Narrative Psychology: We’re All Storytellers

Scholars analyze the history of theatre not only in search of specific answers, but often in search of consistencies throughout (Wilson & Goldfarb, 2008). Actors, when they are learning to analyze their craft, study tirelessly to master consistencies such as themes, character goals, plots, symbols, etc. Often, this history is used for reasons similar to other histories; the attempt to repeat, or avoid repeating, dynamic situations, for example. And just as there are a variety of reasons to study the history of theatre, there are also a variety of people. Joseph Campbell is one such individual, as is any playwright, literary author, or psychologist (just to name a few).

Psychologists from varying subdivisions (e.g., personality psychology, cognitive psychology, etc.) may use narratives and theatre to different ends (McAdams, 2001). For example, a clinician may ask a patient to reenact an event, or create a narrative which enables the patient to explore alternative endings to a situation. Researching narratives gives us clues as to when, how and why humans retrieve memories and convey them to others. Another use of theatre and narratives in psychology, is the use of the forum theatre, which allows large groups of people to participate as both spectators and actors, in order to collectively create a piece of theatre which fulfills a purpose, whatever that purpose may be (Sliep & Meyer-Weitz, 2003).

Joseph Campbell studied the history of mythology narratives in all mediums, and has presented us with themes that run throughout; themes that we can learn from and grow from as individuals (Campbell, 1988). These themes may also enable us to more competently navigate moratoriums and chisel for ourselves self-identities (McAdams, 2001). Playwrights and novelists research history in order to more completely transport readers/spectators into a world beyond their own (Wilson & Goldfarb, 2008). Transportation is an important consideration when dealing with narratives. When we are transported, we are able to view problems from alternative perspectives, live vicariously through characters, recover from the effects of daily stress, feel intimacy, or even expand our creative horizons (Green, Brock, & Kaufman, 2004).

Narratives allow us to make sense of our pasts, our cultures, our beliefs, and our aspirations (Green, Brock, & Kaufman, 2004). Theatre is just one medium for the relay of such narratives. However, many mediums exist; each effective in their own right. How effective a medium is at transporting an individual, depends on that individual, but the medium doesn’t matter as long as the transportation takes place (2004).

Theatre history, though, is more than just being transported to another place. It is a history of our planet’s development, it’s people, and the ages throughout (Wilson & Goldfarb, 2008). It helps us understand zeitgeists and ortgeists, as well as relays stories of heroes and their journeys (Campbell, 1998). The possibilities are limitless within the narrative, and so too, are their uses.


Cambell, J. (1988). The hero’s adventure [The Power of Myth]. Retrieved from

Green, M., Brock, T., & Kaufman, G. (2004). Understanding media enjoyment: The role of transportation into narrative worlds. Communication Theory, 14(4), 311-327.

McAdams, D. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of General Psychology, 5(2), 100-122. doi: 1089-2680/01

Sliep, Y., & Meyer-Weitz, A. (2003). Strengthening social fabric through narrative theatre. Intervention1(3), 45-56.

Wilson, E., & Goldfarb, A. (2008). History of theatre: Living theatre (5th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.


Communication technology and social change: Theory and implications (2007) suggests that social change occurs after a major (and usually negative) event has taken place; usually in the form of an innovative idea meant to deal with the issue. Timing, as they say, is everything. Jensen and Wagoner (2009, p. 226) suggest note that “Partial adoption, resistance, conflict over resources, dynamism and contingency have always defined social and cultural change.” Examples of the cycle of social change suggested by Jensen and Wagoner (2009) include alcohol prohibition and psychoanalysis.

In fact, this social change cycle can be seen in the history of Psychology as a field. What one theory lacks, the next overcompensates for; there is resistance of ideas, reformation, and a re-presentation of the changed product for implication and continued scrutiny. When structuralism tried to break psychophysics down too excessively, it gave way to the more broad functionalism. However, functionalism only sought to explain ‘normal’ human behavior; Freud manufactured explanations for abnormal behaviors. When psychoanalysis was too subjective, behaviorism looked at only what could be actively observed. Gestalt recognized the need for both observable and cognitive processes, but didn’t have any suggestions for how to make it possible. And cognitive psychology argued that subjects can learn and behavior of their own volition. (Petraitis, personal communication, January – April 2011)

As with paradigm shifts within the field of Psychology, social change is the culmination of norms which have been questioned, reviewed, reformatted, and beta tested (so to speak). While the delivery method of the message is important, in order for a change to be effective and received, the zeitgeist and ortgeist must be right. If there is no need for change at a particular time or place, the change will be resisted.


Communication technology and social change: Theory and implications (2007). In Lin C. A., Atkin D. J. (Eds.), . Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers. Retrieved from

Jensen, E., & Wagoner, B. (2009). Continuing commentary: A cyclical model of social change. Culture & Psychology15 (2), 217-228 doi:10.1177/1354067X08099624