Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Research Bulletin: The Developing Storyteller

Previously, we reported on a study by Marjorie Taylor and colleagues that found, in part, that published writers were more likely to have had imaginary companions as children. A study from a different research group has recently found corroborating evidence in a sample of 48 children who were 5 ½ years old (Trionfi & Reese, 2009). About half of the children in this sample were identified as having an imaginary friend, who ranged from “Batman” (described as being both a boy and a girl) to “Giant Strongman” (a 1 million-year-old wrestler who had no toenails). Those who had an imaginary friend tended to provide a richer narrative when asked to retell a story compared to those who did not. Specifically, their stories tended to include more descriptors, dialogue, character names, temporal-locative-causal details, and more verbatim recall. Interestingly enough, these two groups did not differ in their vocabulary ability, nor did they differ in their ability to comprehend stories. What seems to be the case is that highly imaginative children, the kind who are likely to conjure up imaginary friends with detailed and original characters, are also better storytellers despite equivalent language abilities to their peers who lack such imagination. It is this capacity for rich fantasy, then, that might make a child a good storyteller; the kind of child who might later grow up to become a successful fiction author. This has a certain resonance with a recent essay by Tim O’Brien, in The Atlantic’s 2009 Fiction issue. In Telling Tails, O’Brien, argues that writers are encouraged to increase verisimilitude in order to avoid writing a bad story, but the real harbinger of a bad (read: boring) story is a lack of imagination.
Image by Nikki McClure.
Trionfi, G., & Reese, E. (2009). A good story: Children with imaginary companions create richer narratives. Child Development, 80, 1301-1313.



Paul Lamb said...

I'm not going to dispute this, but I must confess that I never had an imaginary friend as a child. Does that mean I'm a bad writer?

Raymond A. Mar said...

Absolutely not! This is a great opportunity to clear up some common misconceptions about how to interpret psychological research. For one, findings tend to be probabilistic, so when it is said that "published writers were more likely to have had an imaginary friend," this might mean something like out of a sample of 30, 12 authors had imaginary friends compared to 7 non-authors from a similarly-sized group. Psychological research is most often performed at what is known as the nomothetic level, or the level of groups rather than individuals (idiographic level). (The exception would be case studies.) Thus, it is impossible to take these findings and apply them to individuals. While we could estimate the probability of having an imaginary friend as a child within a group of authors, we could never estimate the probability that a single, specific, author had an imaginary friend. And definitely not the reverse. We absolutely cannot infer the probability of a specific individual being a good (or published) author based on whether he/she had an imaginary friend as a child. So, rest assured, this study does not make any specific predictions about your own abilities!

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