Tropes are a fundamental component of storytelling, whether it is in literature, movies, or any other form of narrative art. A trope can be defined as a common or recurring theme or motif in a story or work of fiction. Tropes can range from character archetypes, such as the hero or the villain, to narrative devices like the “chosen one” or the “twist ending”. However, the psychology of tropes goes beyond their surface-level appearance in stories. Tropes have the power to shape our expectations, perceptions, and even our beliefs about the world around us. In this essay, I will explore the psychology of tropes, examining how they influence the way we think and feel about ourselves and the world around us.
At their core, tropes serve as shortcuts for our brains. They help us to quickly recognise familiar patterns and archetypes in a story, allowing us to engage with the narrative. Our brains are wired to seek out patterns, and when we encounter a trope, we can quickly make connections to other stories we have experienced before. This can create a sense of comfort and familiarity, making it easier for us to become emotionally invested in the story.
Tropes also serve as a means of communication between the storyteller and the audience. By using a familiar trope, a writer or filmmaker can convey a complex idea or theme in a way that is easily understandable to the audience. For example, the “coming-of-age” trope is a common theme in literature and film. By using this trope, a writer can convey the idea of personal growth and development in a way that is easily relatable to the audience.
However, the psychology of tropes goes beyond their role as shortcuts or means of communication. Tropes can also have a powerful impact on our beliefs and perceptions about the world around us. One way that tropes can shape our beliefs is through the process of cognitive framing. Cognitive framing is the process by which our brains interpret information based on the way it is presented. When we encounter a story that utilizes a particular trope, our brains may frame the information in a way that reinforces our existing beliefs or biases. This can be especially true for tropes related to social identities, such as the “damsel in distress” trope. This trope reinforces gender stereotypes by portraying women as helpless and in need of rescue by men. When we encounter this trope, our brains may unconsciously reinforce these gender stereotypes, further entrenching our beliefs about gender roles and identity.
Another way that tropes can shape our beliefs is through the process of social learning. Social learning is the process by which we learn from the behaviours and attitudes of those around us. When we encounter a story that reinforces a particular trope, we may internalize the attitudes and behaviours portrayed in the story. For example, the “romantic hero” trope portrays a man who is strong, brave, and willing to risk everything for the love of his life. This trope can reinforce the idea that men should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of love, potentially influencing the attitudes and behaviours of those who internalise this trope.
Tropes can also have a powerful impact on our emotional experiences. When we encounter a story that utilises a familiar trope, we may experience a range of emotions based on our previous experiences with that trope. For example, the “betrayal” trope can evoke a range of emotions, including anger, sadness, and betrayal. When we encounter this trope in a story, our emotional response may be shaped by our previous experiences with this trope, potentially leading to a more intense emotional response.
The psychology of tropes also highlights the power of storytelling in shaping our perceptions of the world around us. Tropes can be used to reinforce existing social norms and values, or they can be used to challenge and subvert those norms. For example, the “chosen one” trope is often used to reinforce the idea of individual exceptionalism, the idea that one person has a unique destiny or special qualities that make them superior to others. However, this trope can also be used to subvert those ideas, such as in the Harry Potter series, where the “chosen one” is ultimately successful because of the support and contributions of others, rather than his own exceptional qualities alone.
The power of storytelling to shape our perceptions of the world around us can also be seen in the way that tropes can be used to create empathy and understanding for people who are different from ourselves. Tropes can be used to create relatable characters and situations, allowing us to understand and empathize with the experiences of others. For example, the “outsider” trope is a common theme in literature and film and can be used to create empathy for people who feel like they don’t fit in or belong. By portraying the experiences of these characters in a relatable and empathetic way, tropes can help us to understand and connect with people who are different from ourselves.
The psychology of tropes also highlights the importance of representation in storytelling. When certain groups of people are consistently portrayed in a particular way, it can reinforce harmful stereotypes and biases. For example, the “magical negro” trope is a common theme in literature and film, in which a black character has magical powers and exists solely to help the white protagonist. This trope reinforces the idea that black people exist only to serve and support white people, perpetuating harmful racial stereotypes and biases.
The psychology of tropes goes beyond their role as shortcuts or means of communication in storytelling. Tropes have the power to shape our expectations, perceptions, beliefs, and emotions about ourselves and the world around us. Tropes can reinforce existing social norms and values, or they can challenge and subvert those norms. They can be used to create empathy and understanding for people who are different from us, or they can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and biases. As consumers of media, it is important for us to be aware of the tropes that we encounter in the stories we experience, and to critically examine the ways in which they may be shaping our beliefs and perceptions. As creators of media, it is important to use tropes in a thoughtful and intentional way, with an awareness of the potential impact they may have on the audience. By understanding the psychology of tropes, we can become more thoughtful and critical consumers and creators of media, and ultimately, use the power of storytelling to shape a more just and equitable world.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.