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Bad Horse

Beneath the microscope, you contain galaxies.

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Why (Some) People Like Sad Stories · 4:20am Jun 1st, 2020

That was the topic of my part of Trick Question's talk last night. Here are my slides (revised today). Not Trick Question's slides, because they aren't mine.

Why Do People Like Sad Stories?

Why Do People Like Suffering?

Humans are weird. Sometimes they like painful, dangerous, or frightening things:

  • roller-coasters
  • the extra-hot buffalo wings at Duff's
  • climbing mountains
  • watching horror movies
  • BDSM
  • reading about horrible things happening to imaginary people they love

Aristotle's Poetics, Athens, ~335 BCE

  • The first Westerner to ask this question was Aristotle, in his lecture "Poetics".
  • He said people watch tragedies to feel better.

    • The watchers feel pity and fear, and this purges them of these emotions.
    • This uses the "hydraulic model of emotions": feelings build pressure as they accumulate, and indulging them releases this pressure.

      • The hydraulic model of emotions is wrong.

Words to Watch Out For in "Poetics"

  • catharsis: What you're supposed to get out of tragedy. Literally "cleansing" or "purgation". Used only once.
  • hamartia: What brings about the hero's change in fortune.

    • People used to say this meant a "tragic flaw".
    • That's because Christians translate "hamartia" as "sin".
    • Literally "to miss the mark"; means error, flaw, false belief
  • ethos: Translated "character"; is closer to "morals"
  • mythos: Translated "plot"; means "a speech, a story"
  • poietikos: Translated "poetry"; is actually closer to "art"

Is Tragedy Cathartic?

Do people really feel "cleansed" after reading or watching a tragic story?
This scene from The Naked Gun of a couple walking out of Platoon laughing is funny only because it never happens in real life.

Comments & data

  • I took 6 of my sad, tragic, or dark stories.
  • I chose 118 of the ~4000 comments on them as being "significant".
  • I counted how many of those 118 comments were about the readers'

    • catharsis (feeling purged, cleansed, relieved)
    • other feelings
    • thoughts
    • feelings and thoughts

Stories used

  • The Magician & the Detective: Holmes rejects love because of his own self-loathing.
  • Twenty Minutes: During the pony-zebra war, a zebra risks his life to bring a few minutes of relief to a suffering pony.
  • Burning Man Brony: A brony rejects the help of the Mane 6 because he can't believe anyone would like him.
  • Pony Play (M): A human in Equestria gives up his freedom to be relieved of his responsibility.
  • Moments: Twilight can save the world… just not the part she wanted to.
  • Shut Up: An unnamed narrator tries to rewrite his past.


  • Catharsis:
    • 3 readers invoked catharsis theory
    • 0 said they felt cleansed, purged, or relieved
    • 1 said a story made him cry "in a good way"
    • 1 said he felt better about himself by comparison to the protagonist
  • Feelings: 61 (nearly all of sadness)
  • Thoughts: 14
  • Feelings & Thoughts: 43


  • Readers rarely or never experience catharsis in tragedy.
  • Readers wrote about ideas that disturbed them.
  • Strong identification with the hero correlated with strong emotional response.
  • Tragedy isn't pity and fear followed by a cleansing.

    • The feelings readers wrote about all come at the same time.
    • They feel tension between seeing an undeservedly bad outcome, but not seeing any way to avoid it.
  • Whether the hero causes the tragedy doesn't matter as much as how the hero responds to the crisis.
  • The hero's fall isn't payment for sin, but a moral paradox.

Conclusion: Tragedy Ain't Carthartic

  • People don't get catharsis from tragedy.

    • Rather, comedy, horror, & adventure stories rely on catharsis.
  • Tragedy isn't just emotional, but philosophical.

    • It disturbs us by poking at the cracks in our beliefs.
    • People enjoy it because they enjoy learning.

      • Which is another thing Aristotle said in the Poetics!
  • Aristotle's guidelines for tragedy inhibit writing good tragedy.

