make part of our stories is important to how we define ourselves: when new stories are constructed for telling, the process of constructing those stories changes memory significantly. The storytelling process relies very heavily upon evaluation rules that tend to reflect very strongly one's view of the world, oneself, and the events that have occurred in one's life. Thus, two people might be expected to relate events quite differently depending upon their individual perspectives on what was worth telling, what was significant, what the listener was interested in, and what the events revealed about themselves. This last dimension alters the story composition process most profoundly. In order to tell a story that reflects well upon oneself, one might select quite different episodes to relate than if one wanted to tell the same event in a way that might lead the listener to feel sympathy for the teller.

The story composition process reflects very strongly the view that the teller has of himself combined with the view that he wants others to have of him. Any listener who really wants to know the person he is talking to, would, of course, want to hear the person's favorite stories. Similarly, any teller who really wants his listener to know him would want to tell his favorite stories. The more we desire intimacy, the more intimate the nature of the stories we tell. (See Taylor, DeSoto, & Lieb, 1979.)

Composing Stories

From the point of view of memory, the process of telling a story is significant because of the subprocess of composing the story that telling entails. In order to compose a story, one has to search memory for relevant episodes to relate and to discard episodes that one chooses not to relate. Thus, the composition of a story requires both a search and an evaluative process that selects and discards items found during the search.

Mental efficiency

Once a story has been composed, it tends to stick around. As we have observed, when you tell the story of your vacation, you concentrate on certain details and leave out others; relating the same events in a different way becomes more and more difficult. Each subsequent telling of the story is likely to get shorter, and to enhance the second or third telling of a story so that it is much different from the first becomes much more difficult. Therefore telling, or more important, composing, stories affects memory profoundly. Memory tends to lose the original and keep the copy. The original events recede, and the new story takes its place.

Why does memory work in this way? The story composition process requires a great deal of work; therefore, repeating the process every time for each additional telling of the story is quite costly. Moreover, in a composed story the number of episodes to remember is much smaller than the number of original events themselves. Further, these episodes have a coherence to them that allows reconstruction of missing or loosely connected details. Remembering less is simply easier, especially if what we are trying to remember is all located in the same place in memory, and we don't have to search for it again. A story, remembered as a story, is a unit that can be easily found, easily told, and be made useful for a variety of purposes.

On the other hand, collecting events from the separate places in which they were stored is a sloppy process at best. You might find something different each time. You would certainly lose information or at least, fail to find it some of the time. Further, the attention to detail required would be staggering. It would never be safe to forget something just in case it might be found useful later. Retrieving a story that is stored in only one place in memory is much simpler. It makes retrieval easier. It lets memory work less hard, it allows forgetting, and it provides a constancy of lessons to be learned that needn't be constantly re-examined.

Telling negative stories

Suppose we have a bad experience. Is the best strategy to keep it quiet, to suppress it? What does the storytelling model of memory predict about suppression? We tell stories in order to create records in memory that will coalesce a complex experience into a coherent whole. The story composition process creates that coherent whole which the storytelling process reinforces in memory. When a bad event that one does not want to dwell on occurs, we should tell someone about it, nevertheless, in order to start the composition process going. Recall that a side-effect of the composition process allows memory to forget the details not collected in the composition: after composition, details not collected for the story become harder to remember than they would have been had no story been told at all.

Thus we can try to edit the story to make it less painful, and store the edited version that we have told someone. Of course, memory maintains the newly created story, which may still be negative. But, and here is the key prediction, a story must be told fairly often to retain its status as a viable, that is, findable, memory structure. In other words, if you have a bad experience, you should compose the story, tell it once, and never tell it again. The sooner you tell a story, the sooner you can begin to forget it--by never telling it again. If you want to remember the story, on the other hand, keep telling it. Telling stories is fundamentally a memory reinforcing process. The more you tell, the more you remember. The areas you dwell on when you talk are the areas your memory wants to and does reinforce.


What happens, however, when the negative story you want to tell has no listener available, but you can't stop thinking about it? Or, alternatively, what happens when a negative event occurs, no story is constructed at all, and the negative event doesn't actually disappear? Is this where the phenomenon we commonly refer to as repression comes in?

Stories that we never tell may illustrate why we are always doing something wrong, or they may be stories about dark events in our past that we don't really want to admit actually happened. Stories that remain untold have a variety of properties that differentiate them from more normal stories. The major difference is that certain incoherencies are allowed to exist in untold stories. When we tell a story, we make sure it is both coherent and relevant to some point that might interest the listener. When we fail to tell a story, we don't need to examine the story for consistency. We can tell it to ourselves and reinforce it just as we might reinforce a story we actually tell by telling it; but, as we have said, our listener modifies our story by the very act of listening. Ordinarily, this modification does not occur for stories we tell only to ourselves. Here again, we see why it is important to tell one's stories. Therefore, if you can't easily forget disturbing events and insist on telling stories to yourself, you would be better off telling them to someone else, a therapist if need be.

Don't even think about it

To illustrate, a six-year-old boy comes home from school with a cold, and the next day his mother comes down with a fever and dies. the son assumes he has killed her, especially since he was angry with her the morning of the day he caught cold. that she was in very poor health at the time, that he often caught cold, and was often angry at her for all the ordinary reasons children might get mad at their parents, does not help him. The causal chain seems so compelling that he concludes he was the killer. As he grows up, he ruminates often about this awful episode and its import, but cannot alter its essential outline. He tries not thinking about it, but as Wegner (1989) has ingeniously shown, the explicit attempt not to think about something only makes things worse in the long run. The best short-run method for avoiding the thought of an object or topic is to substitute a variety of personally meaningful, competing thoughts.

Unfortunately, a side effect of the "don't think about it" strategy is that on later occasions, when the meaningful substitutes come to mind for other reasons, they remind the individual of their previous function. He is thus confronted again with the aversive memory. If he tries new alternative thoughts, they too become contaminated, and in the most extreme version of this scenario, he eventually becomes totally preoccupied with the terrible core memory.

Repeated failures to tell a negative self-defining story can thus establish a spiral of self-abuse. This is the opposite side of the coin of repeatedly telling and embellishing a self-enhancing story.

An ambivalent, neurotic storyteller

In a rare computer simulation of neurotic thought processes, Colby and Gilbert (1964) developed a knowledge base from a large series of psychoanalytic sessions. The patient, a woman in her 30s, had enormous hostility for her mother, but could not or would not admit it. The computer program imitated several stratagems that the real patient had tried. The most interesting class of these involved transformations of her forbidden story into a related story which was sufficiently different to be acceptable to tell. Thus the story, "I hate mother" (embellished with details) raised an anxiety monitor to an unbearable level, and set off a story transformation subroutine which came up with things like, "Actually, my mother hates me", or "I don't hate my mother, but my sister hates dogs". The first of these examples is close to the real story, and therefore has good potential for satisfying the need to tell; but this very similarity makes this alternative too dangerous, and it is likely to be rejected. On the other hand, "My sister hates dogs" is safe to tell, but is so disguised that it doesn't satisfy the goal of expressing the true situation.

Included in the simulation were three affect monitors which went up and down depending on the nature of what was said. The simulated patient cycled through a number of attempts to tell her story. Whether she succeeded depended on the settings of various initial parameters, but she typically failed. After a number of painful failures, she would refuse to deal with this topic any more in the analytic hour.

The fate of the untold story

The phenomenon of repression relies upon this idea of the unwanted and untold story. When we have no one to tell a story to, we tend to bury it. It may well go away; indeed, without rehearsal, it should go away. Certain events, however, are too important simply to go away because we fail to tell their story. Stories about the grocery store will go away if we don't tell them partially because they are not so interesting or important and partially because we replace such stories with similar ones. But stories about significant episodes in our childhood, for example, do not go away so easily, partially because our childhood doesn't keep recurring, and partially because significant episodes are, by definition, different from the norm, and thus unlikely to repeat. Episodes that define a situation will tend to remain in memory, looking for a repetition that will allow us to make the appropriate generalizations. But, we cannot easily check out our generalizations and explanations if the events we are concerned with don't replicate. Furthermore, childhood explanations are childish. Since explanations are often the indices or labels for stories, bad explanations may not easily find another situation to match against.

Thus, untold stories tend to stick around when they are unique in some way, waiting for a similar story to occur and create generalizations. If such stories are very negative stories and remain untold, they can indeed affect a person's psyche. Here again is an important use of therapy.

This phenomenon of the untellable story is familiar to psychoanalysts. They typically regard the dangerous content as repressed, and not available to consciousness. On this view, one of the goals of analysis is to undo repression, and enable the patient to have insight into her hidden motives. We prefer to think that untold, negative autobiographical experiences are partially conscious but surrounded by confusion due to many unsuccessful attempts to edit them and tell them, leading to the absence of useful indexes.

Stories Based on Shared Experiences

A very interesting property of experiential memories is that two or more people may go through the same set of activities or events at the same time, and each come away with variations in the stories they tell about it.


The famous Japanese movie, Rashomon, acts out four different versions of an encounter in the woods between a bandit, a woman, and her husband. Each of these main characters tells a face-saving story of the encounter. The "truth" may be somewhere in-between, but by the time a fourth version from a supernatural presence is heard, the audience begins to doubt whether there is such a thing as the true story.

Japanese metaphysics notwithstanding, biased testimony by participants in conflictful events has bearing on the outcomes of legal proceedings, and this certainly merits psychological analysis. However, we are going to bypass this application, and concentrate instead on the social consequences of similarities and differences in memory for shared episodes.

Co-biographical memories

Meaningful (and sometimes meaningless) experiences are told and retold soon and/or long afterwards by couples ("the time we sneaked out and went swimming in the moonlight"); families ("the way Grandma sold a house before she bought it, and made a big profit"); office mates ("the time they put in the first computers"); political activists ("that was a terrific rally."); and so on and on. Couples or friends or groups with close, long-lasting relationships accumulate a great many shared experiences. We will refer to memories of these episodes as "co-biographical memories".

There any also many groups that form around mutual recreational or professional interests. Even though they may encounter one another only intermittently, and often may have participants changing over time, they too have shared, collective memories. Examples might include casual friends who share an interest in movies ("I thought the mathematician was going to get eaten") or following sports news ("Buckner couldn't take it any more, so he moved to Idaho"). Such stories have some of the properties of autobiographical memories, as each person has had the experience--and some different properties, because their experiences cannot have been exactly the same, and their interpretations of the events are almost certainly somewhat different. If the individual versions are rather close, and each person knows that the other person remembers approximately what they remember, then the individuals have established what linguists call "common ground" (Clark & Marshall, 1981). For our purposes here, this means that they can talk about the topic in a highly condensed way. Here is an example, as overheard by one of us: Two New York Knicks basketball fans encountered one another in the departmental mail room early one June morning in 1993. They looked at each other and shook their heads sorrowfully. One said to the other, "How in hell did he miss?!"

