Cognitive Daily

Last week’s Casual Fridays study was inspired by an event in Greta’s classroom. She had assumed that most of her students would be familiar with the story of the Fox and the Grapes, which goes as follows:

ONE hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.”

In addition to being the source of the common expression, “sour grapes,” the story actually describes a measurable psychological phenomenon (and I’ll discuss one study about “sour grapes” next week). Greta was surprised to learn that none of her students had heard of the story. So we wondered if familiarity with the Fox and the Grapes was generational, or if in fact most people simply haven’t heard the story.

Our survey asked readers how familiar they were with several different stories in addition to the Fox and the Grapes. They rated each story on a scale of 1 (never heard of it) to 5 (very familiar). Here are the results:

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As you can see, our readers are significanlty less familiar with the Fox and the Grapes than with other stories (we deliberately included some stories that have been made into movies, as well as one — Star Wars — that started as a movie).

But our readers also tend to be relatively young — nearly half of our respondents are under thirty. So perhaps the age differential accounts for the lack of familiarity with the story. Take a look at the same results, broken down by age:

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Significantly more readers over age 30 were familiar with this story — but even among older readers, it was the least familiar story of the bunch. Maybe some other factor can explain familiarity. Since the story comes from an ancient fable and is influential in many works of literature throughout history, perhaps people who studied literature and the arts in college or university are more familiar with the story. We asked readers about their major field, and indeed found that humanities majors (including literature, history, philosophy, and the arts) were more familiar with the story:

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In fact, humanities majors were significantly more familiar with every story except Harry Potter and Star Wars. An even more dramatic result can be found when we look at how many books people said they read last year:

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For Star Wars, which most people experience as a movie, familiarity isn’t at all related to number of books read (the same held true for Cinderella and The Wizard of Oz). But for The Fox and the Grapes, the Princess and the Pea, and Little House on the Prairie (all primarily experienced as literature), more books read were associated with more familiarity. This pattern held for the other works primarily experienced as literature (including Harry Potter, where the “literature” demarcation is perhaps most dubious).

The question this week that generated the most interest among our respondents was about the online comic xkcd. We asked readers if they remembered a line from last Friday’s comic, figuring fans of the hacker-oriented strip were likely to be techies who, perhaps, weren’t as interested in old-fashioned stories as other readers.

We didn’t end up finding any association between a correct response on our one-question xkcd quiz an the Fox and the Grapes story. However, there was a small significant negative correlation between getting that answer right and familiarity with Little House on the Prairie:

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Basically, if you had read Friday’s xkcd, you were slightly less likely to say you were very familiar with Little House on the Prairie, the books and 1970s TV show about the Pioneer days in the Western U.S.

Comments

  1. #1 The Mother
    March 20, 2009

    Hardly a surprise. Our kids just don’t get the exposure to the “oldies but goodies”. They have a new set of folk tales and mythology (Star Wars is a good example).

    And they’re forcing us old fogies to find new, more creative aphorisms.

    “The tea kettle calling the coffe pot black” and “If ifs and ands were pots and pans, we’d have no need for tinkers” now require mini lectures of explanation.

  2. #2 Lilian Nattel
    March 20, 2009

    Little House on the Prairie vs the online magazine makes sense as an indicator of different cohorts. It would have been interesting to see if there was a cohort difference, as well, for a classic children’s book that hadn’t been made into a tv series.

  3. #3 MikeS
    March 20, 2009

    I’d argue against “The Mother”s comments about oldies but goodies. They are old but are they good? Some of them are open to interpretation. Mostly they bludgeon the listener with the moral.

    Do you know the story about the boy who cried wolf? A Star Trek show had an alien reinterpret the moral of the story as “Never tell the same lie twice” which tickled me.

  4. #4 Miss Cellania
    March 21, 2009

    Ah gee, I’m a typical old person. I know all these stories well enough to tell them except for Harry Potter. I was familiar with all of them as a child except for Harry Potter and Star Wars, and that was because they didn’t yet exist.

    I used to tell my kids quite a few of the Just So Stories and Aesop’s Fables.

  5. #5 Dan S.
    March 21, 2009

    She had assumed that most of her students would be familiar with the story of the Fox and the Grapes, which goes as follows:

    Very similar experience here. Back when I was teaching middle school in philly, I gave the kids an activity that foolishly assumed they knew things like – in fact – “sour grapes” – which came to a bit of a screeching halt when it turned out that none of them had ever heard the expression, much less knew the fable.