    • They disallow stories that leave you with conflicting emotions.
    • They disallow morally "shocking" stories.
    • They say that new ideas play no part in art.

Who Likes Sad Stories?

Our findings suggest that the key to the enjoyment is not only the ability to empathise with the sad emotions expressed by the music, but also the ability to self-regulate and distance oneself from this process.
-- Tuomas Eerola, "The scientific reason why some of us enjoy sad songs more than others", independent.co.uk, commenting on Eerola et al. 2016, "Being Moved by Unfamiliar Sad Music Is Associated with High Empathy"

Endorphins & Other Chemicals

Levels of the hormone prolactin increase when sad – producing a consoling psychological effect suggestive of a homeostatic function. It is proposed … that high prolactin concentrations are associated with pleasurable music-induced sadness, whereas low prolactin concentrations are associated with unpleasant music-induced sadness.
-- David Huron 2011, "Why is sad music pleasurable? A possible role for prolactin"

The biochemical response to loss consists of a general stress response (involving catecholamines, the HPA axis, corticotrophin-releasing hormone, & cortisol) as well as an attachment-specific stress response that involves the dopamine & oxytocin systems that help the mind to cope with a loss. Oxytocin in particular is known to increase calmness and a general sense of well-being …When engaging with fictional sadness, the individual effectively simulates a real experience of sadness, and the following hormonal & physiological responses only differ from real loss in terms of intensity.
-- Tuomas Eerola et al. 2016, "Being Moved by Unfamiliar Sad Music Is Associated with High Empathy"

Endorphins & Other Chemicals

Dunbar and colleagues … set out to unpick whether our love of storytelling ... is underpinned by an endorphin-related bonding mechanism. … [They] showed [169 people] the traumatic drama Stuart: A life backwards … A control group of 68 individuals was shown [less-emotional documentaries].
Before & after seeing the films, participants [indicated] their mood [and] their feelings of belonging [in] their group. [Some] participants were also asked to complete an exercise to gauge their pain tolerance. [Endorphins increase pain tolerance.]
The traumatic film boosted pain thresholds by nearly 18% compared to the “control” scenario. What’s more, those who showed an increase in pain tolerance also had increased feelings of group bonding, despite their mood becoming less positive.
-- "Watching sad films boosts endorphin levels in your brain", theguardian.com
-- Dunbar et al. 2016, "Emotional arousal when watching drama increases pain threshold and social bonding"


All of us experience tragedy in our lives. Reading about how to deal with sadness, depression, death and difficulty helps us to learn how to deal with it.
-- Gregg Painter, on Quora

One of my favorite books is The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, which is kind of a creative memoir of being a soldier in the Vietnam War. I cried so much when I read it that I felt hungover afterward. But I think it helped me understand a lot more about war and what it does to people.
-- blinkingsandbeepings on Reddit

Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies. The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general.
-- Aristotle ~335 BC, Poetics

Feeling understood

Sad movies/books help people feel understood.
-- D Jose, on Quora

From my experiences, depressed people like to watch sad movies, listen to sad music, etc. because they can relate to this sad element. They feel that someone actually understands them and that they're not alone.
-- Anonymous, on Quora

We go through sadness at times and we need to feel that we’re not the only ones. That life isn’t easier for other people. Sometimes a cheerful story can seem callous to our pain.
-- Brie Donning, 7 Reasons Why We Like Sad Stories

Happy Endings Can Be Isolating

Those touched by tragedy or turmoil in real life might grow tired of happy endings, because they feel disingenuous.
-- anonymous, Screen Therapy (blog), "Why we like sad endings"

I think if you're already deeply sad about something, reading or watching something happy will not cheer you up, it will just feel trite and annoy you with its 'fakeness.'
-- DanaDraws on Reddit

Distancing to Overcome Suppression

Everybody knows the feeling of either pain, loss, or failure. When those emotions are conveyed to us by a writer, we are able to confront these emotions with somebody other than ourselves.
-- Jul 20, 2016, The Allure of Sad Books, bookstr.com