As a stand-alone linguistic utterance, this is completely unintelligible. How did who miss? Miss what? The listeners in the room who knew nothing about the basketball playoffs found this sentence baffling. How did the listener know what the speaker was talking about?

Well, he must have presumed it, knowing that the fifth playoff game between the New York Knicks and the Chicago Bulls had taken place the night before, and every true fan (which he knew the listener to be) would almost certainly have watched on TV. With the Bulls ahead by one point in the final few seconds, Charles Smith of the Knicks missed four straight apparently easy shots, dooming the Knicks to lose the playoff. For intense fans, such co-biographical memories--even though they were only seen and not participated in--are shaped over time to become the lore of the game. Every sport or recreation has such legends, which are in effect subcultural memories.

Since many individuals participate in conversations about a vivid event seen or heard by an interest group, we cannot claim that the event is biased by exactly the same processes as is a strictly autobiographical memory. Yet the distortions may well have the same meanings. The stories become "leveled" (with details dropping out), and "sharpened" (with the core aspect exaggerated), as also happens in rumor transmission (Allport & Postman, 1945).

Frozen historical stories

Consider "Merkle's Boner", a famous baseball incident which occurred in 1908 in the last half of the ninth inning of a crucial game between the Giants and the Cubs. The actual details of this event are extremely complicated (Fleming, 1981), with crowds on the field, a couple of baseballs in play, disagreement about what Merkle did, and bitter controversy over the umpires' ruling for weeks (even years) afterwards. Yet what remains of this story in the minds of all but the most erudite fans is that some guy named Merkle didn't touch second base in the ninth inning and the Giants lost. The tag line, "Merkle's Boner", freezes this attribution of blame in what turns out to be an unjust way if one examines the original accounts.

If blatant story-shaping of a "minor" public event such as a single play in a baseball game can survive for a century through storytelling and retelling, the fragility of accounts of defining events in the history of kingdoms, religions and nations is mind-boggling.

Sometimes the stories of history get frozen, as in the (possibly false) attribution of child murders to Richard III; sometimes competing versions have currency for quite a while, as in the Kennedy assassination. Though falsehoods in group stories may occasionally be due to connivance, distortion can readily occur without political intervention. Autobiographical experiences, certainly, are shaded away from truth by fairly mundane processes.

One experience, two stories

For social psychologists, the analysis of dyadic relationships is preferable to the quagmire of human history. Let us consider the case of two people in an intimate relationship who have participated in the same event, with each of them wanting to tell about it as a story. First of all, there is the question of whether they will agree about the event. Ross and Holmberg (1990) asked husbands and wives to recount various benchmark episodes that occurred up to twenty years before, such as their first date. A surprising number of discrepancies of various types occurred in first date recountings. Many details emphasized by one spouse could not be recalled by the other.

An incidental finding of note was that wives recalled more details, and said that they had retold and rehearsed first date episodes more than their husbands. These two findings can be variously interpreted, but they are at least superficially consistent with the notion that, in general, men are more indifferent to matters of sentiment than are women.

Why couples fight over the story both are telling

Now let us picture the commonly enacted scene of a husband and wife jointly telling a co-biographical memory at a dinner party. Suppose it is the first time that this particular experience has been told. Typically, the two spouses will disagree about what is important to tell, and about the interpretation of the events, as well as about irrelevant details like how many steps were climbed, or whether the tour guide was Greek, or Italian.

There are two issues at stake in such disagreements, one particular to the story being told, the other pertaining to joint storytelling in general. The audience will usually politely ignore the disagreements and join in the illusion that there exists a single version of the story. The partner whose descriptions and interpretations more often command the attention and acceptance of the audience is laying claim to his or her version as the authentic co-biographical story. The more passive partner finds that other people take as autobiographical fact a story which the more active partner has imposed upon the audience. We have seen in previous sections that autobiographical stories are self-defining, and influence memory. In this situation, therefore, part of one partner's self is being publicly defined infelicitously by the other partner. He or she is under duress to remember an alien version of the story.

Given this insight, it still is unclear why husbands and wives commonly haggle over the irrelevant details of a story. What difference to either spouse's self-definition does it make if the guide was Greek or Italian? We think that what is happening is a skirmish in an ongoing general battle to exercise the most control over joint storytelling. The loser surrenders the right to individual self-definition, a very threatening eventuality.

We are not certified clinicians (nor even uncertified clinicians), but we suggest that the road to happy coupledom in the storytelling scenario is sensitive negotiation of who says what when, such that the dignity of both parties is preserved. The major part of the difficulty here appears to stem from an unawareness of the crucial role that telling stories plays in self-definition. Acceptance of a story by one person alone, or by two or more people together, means the acceptance of a new memory, and that is powerful stuff.


Skeletal Summaries

Consider the following statement made by a woman commenting upon the relationship of two friends of hers:

He used to admire her. She was a rising star in her profession, and he thought that she was terrific. He was willing to make sacrifices for her because he respected what she was doing. He made choices about having children, household chores, and his own career, based upon his attempt to let her be whatever she could be. He believed in the women's movement, and he believed in her. And then, she betrayed him. She stopped caring about her career. She competed with him for the children's attention. She eventually gave up working altogether and spent her time jogging or hanging around in women's support groups. He is tremendously angry at her because he feels betrayed. What were all his sacrifices for--so she could goof off?

How summary concepts determine story interpretation

The teller of this story has decided that the marriage of her two friends was an example of a betrayal story. In effect, once she decided to see their situation as one of betrayal, she didn't need to see it any other way. Aspects of the relationship between the two people unrelated to betrayal or that contradicted the notion of betrayal, were forgotten. Seeing a particular story as an instance of a more general and universally known story causes the teller of the story to forget the differences between the particular and the general. In this instance, the teller of the story can use the word "betrayal" as a very short story for telling on other occasions when time is more dear. In other words, the concept of betrayal becomes what she knows about this situation. It controls her memory of the situation so that new evidence of betrayal is more likely to get admitted into memory than contradictory evidence.

It is very convenient that we have words or phrases that are in essence stories. We use this convenient feature of language as a means of taking shortcuts when we talk. Instead of telling all the details of a situation, we can index it as a "betrayal" or "undermining my confidence" or "ordering me around" or "being inconsiderate." Such prototypic stories need not be negative of course. We have "heroism" stories and "defense of our nation" stories, and "always there when I need you" stories as well.

The problem with all this is that it allows the possibility of working backwards. That is, instead of thinking of the facts of the matter and saying to oneself, "gee, a good way to summarize that would be by using the concept of betrayal", we turn this process around. We decide that betrayal is a good story to tell based on very little evidence, and then find facts that support this point of view.

There are a great many words and phrases in English that indicate complex stories and thus serve to standardize particular situations. These words are stories, or more accurately the indexes to stories.

Among the conceptual schemes for classifying complex stories are Schank's (1982) "Thematic Organization Packets" and Lehnert's (1981) "plot units". Most people believe that betrayal is bad. The teller tells the story so that betrayal seems to have happened. She uses the betrayal skeleton story and then constructs the story around that skeleton.

In other words, by using a skeleton story for betrayal, the teller could only construct a story of betrayal. Why couldn't the above story have been told as if it were a story of "devotion?" Only small changes would be needed to make this a story of devotion--a statement that he still loves her and hopes she will return to her former self or one that shows he values and will support her in her role as mother. Often, the truth or falsity of these additions is not so easy to determine. We cannot always know every aspect of a situation that we describe. This story could easily have been a devotion story if the teller had chosen to see it that way.

Thinking in terms of standard stories poses a serious danger although doing otherwise is not so easy. We want to see the situations that we encounter in terms that are describable to others. We often have only a short time in which to tell these stories. So, even if the fit with those stories is not exact, seeing and describing complex situations in terms of standard stories provides an easy shorthand method for communication. But, a problem can arise when we see our own lives that way. That is, if we react to our own situations by understanding them in terms of general standard stories, we can make some serious mistakes.

Different story skeletons: The Iranian plane case

If we construct our own version of truth by reliance upon skeleton stories, two people can know exactly the same facts but construct a story that relays those facts in very different ways. Because they are using different story skeletons, their perspectives will vary. For example, a few years ago the United States Navy shot down an Iranian airliner carrying over 200 passengers. Let's look at some different stories that were constructed to explain this event. All the stories that follow are excerpts from various New York Times reports in the days following this incident:

Mr. Reagan smiled and waved at tourists as he returned to the White House. But in speaking to reporters he remarked on what he had previously called "a terrible human tragedy. I won't minimize the tragedy," Mr. Reagan said. "We all know it was a tragedy. But we're talking about an incident in which a plane on radar was observed coming in the direction of a ship in combat and the plane began lowering its altitude. And so, I think it was an understandable accident to shoot and think that they were under attack from that plane," he said.

In this quotation from Ronald Reagan, the use of skeletons to create stories can be easily seen. (A skeleton is a cluster of motivated events and states, sequential in time.) Mr. Reagan has chosen a common skeleton: understandable tragedy. The skeleton looks something like this:

actor pursues justifiable goal
actor selects reasonable plan to achieve goal
plan involves selection of correct action
action taken has unintended and unanticipatable result
result turns out to be undesirable
innocent people are hurt by result
it is not the actor's fault

Mr. Reagan selected this skeleton and interpreted the events in terms of that skeleton. Had he been asked to tell the story of what happened, he would simply have had to fill in each line above with the actual event that matches it. As it is, he merely had to recognize that that skeleton was applicable and to use the phrases "terrible human tragedy" and "understandable accident" which are well-known referents to that skeleton.

Now let's look at some other comments on the event:

After expressing "profound regret" about the attack, Mrs. Thatcher said: "We understand that in the course of an engagement following an Iranian attack on the U.S. force, warnings were given to an unidentified aircraft. We fully accept the right of forces engaged in such hostilities to defend themselves.

Mrs. Thatcher has used a much more specific skeleton, namely the justifiability of self-defense. This skeleton proceeds as follows:

first actor pursues unjustifiable goal
first actor selects plan
plan has intention of negative effect on second actor
second actor is justified in selecting goal
second actor selects justifiable plan
plan causes action to take place which harms first actor

Let's look at another version of the story:

Libya's official press agency called the downing "a horrible massacre perpetrated by the United States." It said the attack was "new proof of state terrorism practiced by the American Administration" and it called Washington "insolent" for insisting that the decision to down the plane was an appropriate defensive measure.

Here, two different skeletons are invoked. The first is state terrorism and the second is insolence. The insolence skeleton is an amusing one to invoke, but we shall ignore it and concentrate on the terrorism skeleton:

actor chooses high level goal
country blocks high level goal
actor chooses secondary goal to harm citizens of country
actor endangers or actually harms citizens of country
actor expects blockage of high level goal by country to go away

"State terrorism" supposedly means that the actor is a country, not just an isolated naval vessel. But, "state terrorism" is not exactly a well known story skeleton for an American. In fact, Arab leaders refer to this skeleton quite often and we can figure out what it must mean and why Arab leaders use it to justify their own actions. Other people's story skeletons, ones that we have not heard before, are usually best understood by analogy to skeletons we already know.