  6. #6 Celeste
    March 21, 2009

    I incorrectly rated myself as familiar with the Fox and the Grapes, when what I was familiar with was the Old Crow, who had grapes and then dropped them when the Fox flattered him and asked him to sing.

  7. #7 Henk Langeveld
    March 21, 2009

    This looks like a typical case of ‘long tail’ distribution to me, which is normal for a popularity contest.

    The case with popularity contests is that popularity is self-accelerating. People are more likely to pass on or refer to the stories they know, further increasing familiarity with the stories.

    I did not know the story of The Fox and The Grapes, but I was aware of the Fox and the Raven, and I expect more people to be, based on a quick google hitcount:

    Fox and Raven: 4.680.000
    Fox and Grapes: 326.000

    I do have a recollection of a study about the ‘Sour Grapes effect’, but that goes back to the 70s.

  8. #8 Elaina
    March 21, 2009

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

    Elaina

    http://www.freearticletrove.com

  9. #9 hanmeng
    March 21, 2009

    I claimed I knew “The Mouse and the Lion”, but I was actually thinking of “Androcles and the Lion“.

  10. #10 Ian
    March 21, 2009

    So the number of people who never heard of sour grapes turns out to be ‘a whole bunch’?!

  11. #11 Sarah
    March 21, 2009

    Regarding xkcd/ Little House- did you control for gender?

  12. #12 Dave Munger
    March 21, 2009

    Sarah: Good point, no we didn’t. Also there could be an age effect as well. That might have more to do with it than xkcd fandom.

  13. #13 TTT
    March 21, 2009

    I’m in the under 30 category and I’ve heard of all of those. But I was an avid reader in my childhood. But as mentioned in some of the comments there are other factors besides age. Star wars I never got into until my university years, and had personally branded it too main stream for my liking (same with harry potter refused to read it until i was on holiday and couldn’t find any other english books to read). Aesop’s fables i loved as a child but there are so many of them the odds are that everyone will vaguely have heard of some of them – I have a love of foxes which is maybe why this one stuck in my head – a lot of them I don’t remember any more.

  14. #14 TJ
    March 22, 2009

    I somehow didn’t see that survey last week – oh well, I’m sure it wasn’t any good anyway… :^)

    My children (ages 5 to 11) are familiar with sour grapes and what it means, because they’ve heard the Smothers Brothers’ version of Aesop’s Fables. “Sour grapes!”

  15. #15 jaltcoh.blogspot.com
    March 22, 2009

    This whole study is off base. The problem is that you and the prof are referring to it as “The Fox and the Grapes.” I took the survey and had to stop and think about it for a second. If I had been in class, I likely would have given the same reaction she got, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t heard the “sour grapes” story. You’re not distinguishing between people’s familiarity with the story and their familiarity with the title.

    Frankly, I find it hard to believe that neither the blogger nor the prof thought of this complication. But you don’t mention it because that would interfere with the “Today’s young people haven’t heard the classic fables!” narrative.

  16. #16 Dave
    March 22, 2009

    jaltcoh: How is this biased against young people? Both younger and older people were asked the same questions. Yes, it’s possible that some of Greta’s students were familiar with the story, if they had gotten the explanation you gave, but as we’ve demonstrated here, there is indeed a generation gap (at least among our readers) in knowledge of the “Fox and the Grapes” story.

  17. #17 Virginia
    March 23, 2009

    As I grew up in france and La Fontaine made a version of this tale, of course I had heard about the story. Couldn’t remember the end though, probalby because I didn’t like La Fontaine at all. But we had to study him in school.
    As for the other folk tales, I know people who are in their 30′s and who didn’t know them because their parents were against telling kids fairy tales.

  18. #18 marciepooh
    March 23, 2009

    My mom read us fairy tales, greek mythology, and fables when we were young. When my niece (now 10) was in kindergarten her teacher told Mom not to read her things like the Just So Stories because she/they were trying to make the kids “fluent readers” and those kinds of books/stories had too many big words in them. (Nevermind my niece was already reading above grade level.) Apparently being a fluent reader doesn’t require vocabulary. My mother ignored the teachers advice.