Suffering happens when people try to avoid emotions... not when they have them!! … Sad people are not dead!!
-- Steve Gates, on Quora

[Sad films] allow us to confront very real and deeply sad feelings in a safe and protected environment.
-- from a deleted cinematherapy.com page, quoted here

Distancing by Framing Sorrow as Art

Can we experience depictions of repulsive objects more positively when we watch them as part of a work of art? … Participants viewed the same pictures framed either as art photographs or as documentary photographs… Participants experienced the photos more positively in the art-framing condition, [yet negativity and intensity ratings weren't very different]... Cognitive schema activation should be included in a multifactor psychological account of the aesthetic enjoyment of artworks that involve negative emotions.
-- Wagner+Jacbsen 2014, "Art Schema Effects on Affective Experience: The Case of Disgusting Images"

Distancing from Judgment

"The fact that the music or art is non-interactive is actually an advantage in situations of loss and sadness since there is no judgment, no probing. An artwork or song that a person can relate to can provide comfort without the baggage of social interaction with another human being," he explains. Your 'sad songs' playlist, in other words, commiserates but doesn't judge or demand.
-- Jessica Stillman, "Go Ahead and Crank the Adele, Science Says Loving Sad Music Says Good Things About Your Personality", inc.com

I Just Want to Feel Something

"I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel." -- Trent Reznor, "Hurt"

Some just like to feel intense emotions and appreciate art that can bring out such emotions, even if they include sadness.
-- Warren Kramer, on Quora

My theory: we’re all looking for an emotional connection with the books we’re reading and for some people that’s easier with something sad than something happy.
-- anonymous, "Why do people like sad books?", The Sleepless Reader (blog)

Sometimes you either a) want to feel something, anything. b) sometimes want to know others are as sad as you/have hard times too.
-- Angela Hunter, on Quora

To make my cold, dead heart feel again.
-- CDT092 on Reddit, "Why do people choose to read really sad books?"

Evolutionary Psychology

People sensitive and willing to empathise with the misfortune of another person – in this case represented by the sad music – are somehow rewarded by the process.
-- Tuomas Eerola, "The scientific reason why some of us enjoy sad songs more than others", independent.co.uk

[Humans need & provide sympathy. This suggests that humans have evolved to feel attracted to suffering people, in order to provide this sympathy, although no evolutionary mechanism (a reproductive reward for the behavior) is obvious.]

Who's This "We"?

Many cultures would find "our" sad stories boring, or even hilarious.

  • Historical narratives are full of cases where people find humor and entertainment in the suffering of people from another tribe. English literature had this as recently as Shakespeare.

    • Malvolio, Shylock
    • Also: bear-baiting in Elizabethan England
    • Public executions have often been seen as entertainment
  • Few cultures have stories invoking sympathy for members of another tribe or culture. The Iliad is an exception.
  • Don Richardson, Peace Child: The Sawi thought Judas was the hero of the gospels.
  • My brother watched Saving Private Ryan in China, and the Chinese audience found the gory D-day invasion scene hilarious.

Do they have sad stories "we" would find funny? I don't know.

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Comments ( 3 )

There's an element of "At least it's not me" in there, too. Mel Brooks said it best with 'Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.'

There's some disconnect in there too. Americans don't laugh at the D-day scene because they may have relatives in the scene. Chinese... I have no idea. We can view tragedy more abstractly when it is abstract, not real.

I think there's also a level of 'I have been there' with empathising with characters undergoing sad and painful events. John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats always refers to "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod" to be a funny song, despite the content being about the time that his step-dad beat the crap out of him. His explanation has always been that it's funny because you survived it. But only people who survived such things understand that.

... Also, tangentially this makes me feel less bad to be the friend in my circle of friends that people come to when they're like "I need a song to make me cry and you listen to nothing but sad music."

Interesting; thanks.

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