The Science Behind Why We Love "The Office"
The human mind evolved to care about people.
Posted April 29, 2022 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- The most compelling stories involve human relationships.
- Complex human cognition is primarily about the need to understand others.
- Language may have evolved to help us predict and manipulate the behavior of other humans.
There is a scientific explanation as to why I like The Office more than Upload. Both are TV shows created by the brilliant Greg Daniels and are equally as appealing on paper. But The Office is a better show. Why? Because setting a television show in an objectively boring location (like a midsized paper company in Pennsylvania) as opposed to an objectively interesting location (like a virtual afterlife metaverse) means viewers can focus on the one thing the human mind evolved to care most about: other people.
All good stories have people at their heart. In the CBC podcast Let’s Make a Sci-Fi, first-time Sci-Fi writers Ryan Beil, Maddy Kelly, and Mark Chavez learned this lesson the hard way. After sharing an early pitch of their TV show idea with veteran television writer Simon Barry, they were admonished for focusing too much on world-building and failing to put people front and center. “You never start a pitch other than this is about a person. This is about a character. This is about a human being,” Barry told them. “Rethink your pitch through the lens of a human being. And pitch it is as ‘who is this person and why do I care’ and that will also solve all of your other writing problems.”
It’s not just a Hollywood writer’s maxim but a human universal that all good stories focus on human characters. In an anthropological survey of the content of stories from hunter-gatherer cultures from Southeast Asian and the nomadic Baka people from the Central African Republic, most oral stories shared around the campfire focused on social (that is human) content. Stories exclusively about non-people subjects like natural phenomena (e.g., weather events) were rare.
Even when stories do not involve actual people but instead focus on animals or inanimate objects, these protagonists are typically transformed through anthropomorphism to think, act, and talk like humans. Like the trickster spider god Anansi from West African folklore. Or the talking toys from Toy Story.
When I was asked to help write a documentary about the social lives of wild dolphins, my first instinct was to edit the footage to make it seem as if a compelling family drama were unfolding on-screen – with a young mother dolphin struggling to raise her calf in a hostile world where male dolphins posed a threat to the calf. It went without saying that we needed a protagonist, an antagonist, and some sort of dramatic tension conveyed by a voiceover artist narrating the thoughts of our dolphin mother. We needed our dolphin mom to appear as people-ish as possible for the story to appeal to the viewer.
Why is this? Why is it universally true that people or people-like characters are the heart of human stories? It’s because language itself—the medium through which stories unfold—evolved in tandem with other uniquely human cognitive skills for the main purpose of understanding and explaining the behavior of other humans. Human minds are both designed for and hyper-focused on telling people stories.
Although there is no doubt that language is fantastic at conveying technical information (like how to start a fire or sharpen a spear) and that this might have contributed to its evolution and the success of our species, it’s possible that language and the cognitive skills that underpin it evolved primarily as a means for us to predict (and manipulate) the behavior of other humans. “Language may accordingly have evolved to allow individuals to learn about the behavioural characteristics of other group members more rapidly than was feasible by direct observation alone,” argued Oxford University evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. His research has found that when humans speak, we are usually gossiping about other humans (about 60 percent of the time). Language, then, might have evolved primarily as a means of social grooming; a way to maintain social order and social relationships through words and stories as we recount (and judge) the behavior and actions of others.
The cognitive skills that make language—and thus gossip—possible are themselves all about our interest in the behavior of other humans. Things like Theory of Mind: the ability to guess what other people might think or believe. Or mental time travel: the ability to imagine yourself in the past and project yourself in future scenarios. This requires autonoetic consciousness: a complex form of self-awareness that allows one to reflect on oneself and one’s thoughts in the past, present, and future. These are skills that are either unique to humans, or only found in a handful of other socially complex species like the great apes or corvids. Either way, they are skills fundamental to our capacity for language, and thus the beating heart of our storytelling ability.
This is why the American literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall has branded humans Homo fictus: the storytelling animal. In his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Gottschall explains that our biology forces “narrative structure on the chaos of our lives.” Humans like me are happiest when we can funnel the complexities of life into an easy-to-digest story structure that reinforces the idea that we live in a predictable world filled with people whose actions make sense.
And that is what makes The Office so compelling. The Dunder Mifflin Paper Company setting does not steal focus from the things that I—like all humans—care most about: Michael, Jim, Pam, Dwight, and the other people at the heart of the show. We love this fleshed-out ensemble cast of individuals whose backstory and motivations we know and understand, and we want to know what they will do next. Even the most fascinating sci-fi world can’t hold our attention unless we care about the people in it.
Beil, R., Kelly, M., & Chavez, M. (Hosts). (2022, March 8). Characters (feat. Simon Barry) (Episode 3) [Audio podcast episode]. In Let’s Make a Sci-Fi. CBC Podcasts. https://www.cbc.ca/listen/cbc-podcasts/1061-let-s-make-a-sci-fi/episode…
Smith, D., Schlaepfer, P., Major, K., Dyble, M., Page, A. E., Thompson, J., ... & Migliano, A. B. (2017). Cooperation and the evolution of hunter-gatherer storytelling. Nature communications, 8(1), 1-9.
Dunbar, R. (1993). Coevolution of neocortical size, group size and language in humans. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 16(4), 681-694. doi:10.1017/S0140525X00032325
Dunbar, R. I., Marriott, A., & Duncan, N. D. (1997). Human conversational behavior. Human nature, 8(3), 231-246.
Dunbar, R. I. M. (1998). Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language. Harvard University Press.
Gottschall, J. (2012). The storytelling animal: How stories make us human. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.