Notice that the events under discussion fit as easily into the state terrorism skeleton as into the above two skeletons. The art of skeleton selection is exactly that--an art. Very little objective reality exists here. One can see and tell about events in any way that one wants to. In each case, certain aspects of the story being transmitted are enhanced and certain elements are left out altogether. (An exposition of various detailed methods for tailoring a political speech for different audiences is given by Hovey (1987).)

The real problem in using distorted skeletons this way is that the storytellers usually believe what they themselves are saying. Authors construct their own reality by finding the events that fit the skeleton convenient for them to believe. They enter a storytelling situation wanting to tell a certain kind of story and only then worrying about whether the facts fit onto the bones of the skeleton that they have previously chosen. This method has almost comic qualities to it when various interpretations of an event are so clearly interpretations independent of the event itself. For example, consider the following comment:

A newspaper in Bahrain, Akhbar Al Khalij, said: "No doubt yesterday's painful tragedy was the result of Iran's insistence in continuing the Iran-Iraq war. The United States as a great power does not lack moral courage in admitting the mistake. This will help contain the effects of the accident."

The remarks above refer to two skeletons: the justifiable bad effects of war on the aggressor and moral courage. Both of these skeletons could have been used to describe nearly any event in the Middle East that Bahrain wanted to comment upon.

Political Storytelling

In the international arena

The use of new events as fodder for invoking old skeletons is the stuff of which international political rhetoric is made. In the Times of the same period, we have another reference to how Reagan commented on a similar situation some years back:

President Reagan, in a speech after the Korean plane was shot down after straying over Soviet airspace above Sakhalin Island, said: "Make no mistake about it, this attack was not just against ourselves or the Republic of Korea. This was the Soviet Union against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere."

"It was an act of barbarism," Mr. Reagan went on, "born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations."

While the Americans used the barbarism skeleton, where the Koreans were the victim and the Russians the actor, to describe the shooting down of the Korean airliner, the Russians, in describing the Korean Airlines attack, used the military aggressor skeleton, where the Koreans were the actor and the Russians the victim. This same discrepancy occurred in the Russian statement about the Iranian airliner:

The Tass statement said the attack Sunday was the inevitable result of the extensive American military presence in the Persian Gulf.

It added: "The Soviet Union has repeatedly warned at different forums that the path of military actions cannot lead to a normalized situation. If the warnings had been heeded, the July 3 tragedy would not have occurred."

Storytelling by candidates

International politicians alone do not tell stories by selecting their favorite skeleton and fitting the event to the skeleton. The candidates for president also had something to say:

Mr. Jackson said there was "no evidence that the U.S. ship was under attack by that plane." But he added, "The issue is not just failed technology, but failed and vague policy for the region." Mr. Jackson argued that the United States should not be in the Gulf unilaterally, but as part of a United Nations peacekeeping effort that would have as its prime goal a negotiated settlement of the Iran-Iraq war.

At a Fourth of July address at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston today, Mr. Dukakis described the incident as a "terrible accident," adding: "Clearly we have the right to defend our forces against imminent threats. And apparently, the shooting down of the airliner occurred over what appears to have been an unprovoked attack against our forces."

For Mr. Jackson, the appropriate skeletons were bad technology causes errors and vague policy causes problems. Mr. Dukakis, on the other hand, looked suspiciously like Mr. Reagan, indicating that he was already acting presidential. Mr. Jackson had already realized that he was not going to be President at this point, but he was still campaigning to be taken seriously. Therefore, he was still raising issues. The Iran incident reminded him of two of his favorite issues, so he chose to see the Iranian airplane event in terms of those issues.

Last, we should look at the Iranian point of view. They, too, had their favorite skeletons in terms of which they could look at this event. First, let us examine the remarks of an exiled Iranian official, a political rival of the government (who was soon assassinated).

"It must be clear that much of the policies in Iran today are dictated by the internal struggle for power," said Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the first President of Iran. Mr. Bani-Sadr, who spoke in an interview, lives in exile in Paris and opposes the current regime.

"In that sense," Mr. Bani-Sadr said, "this American act of aggression will increase pressure to steer away from conciliatory policies in favor of radicals inside Iran who want to crush all talk of compromise. I am sure the trend now will be toward more mobilization for more war, although it will get nowhere."

Mr. Bani-Sadr was trying to predict the future rather than retell an old story. Nevertheless, he still relied upon a skeleton to create his new story. The skeleton he chose was fanatics find fuel to add to fire. Now look at a comment from inside Iran:

Hojatolislam Rafsanjani, who is the commander of Iran's armed forces, warned today against a hasty response to the American action. In a speech reported by the Teheran radio, he told Parliament, "We should let this crime be known to everyone in the world and be discussed and studied."

The Speaker, who has emerged as Iran's most powerful figure after Ayatollah Khomeini, went on to say that the Americans might "want a clumsy move somewhere in the world so that they can take the propaganda pressure off America and transfer it somewhere else."

Hojatolislam Rafsanjani added that Iran retains the right of taking revenge, but that "the timing is up to us, not America." He called the downing of the airliner "an unprecedented disaster in contemporary history" and said it should be used by Iran to "expose the nature of America," statements indicating that for now the Speaker favors a measured response.

Here again, we have a story about the future. Two skeletons are invoked as possible candidates for the basis of this story. One, force opponents into bad move, refers to the intentions of the U.S. as seen by the Iranians and is really a part of a continuing story of conflict between the two countries. The second, avoid revenge to show up opponent, is more or less the other side of the same coin. In both cases, we have a kind of conscious admission by Mr. Rafsanjani that the real question is which story skeleton will be followed in the creation of the next set of events. The only problem with this assertion is that Mr. Rafsanjani naively seems to assume that some audience is waiting to see the next act in the play. A more accurate assumption is that no matter what happens next, all the viewers of the play will retell the story according to skeletons that they have already selected; i.e., they will probably not be moved to reinterpret any new event in terms of some skeleton that they do not already have in mind.

Skeletons and Belief

Political contexts

Story skeletons can have an important effect on memory. Since we see the world according to the stories we tell, when we tell a story in a given way, we will be likely to remember the facts in terms of the story we have told. This effect on memory has an interesting offshoot. When we select a particular skeleton because we have no real choice from a political point of view, we, most likely, will begin to believe the story we find ourselves telling. Consider the following statement, for example:

Iran Air's senior Airbus instructor, Capt. Ali Mahdaviani, ruled out the possibility of pilot error in the tragedy. He said it was possible that the airliner's captain, Mohsen Rezaian, failed to respond to signals from the American cruiser Vincennes because at that stage in the flight he was busy receiving air controller instructions off two radios and from four control towers, Bandar Abbas, Teheran, Dubai and Qeshon Island in the gulf.

He insisted that the airliner would not have been outside the flight corridor and certainly would not have been descending, as early Pentagon reports said. He attributed the incident to a panicky reaction from the American cruiser, but did concede that the decision to fire the two surface-to-air missiles was made in difficult circumstances. "I think the decision to shoot down the plane was taken in very nervous conditions," he said.

Now consider an opposing statement:

"We have in this briefing all the facts that were made available to the captain when he made his decision," said Senator John Warner, a Virginia Republican and former Navy Secretary. "We are all of the same view, that he acted properly and professionally."

Senator Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who is the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, agreed. "I find nothing to second-guess him on, based on his information," Mr. Nunn said.

He was quick to add, however, that the information that Capt. Will C. Rogers 3d, the commanding officer of the Vincennes, was working with might be contradicted by information on the computer tapes, which are believed to have recorded every action taken by the ship's operators, every bit of data picked up by its sensors and every communication heard in the region during the encounter.

"It is an entirely different matter to second-guess a decision that had to be made in three or four minutes, to second-guess it over a two-week period," Mr. Nunn said, referring to the deadline for Navy investigators looking into the events.

Each of these statements is what might have been expected from the people who made them. Yet, how were the memories of the spokesmen affected by the stories they told? In some sense, they told stories that they had to tell. Neither of these spokesmen was necessarily one hundred per cent sure that the pilot and/or the captain weren't somewhat wrong in what they did. Situations are rarely that black and white. But, having made a politically necessary statement to support his man, each spokesman probably believed more in his man after defending him.

A Divorce Story

In order to understand an episode in our lives, we must construct a story that makes the episode make sense. We do not like to believe of ourselves that we act randomly or without reason. When we make a decision or take an action, we like to believe in our choice, especially if that decision or action is a significant one. In a sense, then, we must construct a story before we take an action to ensure that the action we are about to take is coherent. Further, if the action is any way incoherent, we make it more sensible by putting it into a framework that is acceptable to those who hear the story. In other words, if what we do fits into a well-known, socially acceptable story skeleton, then we can believe that we have acted properly.

The attempt to put things into a framework for the purposes of story telling has, as we have suggested, a serious impact on memory. In effect, we find ourselves believing our own stories. In reality most people are not anywhere near as rational as they pretend to be. We make decisions on the basis of what feels right at the time, out of fear or ignorance, on the basis of emotional reactions to events, and so on. Nevertheless, despite the fact that many people recognize that this is how they themselves make decisions on a daily basis, we cannot bear to admit that this is true when we are asked about our decisions. We find ourselves constructing a story to serve as the answer to why we changed jobs, got divorced, decided to spend too much money, or mistreated our friends and family. When the answer ought to be "I don't know why I did it" or "there were a great many factors that went into the decision" we instead construct a good story, one that will be believed and understood as being coherent. To do this, we pick a skeleton that we know will work for our listener. Unfortunately, once we tell a story using such a skeleton, it is difficult not to believe it ourselves.

In order to see this process in action, at least as well as one can really see such a process, we asked people who had been divorced to tell us the story of their divorces. The subjects were all teachers. The stories shown here were edited from longer versions for the purpose of readability. (They were probably edited as well by the tellers as they were telling them, which is, of course, the point here.)

Divorce is a good domain to study with regard to story telling and story skeletons because the stories are attempts to summarize many complex events. Anyone who has been divorced probably has a story to tell about that divorce. The teller often has a real desire to portray himself as the wronged party and to have the listener express sympathy. However, in the attempt to meld many years worth of events in one story, the actual events would be too complicated for any standard story skeleton. Coherent stories that rely upon a standard story skeleton may well mask, in varying degrees of effectiveness, a less coherent set of events which do not fit neatly into a story skeleton.

Let's look at the first story:

A: I was divorced actually two years ago. I probably would have stayed married for much much longer had Peter stayed working, but he decided to take retirement from his job and start his own business, and I wasn't really thrilled about the idea, but it's not the sort of thing you can talk a man out of. He said "you know you can work with me." I said, "no chance, we'd be divorced in a week." He took it as a joke. He said "we work so well together," and I thought "that's because I do it the way you want to, not the way I like." So, I went out and got a full-time job teaching, and gradually it started to dawn on me how very unhappy I was with having him around.

