The Psychology of TV Tropes: A Cultural Tool?

Think of two stories. Any two stories, from literature, television, film, or the internet. What do these stories have in common? It is essentially the sole purpose of one (noble?) website to answer that question. The answer involves tracing the patterns within a superficially diverse field, popular culture, to determine its underlying web of common threads.

If you’re like me (an experienced denizen of the internet and consumer of entertainment media) you are probably quite familiar with the website TV Tropes (“The All-Devouring Pop Culture Wiki”). If not, I’ll give some brief explanation (for more details, I recommend visiting itself, but only if you do not mind the possibility of getting sucked into its black hole of information—potentially for hours). TV Tropes deals with tropes, defined by the page as a tool, originally a “figure of speech,” used by “creative writer types” to “convey… a concept to the audience without needing to spell out all the details.” Tropes are tools of the story itself, used to advance a story or character arc (or in some cases hinder it). Tropes in many cases are unintentional: clichés we find in many different stories. Reading over them, it becomes clear that many tropes (all of the ones listed on the site have individual names) are simply important commonalities between stories: specific character archetypes, moments of action, plot-building, or world-building.

That is really the simplest definition of the trope: a specific commonality that can be seen in many different stories. A pattern.

So what could bring on the existence of such a site? I’ve touched before on humankind’s need to define and categorize—this is certainly part of it. But why do we feel such a need? What could bring about the obsessive creation of an exhaustive list of such patterns?

It is all for the sake of the patterns themselves.

Humans excel at one very important cognitive trait: pattern recognition. This is an important concept in cognitive psychology—the ability to link new sensory input with previous memories and finding patterns amidst the data—so important that it may be one of the defining traits of humanity.

M. P. Mattson recently provided a comprehensive look at the vital role pattern recognition plays in human cognition and the development of the human species (Mattson 2014). One of the preeminent cognitive abilities in humans, a trait which Mattson proposes is one of the primary drivers of human advancement above other animals, is superior pattern processing (the “encoding and integration of perceived or mentally-fabricated patterns which can then be used for decision-making and for transfer of the patterns to other individuals”).

So why is pattern processing so important to humanity? Mattson lists many examples and even explains some of the underlying neural substrates which can make such cognitive abilities possible (specific hormones, areas of the brain, or arrangements of neurons). Pattern processing allowed humans to develop language, since language is itself a symbolic representation of specific meanings, using patterns in auditory (spoken word) or visual (writing) cues to convey information. The recognition of these patterns and incorporation of them into increasingly complex modes of communication was key in our development of advanced technology and culture. Maps and other kinds of illustrations also necessarily rely on patterns used across individuals to get a message across.

Pattern processing was also necessary for the development of advanced social structures (Mattson 2014). The ability to recall faces and identities of other people, as well as all of the information about those people (who they interact with, how they feel about the person doing the recognizing, their position in social hierarchies, and even the knowledge they might have) is key to developing cultures and social networks as complicated as our own (which now stretches across the entire globe in many cases). The cognitive demands of sociality may even influence brain size and complexity—a concept called the Social Brain Hypothesis (Dunbar 2009), so pattern processing in humans enabling more and more advanced social networks directly leads to increased cognitive abilities all around.

This pattern processing ability continues to be fundamental to human cognition in its most basic sense but it serves other assets to human culture as a whole. We as humans look for patterns everywhere, so much so that we have created tools to look for patterns for us. Statistics, the branch of mathematics that is, essentially, used to verify how likely scientific findings are to be true uses patterns in data sets to assess the significance of those data sets to proposed hypothetical conditions. Pattern recognition is also important to machine learning, although it works a bit differently for computers (data inputs are assigned to classes or with labels based on their relevance to these classes or labels, as described by the Wikipedia page on pattern recognition in machines).

In addition to aiding in scientific and technological endeavors, pattern recognition is hugely important in storytelling. Consumers of stories come to expect certain commonalities within those stories. Those commonalities can be defined by the culture that produced the story or can be based on patterns from reality. The description and locating of those commonalities is, of course, the purpose of TV Tropes.

Why is it so important to define all of these patterns and similarities?

Stories can provide different viewpoints and can also use those viewpoints to teach lessons or explore difficult themes. The commonalities within the stories make them relatable to each other and to our own lives. Since storytelling evolves from reality, we can relate to specific elements in the stories we consume, making us more likely to relate to the story as a whole piece. When we can relate to stories, or relate one story to another, we are developing one of the most important traits of humanity: empathy.

Storytelling is one of the most important mediums through which we find empathy for others. Through empathy, we can work together and learn what it’s like to inhabit other points of view without being physically capable of leaving our own. Through empathy and commonalities in storytelling we can also develop culture. TV Tropes might deal with “pop culture,” but many aspects of pop culture eventually become ingrained in the permanent culture of a people. Recognizing patterns within our culture could potentially allow us to grow it with more purpose and direction, a tool which so far humans have been somewhat lacking. There is much speculation I could bring about on this topic, but my original question has been answered. TV Tropes, the nerdy catalog of pop culture tropes, does serve a valuable purpose and could make a useful tool. As with any tool, the only issue remains whether to use it wisely.


Works Cited

Dunbar, R. I. M. (2009). The social brain hypothesis and its implications for social evolution. Annals of Human Biology 36(5), 562-572.

Mattson, M. P. (2014). Superior pattern processing is the essence of the evolved human brain. Frontiers in Neuroscience 8, 1-17.

Wikipedia. “Pattern recognition.” <>

TV Tropes. <>


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