James Carney and Pádraig Mac Carron


We argue that the counterfactual representations of popular culture, like their religious cognates, are shaped by cognitive constraints that become visible when considered in aggregate. In particular, we argue that comic-book literature embodies core intuitions about sociality and its maintenance that are activated by the cognitive problem of living in large groups. This leads to four predictions: comic-book enforcers should (1) be punitively prosocial, (2) be quasi-omniscient, (3) exhibit kin-signalling proxies and (4) be minimally counterintuitive. We gauge these predictions against a large sample of 19,877 characters that were derived from 72,611 comics using data scraping techniques. Our results corroborate the view that cognitive constraints exercise a selective effect on the transmission of popular culture.


Tamás Dávid-Barrett, James Carney, Anna Rotkirch and Isabel Behncke Izquierdo


Narrative representations of complex social networks in the performing arts are cognitively challenging, both for audiences and artists. This has been recognized in recent scholarship, where expositions have focused on social networks in (for instance) realist fiction (Carroll et al.: 2012), ancient and medieval epic (Mac Carron and Kenna: 2012), hyperlink cinema (Krems and Dunbar: 2013), and comic-book fiction (Carney et al.: 2014). Here, we contribute to this important research by way of a case study of Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro, a rare combination of popular entertainment and intellectual complexity that has persisted as an audience favorite for nearly 230 years. We investigate the number and types of dyadic interactions in the libretto and analyze representations of the social network during the opera. Results show that the nine main characters of the opera are entangled in a social network that includes 36 different dyadic relationships pointing from one person to another. The entire social network, however, is never present or implied on stage simultaneously. The average number of persons singing or implied through a singing role at any specific time is 3.66 and seldom reaches above five. Only at the end of the second act, famous in history for challenging audiences to entertain several instances of dramatic tension, seven characters sing separate parts simultaneously. We suggest that part of this opera’s enduring appeal is its narrative and structural solutions to representing complex and ecologically valid social interactions onstage, and call for comparative studies of how social behavior is represented in the performing arts.