He was extremely hard-working, very demanding of himself, and extremely demanding of everyone else. Sometimes he'd be critical; sometimes, if I'd take him to task about it and say, you know you're always so critical, he'd say you're the most wonderful, you're the best person I could have married, etc. etc. I realized he was saying to me on the logical plane that I was the best wife he could have had. He certainly wouldn't want to trade me for someone else, but at the same time, I could improve just a few things.

Then I went back to work, and I started saying to myself, wait a minute, I don't have to spend the rest of my life being squashed. I realize I think I was afraid of him in a way, not that he physically abused me or attacked me in any way except verbally. And I think he undermined my ego to a certain extent, and after I started working, and he was home, I really found I didn't like to be home.

Then when I came down here, he started thinking he'd look for a job down here, and I was hoping he wouldn't find one. He didn't, and when he'd come down to visit every couple of weeks, I found I was really not looking forward to seeing him. And he began to realize that he wasn't being particularly welcomed by the people here, and I think the poor man really was quite hurt. When we'd go up to visit him, we'd arrive so tired and find a list of things he wanted us to do. We realized this is not much fun, and we stayed here, and he stayed there and then after about a year, there were a couple of other little incidents with his family and what have you, and he one day said to me, maybe we should get a divorce.

You know, my mother always looked upon divorced women as some sort of fallen woman and fast-living, loose woman. "She's divorced you know." I can't be one of those people, people she would point out and say, "she's a divorcee, you know, what can you expect?" Divorce really has a very bad press, and it took me a couple of months to get into my little head that this was the 80s, and this was the United States, and plenty of people I liked and respected got divorced, and they hadn't turned into scarlet women, so gradually it dawned on me that this is not such a bad idea.

I phoned Peter, and I said you know you're right, we should get divorced, and I think it totally took him by surprise. Peter thought that it would shake me up if he said maybe we should get divorced. I'd say I can't lose this marvelous man, and what have I done wrong. Let me shape up a bit and we'll keep the marriage going.

In fact, once I made the decision, it was a wonderful feeling. I remember going out running one day and thinking oh I feel free, I feel as if a sort of load has been lifted. I think what it was was that I no longer had this person standing over me and criticizing whatever it was that I was doing. The longer we were separated with the divorce coming, the more I felt the sense of incredible freedom, and life was almost poetic. Once I made the decision, I never had a moment's doubt. I was thinking one night, well, so it's easy for me to divorce him now. If I was married to him, I'd be with him, and I'd rather be on my own. You know, at least if I were on my own, I could do my job, I could run, I could play tennis. I could go to lectures or whatever, and I basically could enjoy myself on my own. So it was a good feeling to get divorced.

Getting the Reaction You Want

Conflicting skeletons

What kind of story is this? The first problem arises from the story skeleton it uses. A fairly standard story skeleton that some wives use to describe their marriages runs as follows: man oppresses woman who in turn demands more independence. For the woman who is telling this story, this skeleton conflicts with another one from her childhood: woman leaves man and turns to wanton life. She clearly had a conflict between which of these two skeletons would be her story, and one can guess that she decided to test herself by getting a job in another state away from her husband. The odd thing here is that we can only guess at her motivation because she says almost nothing about her decision to move out. She just uses the phrase then when I came down here to refer to her leaving her husband and getting a job elsewhere prior to any talk of divorce. Notice that no standard socially acceptable story skeleton really exists for her sort of separation, and for this reason, she might not have told that part of the story. What made her decide to split up her family for a job? This behavior is not common and would have to be explained--but she barely mentions it. When no standard story skeleton is available, telling stories is difficult.

Choosing the right skeleton

People need to make sense of their own lives. One way of feeling that you have made sense is to tell your story to someone else and hear them respond in positive, supportive, ways. To make sure that you have expressed your story in terms that others understand, you must use the right skeleton. You wouldn't use the word rachmones while talking to someone who you knew would not know the word. Similarly, you would not talk about man oppresses woman who in turn demands more independence unless you had reason to believe that your hearer knew that skeleton. You could, of course, try to instruct your listener about the meaning of the skeleton, but you would not get the empathy you were looking for. To avoid this feeling of isolation, of lack of understanding, when talking to someone from whom one wants support, people naturally use skeletons that they know will get them that support. When people want to make a case for themselves, or when they want to describe a situation to others in order to get a certain kind of reaction, they choose a well-known and culturally agreed upon skeleton, one to which they can predict the reaction of others.

The Annie Hall Sequence

Married couples often comment on a sequence from the Woody Allen movie Annie Hall. The sequence involves two scenes, where first the female lead and then the male lead discuss their sex life as a couple with their respective therapists. The woman complains that her boyfriend wants to have sex all the time--two or three times a week. The man complains that they almost never have sex together--only two or three times a week.

This movie scene expresses the essence of story construction. We take the facts, and we interpret them in such a way as to create a story. In order to facilitate communication and to allow easy conversation, we sue standard story skeletons that we share as a culture. The choice, however, of which skeleton to use is, in essence, a political choice. We choose to see the world according to a view that we find convenient, and we communicate by adopting standard points of view. The stories we tell communicate this view both to others and to ourselves. In the end, we become shaped by the skeletons we use because we don't remember the facts, we remember the skeletons we have used. Skeletons are, after all, simply a kind of index. Memory is organized by them and memories are retrieved with them. Thus the two Annie Hall characters, many years later, when asked about their sex lives can be assumed to be capable of recalling the skeleton they used, not the actual amount of sex that they had. the disagreement is in the story we chose to tell and could not help but remember.

Another way to look at this is to ask which of the Annie Hall characters is right. The question is absurd in this context, but, it is important to realize that it is also absurd in contexts where we normally think it makes sense. The politicians we quoted earlier are all equally right as well. In a sense, there is no truth apart from interpretation. Memory is not truth, it is merely memory for previous interpretations. Storytelling forces us to adopt a point of view. The skeletons we choose to use, that we select before we have really considered the facts, indicate our our prior point of view which alters our interpretations of the facts. Our memories are comprised of the stories we tell and the stories we tell comprise our memories. In a sense we can only see the world in the way that our stories allow us to see it. Since storytelling is so altered by the audience that receives them, in this way our audience seriously shapes what we remember.

Thus we, and our audience, shape our memories by the stories we tell. If we hang around with a "bad crowd" the stories the crowd tells and likes to hear will be the stories we come to believe. Our own experiences will have difficulty changing the world view of those with whom we surround ourselves. Rather their world view will shape the stories we tell, and thus what we remember and believe. As we come to rely upon certain skeletons to express what has happened to us, we become incapable of seeing the world in any other way. The skeletons we use cause specific episodes to conform to one another. The more a given skeleton is used, the more the stories it helps to form begin to cohere in memory. Consequently, we develop consistent, and rather inflexible, points of view.

In the process, we distort the facts somewhat. A teller will make his sstory fit into the skeleton, and will tend to leave out the parts that do not quite fit.

Skeletons for Divorce Stories: Emphasizing What Looks Good

To see some of this in action, and to get a feel for what other kinds of skeletons there are, let's consider another divorce story:

Young woman marries older man for guidance

B: I got married when I was 22. I grew up in Colorado in a fairly traditional Western home, had a great college experience, went off to graduate school and stayed in a Ph.D. program. I was in Pennsylvania, an environment that was foreign to me, and I met this man who was older and much more sophisticated, had been married. And in some intuitional ridiculous feminine way I sought him out to help support me and get me through this. I was tired of school by that time, and that was disintegrating. I more and more clutched to this individual. I couldn't possibly imagine life without somebody telling me what to do and how to do it. So, I was Catholic, he was Jewish. I was Western, he was New York City. Many opposites, so we ended up getting married.

And what happened is, I grew up. It sort of was forced on me to become my own person after I became a mother. For the first time, I really had to be conscious of my self and my own motives and how I was doing things because I had this child to take care of, and I also had a full-time job and had to get all this stuff done. I did not need or want to have this oppressive atmosphere created by this person that I married who resented every step of my independence and personal growth.

I found a lot of development of self coming in the classroom relationships with kids, and he would tell me that my relationships were sick. He once said to me, "I've created you, and I want to instill this sort of debt." Interestingly, I ended up in counseling because he said I had a problem. The therapy helped me put some objectivity on this relationship which was really tortuous, very stultifying, very oppressive, as you can imagine. So it began, I think, on a suggestion on his part, I think, to get me to think right. Right thinking, you know, ended up backfiring because I was able to establish some distance from the relationship and finally realize in the long process that I couldn't survive. I was dying in this relationship, and I had to get out. We were married five years. It seemed like one-hundred fifty.

Surely, I would have gotten divorced if I hadn't fallen in love with C. It was going to happen. I had already sort of semi-separated but had gone back. I'd been through therapy, but I think even the moments I spent with C taught me what it was like to be with a real human being male; you didn't have to feel threatened and horrible. It gave me a real glimpse as to what it could be really like, and I was sure that was the impetus. We had seen each other from the start of the affair only once before the lawyers. So it wasn't as though that was the cause. I often think people think well, you've fallen in love, and that's the cause. I have often believed that whatever's wrong is wrong, and you're attracted to other people because things are so wrong.

This story relies upon two standard story skeletons. The first is: young woman marries older man because she wants guidance; he wants her to remain a child, but she grows up and changes and doesn't need him anymore. The second is: partner in bad relationship finds lover to use as means to effect final separation from spouse. The teller of this story wants the hearer to believe that the first skeleton is operating, and that the second is not. Her story is simple and clear and obvious according to her rendition of it. It is quite natural, she is asserting, that a young woman would marry an older man for guidance and then be prevented from growing up by a man who liked being married to a young woman. By relying on this old standard story skeleton, one she can assume that her listener has heard before, she can assume that her divorce will be seen as having been socially acceptable, reasonable to do, in other words. But things are rarely this simple of course. In this case she mentions a second skeleton, which people normally disapprove of, and which she asserts was not really operating. The reason she mentioned it at all, one can assume, was that C, the man she had her affair with and was now married to, was present and about to tell his story:

Man tries to replace mother with wife

C: My first marriage took place within hours literally of my graduation from college. I graduated from college at two o'clock in the afternoon and was married at seven o'clock that evening. I promised my father I'd wait until I graduated. I'd not had a lot of relationships with different women. The woman that I'd married I had met in the summer after my sophomore year in college. I was working in a summer camp in upstate New York. We were both on the staff together. It became one of those summer kinds of counselor things that - we got very serious in the course of six weeks. I was going to school and living in Ohio. She was living in Albany, N.Y. For the next two years in the relationship, we saw each other only at vacation times which were, I think, artificial at best. There are all the festivities that surround vacations, and we never had any sense of each other in day-to-day living which proved to be one of the fatal flaws in the marriage.