  19. #19 grad student
    March 23, 2009

    Now you’ve got me curious about the demographics of xkcd readers. I recently got into a discussion about the comic with what seems like a non-techie group (a cognitive psychologist, a philsopher, and two computational linguists walk into a coffee shop…). I definitely got pulled into that comic by a strip involving some sort of language pun – it seems like the comic would be just as likely to pull in literary people as scientists. But then, it was a group of grad students, so we’re all geeks of some sort…

  20. #20 Ravana
    March 23, 2009

    I’d love to read how people answered the part of the survey where you had to list how the various stories ended.

  21. #21 Dave Munger
    March 23, 2009

    Ravana,

    Yeah, there were some great responses for “Star Wars.” I was thinking about writing some of them up over the weekend. Maybe this coming Friday.

  22. #22 jaltcoh.blogspot.com
    March 24, 2009

    jaltcoh: How is this biased against young people? Both younger and older people were asked the same questions.

    I didn’t say it’s biased against young people. It’s simply a poor methodology, whether or not it’s biased against the young.

    Independent of any age trends, this poll has not tested people’s familiarity with the “sour grapes” story. It’s tested people’s ability to connect the title “The Fox and the Grapes” with “sour grapes.” Same thing with the classroom anecdote.

    Also, since the title itself might have gone out of fashion while the story has stayed around, this might actually be biased against young people.

  23. #23 Dave Munger
    March 24, 2009

    Jaltcoh:

    Knowing the phrase “sour grapes” is different from knowing the story of the Fox and the Grapes. We asked our kids about it, and Nora instantly recited the entire story. Jim didn’t know the story, had heard of the phrase “sour grapes,” but, as it turned out, didn’t know what it actually meant. (I can’t remember exactly what he said it meant, but I think it was something like buyer’s remorse).

    As to whether the study had a poor design, of course it did. It’s a non-scientific, casual study. But it’s more difficult to test people on whether they know the meaning of “sour grapes” than to ask whether they’ve heard the story, so that’s why we chose not to do that. If you have a better idea on how to test it, why not try it on your blog? My suspicion, if you could make a reliable test, is that you’d find a similar age effect.

    If a person doesn’t know the story, they don’t know precisely what “sour grapes” means, even if they’ve heard the phrase before.

  24. #24 Robert Rushing
    March 24, 2009

    I agree with “grad student” about XKCD readers: I’m a regular reader and a humanities professor—I originally found out about after a student (a humanities major) in a class I was teaching (a big humanities lecture class) emailed me and suggested I might like it. But then again, I’m a humanities prof frequenting a cognitive science blog. I’m also 40 and like reading webcomics, so something’s clearly wrong here…

  25. #25 Dan
    March 25, 2009

    This is my favorite take on the parable of the Fox and the Grapes.

  26. #26 Susan
    March 28, 2009

    I, too, teach humanities. I’m surprised that no one has mentioned the benefit of student familiarity with fables and myth as archetype, particularly in light of the Star Wars references. I tend to agree with much of what Joseph Campbell has to say about narratives that recur across generations and cultures, but couched in culture specific terms and technology. Star Wars has resonance not only because it is recent and presented in a technological form familiar to those born since 1970, but because it is a re-telling of a power archetypal narrative: the hero’s journey.

  27. #27 jaltcoh.blogspot.com
    March 30, 2009

    Dave Munger:

    You’re distorting my meaning. I’m not saying there’s a difference between knowing the story and knowing the lesson of the fable. I’m saying there’s a difference between knowing the title and knowing about the fable itself.

    “If you have a better idea on how to test it, why not try it on your blog? My suspicion, if you could make a reliable test, is that you’d find a similar age effect.”

    Well, I don’t want to put this on my blog for other reasons, but not because there’d be no way to test it. That’s easy: substitute “sour grapes” for “The Fox and the Grapes.” That might not be perfect either, but it’d be a whole lot more reliable. As this study stands, again, you haven’t tested familiarity with the fable — you’ve tested familiarity with the title “The Fox and the Grapes.”

  28. #28 mikekoz68
    April 25, 2009

    Just like to coment on the “oldies but goodies” I would like to assert that most of the oldies are not good. The ones I remember involved unnecessary violence, stereotypical ugly=bad, beautiful=good. If you analyse these fairy tails like you’ve heard them for the first time they can be shockingly horrible.

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