My mother had died when I was 9 years old - I'm the youngest of 3 children - two older sisters. My sisters were old enough so by the time I was in junior high and high school, it was just my father and I by ourselves, two men. And, I grew up doing lots of the household chores, cooking, cleaning, all the rest of that sort of stuff, sort of envying classmates and friends who had moms, who came home from school, everything was done. So, I really feel that there was some chunk of my psychological development that just was missing, and I think a great force operating pretty subconsciously in my search for a spouse was someone who was going to mother me. Do all of those things, and clearly, that's what Sara, my first wife, was all about. I would say for the first year or so I was having everything that I did not have growing up. I had this woman who really was taking care of me, and it was great, and I think that masqueraded as a deep relationship. There wasn't much what would I say emotional, intellectual exchange between the two of us. I felt I did not have any grand feeling of emotion toward Sara, but I was thinking, well this is just the way marriages are.

Then, we moved to a much larger independent boarding school in Illinois which represented the very best of independent education in that it was a very intellectual community, very diverse, lots of fine minds, and I continued to grow professionally myself there. Found myself very very comfortable in that community, increasingly comfortable while Sara was finding herself increasingly uncomfortable with that. And, it was at that point that I began to feel that the marriage was not only very empty but was going to continue to be very empty simply because we were two very very different people. The directions that I wanted to move not only professionally but personally and the sorts of people I was attracted to on a social level were not people that Sara was comfortable with.

At the very end of my relationship with Sara, B and I did in fact begin a relationship in which I was discovering what it meant to have the full range of deep feelings for another human being, and that just confirmed my belief that this relationship wasn't going to work, so we separated.

This story relies upon a few skeletons at the same time. The first is: married too young and tried to imitate the idyllic image of a 1950s suburban marriage (the Leave it To Beaver skeleton). The second is: man tries to replace mother with wife and then decides that's not what he wanted. And, a third is: one partner grows while other stays the same. These three are all rather related, and, of course, they are tied together with partner in bad relationship finds lover to use as means to effect final separation from spouse which was convenient in this case since he found a woman (B) who had exactly the same story that she wanted to tell. In his case, too, he denies that this last relationship was the cause of his divorce. We tell the stories that we want to believe, after all.

Man cannot commit himself to relationship

Now, look at the next story:

D: The relationship started. My sister was married to this person's brother. But what I should have known in hindsight is there were certain qualities to this person that I should have known in terms of his attitude towards women and his commitment to one person. We were married in August, and we were divorced August three years later, so it was very short. And, as it turns out, there was someone else, another woman involved before we got married, and there were women involved all the way along. But I didn't know this. I guess I didn't want to know this. So, it was definitely something that I had a hard time getting over. I think that because I was very young, and I had a feeling that divorce meant failure. What I know now is that the failure was not on my part, the failure was on the part of this person toward relationships in general. Matthew came in at a point, and I almost felt guilty that he had come into my life. I knew I wanted out. I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know how to get out of it. I'd just made a move to a new location, and all of a sudden my whole life was changing again. I was seen at that point as being, or I perceived that I was being seen as the one who had found somebody else and so was running off, but, of course, what people didn't realize was that he had somebody in the wings for a long time. So I think that produced a feeling of guilt in me that we had a moral contract. I look back on it as more of a relationship that didn't work as opposed to a marriage that failed, but that's seven years after. I certainly didn't feel that when I first was getting out of it.

Here we have a very standard story skeleton: man has affairs and cannot commit himself to a relationship, thus he leaves wife to terminate it. And, here again, the teller notices that the skeleton, partner in bad relationship finds lover to use as means to effect final separation from spouse, could be inferred from the actual events, so she insists that it was not the dominating skeleton in this story.

Simplifying the World

Humans cannot easily digest the complexity of the world they live in and the actions that they and others take in that world. We look for explanations of our own behavior and of the behavior of others that seem to make sense. But what does it mean to make sense of a behavior? When we tell about a series of events that have occurred over a five or ten year period, as in a divorce story, we look for overall patterns rather than attempting to relate every event that ever happened. We look for generalizations to make. But what kinds of generalizations can we make? First and foremost, we look for generalizations that we have seen before and that we believe others have seen before. We speak in generalizations that our listener can understand.

If we have available to us a set of standard explanations, in the form of story skeletons, we can explain the behavior of others by trying to match their behavior to the standard skeletons. In other words, we try to understand events by reference to events we have already understood. An available set of skeletons, of old favorites as it were, helps us to impose a uniformity on an otherwise incomprehensible world. We know what patterns to look for, and we insist on finding them.

The implicit contrast between teller and listener

This same process goes on in reverse when we tell a story. If we tell a story that is really brand new, in the sense that none of the behaviors has been seen before, then both the teller and the hearer have a great deal of work to do. The teller must relate almost all the events that took place. He cannot take shortcuts and assume that his hearer will infer the details because his hearer has no basic everyday story to use as a guide. The hearer is trying to match what he is hearing to what he already knows about, but if he cannot explain the behaviors he is being told about, he must try to explain things without reference to previous related events. This is very difficult to do.

So the teller of a story and the listener have an implicit agreement. The teller will only tell standard stories, stories that are easy to understand. When the teller finds some events to relay that are incomprehensible, he will not relay them, or he will force them into a format that makes them look comprehensible. In fact, the teller has no other choice. He cannot easily remember events that are incomprehensible except as a series of isolated occurrences. He uses standard patterns himself to understand the events that he is about to relate.

When a person decides to tell about his divorce, he is telling about the situation the way he understands it and the way he hopes his hearer will understand it. He is thus forced, in some sense, to make his story acceptable and easily comprehensible both by his initial attempt to understand the events himself and by his prior attempts to tell others his story. To achieve this goal, he chooses a standard story to tell, a story skeleton, and forces the facts to fit the skeleton. If parts of the story do not fit the skeleton, he ignores them. If the story also fits a skeleton which is not favorable to the teller, he acknowledges the superficial parallels and then disputes the accuracy of that skeleton in his case.

Story fitting

Telling stories of our own lives, especially ones with high emotional impact, means attempting to fit events to a story that has already been told, a well-known story that others will easily understand. Story-fitting, then, is a kind of deceptive process, one that creates stories that are not always exactly true, that lie by omission. These lies, however, are not necessarily intentional.

A true story could be told but would take much more time. So time, in many ways, is the villain here. Your listener doesn't have hours to listen to your story, so you create a short version that looks more standard, that fits a well-known story skeleton. The problem with this solution, as we have seen, is that the teller himself begins to believe his story. In short, storytelling is a very powerful process. Stories replace the memory of events that actually took place. So, when people tell the kinds of stories we have seen in this section, they usually believe them.


Although it is a convenient metaphor to imagine that the mind is a collection of thousands of stories all properly stored away and waiting to be told, the situation is considerably more complicated than that. When you tell a story, one of the reasons that you feel as if you are thinking of what to say is that that is precisely what you are doing. The index of the story is what is held in memory, not the particular words that comprise the story itself. When we tell a story, we are transforming the index into a story about particular actors in a particular setting, told in a particular language with particular words, suitable for telling to the person who is listening.

Adapting a Story for Different Purposes

We can tell the same story in different ways in order to satisfy different goals. We can, of course, tell a story in different languages, if we speak different languages, so obviously the language itself is not part of the index. Also, we can tell a story at different intellectual levels, for example, one version for a child and another for an adult--so obviously indexes do not include the way that a story is told. Storytelling activates a set of processes that operate on the index of a story in various ways depending upon many factors that are part of the storyteller's environment. The index and the number of possible stories that can express that index are very different entities indeed. Therefore, a set of mental processes that transform indexes into stories must exist.

To get a sense of what such processes might look like, examine a story created with different intentions in mind, and thus different processes operating on the initial index. To explore this, I asked a student with considerable acting experience to tell a story that had happened to him in a variety of ways. What follows are the stories that he told, each in a very different way, depending upon the intention that he was trying to get that story to satisfy.


The basic story was told from the memory of this student with the intention of having a cathartic effect.

Story 1: I was at a gas station this morning. I have this Volvo. It is a tank. I backed into this planter, this big concrete, made out of mortar, thing and knocked the thing apart. I felt like such a zero. They called the police, and the cop came over, and he didn't give me a ticket because I was on gas station property. But, I can't believe I did that.

Offering an excuse

The next version of the story was told with the intention of illustrating a point about his vision problems:

I was driving my Volvo once into a gas station, and what must have happened is that I was traveling forward, and I hit this big square concrete thing. It was high enough that I should have seen it, but it was over here in my right visual field. It was just another one of those cases where there is missing field here and I bashed right into it. I mean it was bright daylight, and I drove into it. Sometimes, I just don't see stuff.

Creating an empathic reaction

In the next version of the story, the teller tried to make the listener fall in love with him by making himself seem vulnerable:

I had this old Volvo a few years ago. It was my first car, and people always have a certain special relationship to their first car, and I had one to this. I am not the type of guy that ever thought that I was really fast, the way some people do in a car, but when I was in this car I thought I was invulnerable. One day I drove the car into a gas station and drove right smack into a concrete planter, knocked it to pieces and broke my right headlight. I wasn't injured, but I was so embarrassed. I, I felt like, I felt, I felt just completely devastated. I talked to the guy that was working at the gas station, and he told me that I was an idiot. I was going to have to pay him $10,000 to have the thing installed - it was brand new. I realized that there was a lot more to being safe than being in a car that I wouldn't get killed in; that I was still just as vulnerable and just as potentially damaged as anybody out there. My Volvo wasn't really going to protect me at all in some way or another.

Telling your mother

In the next version of the story, the storyteller was instructed to recount the events as if he were a teenager telling the story to his mother:

Mother, uhh . . I hit a cinder block planter with the car today in a gas station. Didn't do any serious damage to the car. Uh, I damaged one headlight. I am fine. Uh, the guy at the gas station on the other hand is very angry. I will take care of it. I will pay for getting the car fixed, and if it turns out there is some damage to the gas station, then, that needs to be taken care of, I will take care of that, too.

Applying for a job

The next version of the story was produced when the teller was asked to make believe that he was applying for job as a driver and had to explain a problem on his driving record:

As I recall, I was in a big hurry. I was coming back into town, and at the last minute, I decided to stop for gas. As I was coming in, something happened at the gas station where the cash register and that junk is. I looked over - I must have been coming in about 3 miles an hour - and I nudged this planter about two feet high sitting right out in the middle of the runway where you get gas. I pushed bricks off of it with the front of the car, and the guy comes out screaming bloody murder and says that he has put his life savings into there, and he won't have customers anymore because some of the bricks are missing from the planter and that people will think that the station is rundown and that he is going to sue me for every penny I am worth. So, that is why we called the insurance company at all - otherwise, it was nothing.

Complex Indexes

Actual stories are produced from a index that is stored in memory. We have thus far presented a rather oversimplified view of indexes. A complex index may include a skeleton at its base with some elements transformed, and extra elements added. Or, it may include no standard skeleton at all, being a truly unique story. Each of the stories shown here was produced by transforming either the index of story. The teller did not have multiple versions of each story stored in memory. Rather, when told with a particular intention, the story that is stored in memory changes form. This transformation of the index uses a variety of mental processes, all of which are trying to get particular intentions accomplished. Consequently, the resulting stories are different because their intentions are different. In other words, stories can differ in intention but be identical in a content. The index of a story, therefore, is a characterization of the story's events. The communication of those events depends upon the aspects of the index that the teller wishes to highlight. If the same kind of emphasis is placed on a particular interpretation of a story each time it is told, that interpretation will become part of the index. Indexes are mutable entities, changed in the repeated telling. As soon as we begin to tell a story we also begin to change the original memory index into a story that we think relates to what our listener should hear. The index itself can therefore be changed by telling a story. The behavior of my student, above, is not typical after all. Usually tellers adopt one stance on an event, choose one skeleton, and the combination of the skeleton and the aspects of the event that fit into that skeleton become the index on which any future story telling must depend. In other words, we can fool ourselves into believing that something actually happened by transforming what really happened for the purposes of telling about it.

The first version of the story was told upon instruction to tell a story that was cathartic. Thus, we can assume that the story was composed by taking its index and transforming it according to the intention of expressing catharsis. However, for the sake of argument, let's assume that the story is identical to the index that is stored in memory. What is wrong with such an assumption? The first problem is that each story had many more events than the ones that were explicitly related. The Volvo has a color, a year, a condition. The gas station has a certain look and feel to it. It is modern or old, in a city or on a country road. It sells a particular kind of gas, and so on. The policeman said some things; the station owner said some things; the teller of the story said some things. All of these have been left out.

In the first telling of a story, a teller decides what to leave out. This decision is based upon a number of factors that include whom he is telling the story to, why he is telling it, and how he now perceives what has happened to him. After all, one cannot say everything that has happened. A story about a two-week vacation could take two weeks to tell. A teller must decide what aspects of the index are likely to be of interest to the hearer.

On subsequent tellings of the story, details that have been consistently left out tend to get forgotten although they can be reconstructed in some instances. The index itself can be changed by the telling of a story over time. Pieces of the index that are never told tend to disappear from the index itself. The location of the gas station is never mentioned in any of the versions of this story, but if this event took place while the student was at Yale, then the gas station was probably in New Haven, i.e., in a city setting and not on a country road. Thus, this aspect of the index is reconstructable. It will never totally be lost because it can be figured out. But, the kind of gas that the station sells, since it is never mentioned and much more difficult to reconstruct, may well be lost forever.

We propose then, that the index is stored in memory and is operated upon in a variety of ways. Each of the processes described below transforms various aspects of a index into various aspects of a story. The first process that we shall take note of is the distillation process.


Distillation is a two-part process which reduces the events of a story to a set of simpler propositions, i.e., to its index, and then puts those propositions into English. The first part is a memory process. A complex array of memory structures is distilled into a simpler coherent whole when a story is told for the first time. We actively try to figure out what to tell about an experience.

Index construction

The process of distilling a coherent story from a range of particular experiences causes a memory entity, the index, to be constructed. After a index is constructed, it, in effect, becomes the memory of the original set of events that comprised the story. The events themselves become lost as an easily retrievable entity, while the index is available for use. When someone asks us about an experience, we remember what we have previously told about that experience. Rather than attempting to search all over memory to find something to say, using what we have already said is simpler. The first part of the distillation process, then, we call index construction. This process searches what is known about an event and finds discrete propositions that become the index of the story and can then be told in a given order. Once this takes place, each time a story is told, the process becomes increasingly difficult to reverse, as the new story replaces the original memories.

Let's imagine that you have just returned from a week-long vacation touring castles in England. A friend asks you how your trip was. What do you do? First, you must comb through the events of your trip to see how many of them were significant enough to mention. These choices are made in concert with consideration for the kinds of things your friend might be interested in and the amount of time he is prepared to listen to your story. When you are finished finding things that you want to tell about, you have finished the first part of the distillation process. You have constructed a memory representation of the story you are about to tell. You have constructed the index.


The second part of the distillation process, translation, expresses an index in a natural language. There are, as we have seen, many ways to express the same index. The differences depend upon one's intentions and the story skeleton that is chosen to express those intentions. The translation process takes each of these propositions and translates them from their representation in memory into English. The translation process, then, is not a memory process but a linguistic process. Events are being translated from memory format into English format. This translation proceeds event by event and thus sentence by sentence. As each sentence appears, a new call to memory to find the next proposition occurs. These memory calls depend upon what went before. Often, how an earlier proposition was actually expressed in English can alter what propositions are composed next. So, in effect, expressing an index in language can alter the index somewhat by making demands upon the memory. For example, if you say that a castle you saw was beautiful, and you realize at the moment of expression that your listener might be interested in exactly what was beautiful about it, this can force you to go back to memory to find out more. Now, this information may not be in the index and thus, you might be forced to search parts of memory from which it is quite difficult to retrieve. Another alternative is to reconstruct the details from what you imagine might have been beautiful about the castle. In this way, we can see that the translation process depends, in part, upon information about the hearer, as well as upon information that may reside in memory that may not be part of the index at all.

An index, therefore, is an evolving kind of entity. If aspects of it are not accessed in future renditions of the story, an index can get smaller. It also can get larger as memory reconstruction adds pieces that may not have been in the original event at all. Further, the process of translation can affect the index. When certain words are chosen, they may express an emotional content that although not part of the original events, now becomes part of the index. A new point of view in light of subsequent events might cause the translation process actually to change the index. We don't remember how we slanted things during a telling, by and large. But, we do remember details that we may have added in translating an index into English, and these additions can become part of a reformulated index.

Index-construction is probably a great deal like the memory process that has the responsibility of storing away stories in the first place. We remember only the index of the story so, in essence, what we are doing when we are initially storing away a new story is consciously trying to remember it. We are rehearsing the telling of the story, distilling it, in other words, for ourselves as part of the memory process. Telling a story for the first time may involve distilling it for the first time for our listener, but, more likely, we probably have already done this in thinking about the experience by ourselves.

Nevertheless, more distillation may be done during the actual telling than was done initially. The desire to keep a story short, for example, has the effect of distilling an index so that only the essential details remain. In general, distillation leaves out descriptions of physical items unless those descriptions are critical to the story. Distillation also leaves out the particular words and ideas of the participants in a story, although this distillation tends to occur at the time of storage rather than generation. In fact, words may be put into the mouths of the participants by another story process, as we shall see below. Distillation is a purist's kind of process. Distillation may never really occur in its pure form, however. That is, we like to think that we tell a subset of what we have experienced, and distillation is the process by which that subset is selected. But, in actual practice, stories add details that may never have occurred at all. We shall see how this process works when we discuss other aspects of story construction.

Combination Processes

Now let's consider again the Volvo story, in which the teller made a point of his vision problems:

I was driving my Volvo once into a gas station, and what must have happened is that I was traveling forward, and I hit this big square concrete thing. It was high enough that I should have seen it, but it was over here in my right visual field. It was just another one of those cases where there is missing field here, and I bashed right into it. I mean it was bright daylight, and I drove into it. Sometimes, I just don't see stuff.

In this version, the teller combines the indexes of two stories to make one story. The first or master story is the Volvo story; the second story is about the student's visual problems. Because the vision story has its own point, the effect of the combination process is to take everything from the Volvo story that related to the vision story and to tell it while suppressing everything else. Notice how almost nothing in the Volvo story that is unrelated to the teller's visual problems is expressed. Combining a point with a story means leaving out the parts of the story that don't help make the point and emphasizing those parts that do.


The combination process, therefore, causes the distillation process to suppress events unrelated to the point of the story to be conjoined. The combination process must integrate two stories by deciding which is the master story and which is "coloration" for the master. Events are interwoven to make one coherent story. The major subprocesses in combination, then, are suppression and conjunction. The suppression process examines the index of each story to be combined to see whether it enhances the newly combined story. Aspects of the coloration story that have nothing to do with the point of the master story or with the coherence of the newly created story are thus dropped.


The conjunction process must weave the two stories into one by deciding which story is dominant (dominance is often a function of affect), and which story will be used to enhance the dominant story by adding details or evidence. With the vision story dominant, the Volvo story is mined for important details which are added as evidence for the propositions of the vision story.

When a story is told in order to gain the attention of those around, the teller employs a different kind of story process. Let's consider what processes might have been active in the attention-getting versions of these two stories:

Let me tell you what happened to me. I was at a gas station, and I was driving this big old Volvo that I have. Let's see, I think I had gotten the gas, and I was - no, I hadn't gotten the gas yet. I was just driving in, and I was trying to get up to the pump, and there was this big planter up there. I don't know, it was this brick thing. It had dirt, and I drove the car into it and mashed the front of the car and really mashed the planter, much worse than the front of the car. So I got out, and I talked to the guy at the gas station. He was really pissed off at me because he couldn't figure out how anybody could be stupid enough to drive into a planter right out there in broad daylight, and so we decided that we had to call the police, and he wanted to know the name of my insurance company. Then, the policeman got there, and I talked to him for a while. He said to me that it wasn't really a problem because I was not out on a road, so he was not going to give me a ticket, but I was still probably responsible for the damage, and the guy could still sue me if he wanted to, or he could go to my insurance company and get the money. So anyway, we exchanged insurance companies .

One difference between these stories and the first versions is greater length. Another difference is that the subsequent versions have more emotional content. Both of these differences are results of the elaboration process.


Stories can be elaborated for a variety of reasons, each of which relates to the story intentions discussed earlier. For example, a story can be elaborated in order to create an emotional impact on the hearer. Or, it can be elaborated in order for the teller to hold center stage as long as possible. Each different intention causes the elaboration process to function differently.

Detail addition

For example, if we want to hold center stage, we might fill in as many details as possible. If we want to make a listener like us, we might elaborate the story with examples of how well we behaved, how poorly we were treated, and so on. Thus, elaboration is not the name of one story process at all. Rather, elaboration means finding additional things to say. In this story, the teller elaborated each event by adding details about how he felt to be there.

Thus, the elaboration process has three major subprocesses associated with it. Detail addition is a fairly straightforward process. In order to make the story take longer or seem more vivid or more realistic, details are added to the index. Details can be added by search, by reconstruction, or by adaptation. In other words, we search memory to add details that we actually remember or that we can imagine must have been true or that we know were true in other similar situation. Although the addition of details may have no point in terms of content, details matter a great deal in terms of storytelling. The more details added to the story, the more memorable the story becomes. Thus, the story is interesting and attention-getting.


A second elaboration process is commentary. In this process, we embellish by adding our own view of the situation, including comments on how well or how poorly various people behaved, what the right thing to do would have been, what others might say or think about the situation, what we would do next time and so on. When we tell the story again, we might add different comments according to our audience and our view of the world at the time. Such comments are rarely part of the story index in memory but are usually added at telling time.


The third elaboration sub-process is role-playing, another part of the telling process and not of memory. Since what people actually say is rarely part of the index, we imagine what someone might have felt or said in that situation by accessing other stories where such feelings were experienced and stored. Thus, elaboration via role-playing tends to involve story combination. The stories that are combined are vestiges of old stories denuded of their actual points and circumstances and added to the current story in order to enhance it.

Consider, for example, the phrase "[the station owner] couldn't figure out how anyone could be stupid enough to..." Where does this come from? The teller probably did not recall the station owner's words. He had no real information about the owner's thoughts. Rather, the teller temporarily assumed the role of the owner by remembering his attitude, imagining where that attitude might have come from, and making up the rest. Thus, stories which start out as the relaying of factual events become fictional in a sense. Even telling true stories involves making up the events more often than not. The index just doesn't have all you need if you want to tell a story that grabs people's attention.

Other Processes


The captioning process is a shorthand way of telling all or parts of a story. Captioning is simply the summarization of a larger story used as a means of telling that story. Captioning is a very important story telling process. Its most common form is in the telling of culturally common stories, that is, those stories that we all share as members of a culture. Because we share them, we need not tell them, we can simply refer to them. Culturally common stories are usually referred to rather than told. For example, the following one-liner from the Woody Allen movie, Love and Death, is a reference to stories that we all know about insurance salesmen:

There are worse things in life than death - If you have ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman, you know what I mean.

The commonality of our culture's views of insurance salesmen allows us to communicate in this way about insurance salesmen. The culturally common story here is simply that insurance salesmen are boring and painful to listen to. A proverb is a captioned culturally common story. Some captioned stories get told in their least detailed form, making them understandable only to those who already knew them. Such stories can become so short that they do not in any way appear to be stories, and in some obvious sense, they are not stories. For example there is the well-known joke:

The prisoners in a maximum security prison had little to entertain themselves with so they told jokes to each other. But, they had long since run out of new jokes to tell, so they simply numbered the jokes and yelled out the numbers. A new prisoner, hearing "42," "64," "108," being yelled down the hall with raucous laughter following each number asked about what was happening, and it was explained to him. He asked if he could try it, and his cellmate said sure. He hollered "36," and nothing happened. Next he tried "27" and still nothing. The new prisoner finally asked his cellmate what was wrong, and he replied "you didn't tell them so well."

A captioned story that is shortened so much that it ceases to be understood is no longer a story, but, what is understandable to one person may not be understandable to another, so it is clear that story is a relative term. In any case, as long as it is understood, it remains a story. For this reason, there are some very short stories. A really great example of captioning is from the movie, Manhattan:

A: She's gorgeous.

W: She's seventeen. I'm forty-two, and she's seventeen.


The process of adaptation is not detailed here. Adapting a story means taking one story and making another one out of it, for example, taking Romeo and Juliet and converting it to West Side Story. This involves taking actors, plans, events, etc., from the source story, and mapping them into analogous entities in the target story.


Psychologists might raise several questions for theoretical clarification of our ideas. One theoretical question goes like this: if we grant that telling stories alters memory for them, how do know whether this is due to the actual telling, rather than the intention to tell? Presumably if one has the goal of presenting a laundered version of an episode, some reorganization of memory is required before one tells the story to others. Does the act of telling result in additional alteration, or does it serve to fix this already reorganized memory, or what? This issue might be consequential because it often happens that we prepare to tell a story (or write a letter), and we rehearse it mentally, but for one reason or another, we never actually get to tell it (or send it).

A second, somewhat related question concerns the distinction between telling stories to others and telling them to oneself, i.e., privately reviewing the details of experiences one has had. (Psychologists would call this "rehearsal".) Again, the issue is the contribution of overt conversation, if any, over and above purely cognitive processing of autobiographical stories.

The third question is about the malleability of stories in memory. Suppose the details can't be altered to create a satisfactory version of the remembered self. The person might be too anxious or guilt-ridden about some past episode to dare tell about it. Does this weaken our position about the importance of story-telling for memory of self? We now consider these questions in turn.

Actual Telling vs. Merely Intending to Tell

What are the effects on memory of preparing to tell a story, as distinct from the effects of actually telling it? Relevant to this point, there has been research on the memory effects of the intention to convey information. This topic goes all the way back to the early 1950's, when Zajonc (1960) considered the purposes of attending to information. There are different reasons why people might want to understand what they are being told, and the reason could influence the way this material is organized in memory. (This reminds us of the old joke about a burnt-out psychiatrist: A friend asks him how he can stand listening day after day, year after year, to neurotic tales of anguish and distress. He shrugs: "Who listens?!")

"Cognitive tuning"

Zajonc referred to the listener's purpose with the term "cognitive tuning", i.e., how the listener is mentally set to process the incoming information. His major distinction was between the "receiving set" and the "transmission set," each induced by instruction to experimental subjects who expect to hear some information about a particular person. The receiving set instruction was that some material about a person would be given right away, and that more would come later. Subjects were to listen carefully, but be mindful that the first batch of information was incomplete. In the transmission set condition, subjects were told that after hearing material about a person, they would have to describe him to another subject. Subjects were to listen carefully, keeping in mind that the information would later be relayed.

The information did not come in the form of an account of a personal episode; rather, it was an ambiguous description of the personality traits of a hypothetical individual. Characteristic of psychological research on language and memory, Zajonc's study is thus somewhat remote from the realistic scenario we have in mind, involving the telling of a personal episode. Nevertheless, Zajonc's results make the point that in the transmission set, with the expectation of telling another subject about the hypothetical person, there was more well-organized memory for the material presented, with fewer inconsistencies. The number of facts remembered did not differ between the two instruction groups, but the selection of facts was more coherent in the transmission condition. We would have expected both better organization and fewer facts remembered in the transmission set condition, due to the distillation process.

Recent research

This line of research has intermittently been followed up. Recently, Lassiter, Pezzo & Apple (1993) hypothesized that immediately telling a prepared story differentially diminishes memory for it a week later. He established two experimental conditions: in each, subjects heard a standard story. In one condition, they had an opportunity to tell the story; in the other, they did not. The crucial memory test was one week later, and factual memory was better in the group that had not had the opportunity to tell the story. The investigator attributed this result to the famous (but fragile) Zeigarnik effect, by which uncompleted tasks command more mental resources than completed tasks.

This experiment was criticized by Boniger, Brannon, and Brock (1993), who doubted the operation of Zeigarnik effects in general. They were also skeptical of the story-telling opportunity provided to "completed task" group. Subjects had told their story to a computer (!), a feature employed by the experimenters in order not to introduce variability due to the demeanors of human listeners.

Experimental difficulties

It is clear from these kinds of experimental ambiguities how difficult it is to combine the usual tight controls of an experiment with the real circumstance of telling a friend a personal experience. The most straightforward way to distinguish the memory effects of actual telling from mere intention to tell is to have two groups both prepare the same stories for the same prospective listener, with one group telling and the other group not telling.

But how can the experimenter arrange to frustrate the intention to tell? Whatever gambit is arranged (running out of time, the listener failing to show up, etc.) introduces an extraneous situational variable. Perhaps it would be best to use a counterbalanced design in which each subject prepares two stories, but actually tells only one. To our knowledge, this has not been tried.

To be truly pertinent to our hypothesis about the memory effects of telling stories, the story material used in experiments should be personally relevant. We have postulated that the shaping of stories is motivated by a more general, long-term desire to shape one's self,

particularly for its presentation to others. The transmission of impressions about hypothetical people has little or no consequences for one's "remembered self", unless one's performance reflects on one's wisdom or empathy.

Is this issue critical?

In the end, perhaps it is only of academic interest whether it is the intention to tell or the act of telling that carries the freight of memory alterations. It may be a little of both. A similar issue arises for the counterattitudinal advocacy paradigm in dissonance theory: is it necessary for the subject actually to give the dissonance-arousing speech, or merely to expect to do so? Ask any two social psychologists this question, and you will get three different answers. What matters for the present discussion is the idea that the individual edits and reorganizes autobiographical experiences for conversational purposes. In the normal course of events, intending to tell is followed by actually telling. The case of the prepared but untold story may only matter if it happens repeatedly. Later, we will discuss the effects of chronic inability to tell one's story.

Rehearsing vs. Telling

Similar to the issue of the differential effects of telling an experience vs. merely intending to tell it, is the question of private rehearsal vs. public presentation. An individual who has had an interesting experience may mentally review it for a number of reasons. One of these may be the intention to tell other people about it, leading the individual to try to organize the interesting parts and drop out the nonessentials, or smooth over the embarrassments, etc. However, planning to tell is not the only reason for rehearsal. There may be a need to ponder the meaning of the experience, which among other things may involve receptivity to remindings from other experiences. The individual may wish to air some feelings internally. And so on.

For the psychological experimenter, it is hard to distinguish the memory effects of rehearsal from those of actually telling about one's experience. The problems are similar to those for separating the influences of intention to tell and actual telling. The major difficulty is in controlling the (privately governed) degree of rehearsal. The apparently straightforward thing for the experimenter to do is to provide time and motivation for some subjects to rehearse their experience while other subjects have no time to rehearse, but must immediately tell. However, these two manipulations are incommensurate in several arbitrary ways. For example, there is no good way to guarantee that the experience is rehearsed only once, not twice or half a dozen time-- and we end up comparing apples and orchards.

Again, however, the distinction may be of no more than academic interest. It seems reasonable to suppose that with most experiences of any importance, rehearsal and telling both occur. There is no doubt that the memory strength of a single item or list of items is a monotonically increasing function of the number of rehearsals. Telling, if nothing else, is certainly another rehearsal, so it, too, will strengthen a simple memory. But our interest is not primarily in the strength of experiential memories, it is in the system of organization of large numbers of them, and how this system affects and is affected by storytelling. The social relationship between the storyteller and the listener is consequential for our view of autobiographical memory, but is not a factor in rehearsal. (Rehearsal with a particular listener in mind is tantamount to the intention to tell, not mere rehearsal.)

Children's Memories

Eyewitness testimony

The memory capabilities of children shed some light on the nature of adult memory. Let us first consider children and adults as eyewitnesses. In many experiments on eyewitness testimony, the basic design is to stage a dramatic episode of a possibly criminal activity, and then to attempt to disrupt the observer's accuracy of memory, e.g., by asking misleading questions (Loftus, 1979). At some time later, memory is assessed, and the result of interest is the degree to which inaccuracies are incorporated into the subject's account of the incident. Even without disruptive intervention, eyewitness testimony is surprisingly inaccurate. With disruptive interrogation of various types, further error is introduced.

Such phenomena are of course of great legal interest, most poignantly in the area of child abuse (Ceci and Bruck, 1993). Children's testimony on whether an adult has sexually abused them is demonstrably vulnerable to repeated badgering by prosecutors. Induced false memories in preschoolers, after being honed to the satisfaction of the prodding adult, are not infrequently maintained as true, and recounted as such to other adults (Ceci & Bruck, p. 422).

In this type of situation, the influence of others on the story-teller is drastic. At first, it seems that the fabrication of facts in the child's testimony under duress has little to do with the voluntary alteration of autobiographical details in the service of self. Still, this example leads us to wonder how memory for experiences develops in children in the first place. Are there objective autobiographical memories, which may be corrupted by various external and internal influences in the telling and retelling? Or is there no such thing as unedited memory for experience?

The invention of autobiographical memory

In a very provocative paper on the origins of autobiographical memory, Nelson (1993) defends a highly unusual position, one that is strikingly consistent with our argument in the present paper. It can be paraphrased as: Autobiographical memory is a social invention.

Nelson first challenges the Freudian construct of repressed memories, which is based on the ubiquitous finding that adults have no memories for experiences prior to age 3 or 4, and very few up to age 6 or 7. She notes that this finding is rendered moot by studies of the memories of children for prior experiences. Children as young as 24 to 30 months old demonstrate in spontaneous monologues (Nelson, 1989) and in response to questions (Hudson, 1986) that they can occasionally retrieve particular sequences of events from recent novel experiences. Furthermore, 3-year olds can provide generic event memories (scripts) for routine activities they have repeatedly experienced (Nelson & Gruendel, 1981). Why, then, do these memories disappear by the time the child has reached adulthood?

Nelson's position is that early memories are transient and disorganized, for two reasons: the child lacks the encoding experience to store them systematically, and in any case attaches no particular importance to them. Of what use is the memory for a unique event to a child who doesn't know whether it will ever happen again (much less have the cognitive ability to pose such a question)? The most permanence that Nelson is inclined to accord preschoolers' unique memories is that perhaps they might remain in a "holding pattern" for up to six months. Reinstatement of the event by the occurrence of a somewhat similar experience within the holding period would increase the potential longevity of such event memories (Fivush & Hammond, 1989). If there were no reinstatement within the holding period, the event memory would be lost. (Note the compatibility of this pattern with Tomkins' (1978) notion that a single event in itself is of little cognitive significance to a child, but further events can sometimes evoke the key process of "magnification" .

Several repetitions of very similar events encourage the development of generic memories, such as of visits to the grocery store or the zoo (Hudson & Nelson, 1986). After five or six repetitions, the individual visits become scrambled in the child's memory, exactly as we have postulated for adults, and what forms is a generic memory for a particular kind of activity.

The key part of Nelson's analysis of preschool memory is that parents teach their children how to remember. The transition between the 3-year old who forgets unique events but retains scripts and the 6-year old who can intelligently discuss a variety of past experiences is brought about, according to Nelson, by conversational experiences with parents. The parents elaborate ongoing or past episodes with the child, ask questions, share emotions, and so on. Such interactions do not merely serve to reinstate particular experiences; they gradually convey to the child a primary function of event memories, namely the ability to communicate them to others for the several benefits that provides. Nelson writes, "The claim here is that the initial functional significance of autobiographical memory is that of sharing memory with other people, a function that language makes possible. Memories become valued in their own right...because they...serve a social solidarity function...I suggest that this social function of memory underlies all of our story-telling, history-making narrative activities, and ultimately all of our accumulated knowledge systems" (1993, p.12).

Nelson proposes that parents (often implicitly) convey to the child what is important to remember, and, in effect, why and how one has to rehearse an event after its occurrence in order to tell it to others. She offers several corollaries of this proposal, for example, that deaf children of hearing parents and members of cultures that discourage children from speaking with adults should be slower to develop autobiographical memories. There is as yet no evidence on these hypotheses, and hardly any definitive research on her general proposal. Nelson cites an unpublished dissertation by Tessler (1991) showing a strong correlational relationship between mother-child conversation about a museum visit and later memory by the child for objects seen. Another dissertation, by Engel (1986), makes the distinction between "elaborative" and "pragmatic" styles of parent-child conversations invoking memory.

The pragmatic style has to do with serviceable facts such as, "Where did you put your mittens?" The elaborative style provides the basis for storytelling, constructing narratives of shared experiences such as museum visits. The obvious prediction is that children of elaborative mothers (and fathers who interact often with their children) will develop better autobiographical memory facility than children of pragmatic mothers (and fathers). The pragmatic group of children might develop memory of a semantic sort. There is sketchy evidence supporting this hypothesis, but it has not been tested longitudinally over long time intervals.

Returning to the topic of the child as eyewitness, note that the children studied by Ceci and Bruck (1993) were preschoolers, the age range that Nelson proposes as the period during which children learn how to construct and talk about autobiographical memories. Consider the scenario of a sexual abuse accusation in which the child initially denies the evidence for the allegation, and it is in fact false. The repeated badgering by the prosecutor may be seen as a perverse variant of autobiographical memory training: the child learns that one should tell as a memory what a threatening adult tells you to remember. What seems to the adult a capitulation may be to the child a release from confusion, if we accept Nelson's proposal that preschool children don't quite know how to organize and report their fragile memories for events. The prosecutor offers them a compelling method of memory organization, which some of them eventually accept.



In this essay, we have claimed that from the point of view of the social functions of knowledge, what people know consists almost exclusively of stories and the cognitive machinery necessary to understand, remember, and tell stories.

To be sure, there are various kinds of things people know that seem to have little to do with stories. These include facts, beliefs, lexicons, rule systems, and grammar. The rhetorical force of these apparent exceptions to our claim, however, is sharply reduced by three considerations, as discussed in Section II. first, there are a great many cases in which items from one or another of these domains serve to index stories. This is especially true of beliefs, but applies also to facts, and even to numbers. Second and more important, people do not ordinarily hold conversations in these domains. The names of state capitals are learned by rote in school, thence to the unmentioned forever unless you visit one (when there may be a story in it.) And one does not overhear talk of elegant grammatical regularities at family dinners, or golf courses, or on airplanes. Third, such communication as does take place within these domains is largely confined to experts in the subject matter. With increasing expertise comes a tendency toward "storification" on one's subject matter. Mathematicians tell stories about theorem proving, chess players tell stories about legendary chess games, and so on.

What our position comes down to is that it is far more important -- certainly for psychologists -- to study the cognitive and social nature of storytelling than to pursue abstract, formal domains of information processing. The lack of attention by psychologists to story structure and storytelling seems lately to have been peripherally recognized by the emergence of a specially called "narrative psychology" (Sarbin, 1986).


Characteristically, the notable episodes in our lives consist of events and outcomes occurring over a sequence of interrelated scenes. Whether it be a visit to the dentist, a trip to Paris, or the time when you popped the question, the details of an experience can exist in memory in two ways: as a coherent story linking separate scenes, or as a set of disconnected bits of information stored within general scene memories. The main hypothesis of Section V is that if the person experiencing the episode does not tell (or, at least rehearse) the story soon afterwards, the separate events and outcomes will become disconnected, and memory access to them will operate through independent memories of particular scenes. The episode will lose its coherence -- thought it may still exert some influence, especially if its outcome was negative. One may regard an encounter with a particular stimulus object as a stressful scene, for example, while being unable to recall the original episode leading up to such an encounter.

On the other hand, if the story is told and retold, it will gradually assume a stable form in memory, and will be indexed in several ways to facilitate access to it. This stable structure will have priority over the bits and pieces originally stored in scattered event memories for the constituent scenes. Thus a storyteller can suppress memory for raw unpleasant outcomes by embedding them in retold stories, edited to be more benign than the original experience. A variant of this strategy requires that an unpleasant story be edited and told just once (in order to co-opt memory for the negative scene(s)), and then never told again. This analysis provides an alternative interpretation of the phenomenon of "repression" as a set of mundane storytelling maneuvers to weaken access to bad experiences, rather than as a special, unconscious process sealing off those experiences until you undergo psychoanalysis.

There are other motives and strategies entering into the selective distortion of stories: omitting details or manufacturing excuses for wrongdoing, giving explanations for ambiguities, conforming to the norms of the group, and so on. One of the oldest findings in the social psychological literature, in Allport & Postman's (1945) study of rumor, was that successive communications from one person to another lead to two kinds of distortions away from the original story. These were called "leveling" -- the condensation of confusing or awkward details -- and "sharpening" -- the embellishment of favorable or surprising details. Even prior to that, in Bartlett's (1932) famous study of the retelling of a weird story from an unfamiliar culture, this very point had been anticipated. What has been lacking for 50 or 60 years has been an analysis of content-sensitive processes to effect the two kinds of distortion. In Sections VII and VIII, on story skeletons and story construction, we flesh out some of these processes. Much more could be done along these lines. Also, it would be worthwhile to have empirical tests of the hypothesized memory disconnection of untold stories.


If the core of social knowledge and the essence of social communication both consist of a bank of stories and a set of story processing structures, then it should be the case that the understanding of other people's utterances is story-based, too. We argue in Sections III and IV that understanding boils down to finding a story of your own that is similar to the story you are hearing. If there is a very close match, then telling your story in response signals that you have understood, although you will have learned nothing new. If there is not a close match, you will have to work hard to come up with a more remote response, either by locating a partially relevant story, or by constructing one from scene by scene details.

If the stimulus story has something anomalous about it, then the retrieval of a partially relevant response story may help you to explain the anomaly. The explanation will then index both stories, and you may in the process acquire a new insight, usually in the form of a new belief.

As we lay out in Section IV, similarity is a very powerful construct in psychology, entering into the analysis of many diverse phenomena (Tversky, 1977; Shepard, 1987). Unfortunately, the question of what makes stories similar is a difficult one. No doubt the concept of common elements is pertinent, but we don't yet know what types of elements dominate the matching process, and why. We propose that the careful study of remindings gives clues to what may be going on. Suppose you are reminded of experience B when told of experience A, apparently unconsciously. The question, "What has B got to do with A?" can lead to a revealing analysis, both for the individual who got reminded, and to the scholar studying the bases of story similarity.

Other Issues

Other topics of great psychological interest that attach to our story model include the learning of autobiographical storytelling by children, and the phenomenon of socially shared memories. We broached these briefly in Sections VI and IX, citing the theoretical paper by Nelson (1993) for the former, and the exploratory research by Ross and Holmberg (1990) for the latter.

We close with the trite but true admonition that our position both requires and deserves much more research. Cognitive and social psychology, in studying knowledge structures, memory processes, and text comprehension, have in our view lost sight of the forest by concentrating on the cellulose in the trees.


 Originally published as the Lead Article in Knowledge and Memory: The Real Story, edited by Robert S. Wyer, Jr., 1995, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.