Greg is Professor of Philosophy at Nottingham (moving to York in September); Anna is doing her PhD with him.
We both work on the topics of fiction and imagination, and recently have become interested in the question of how our imaginative engagement with fictions influences our attitudes towards the real world – notably, our real-world beliefs. When we read Anna Karenina and become engrossed in the story of her life, what effects – if any – does this have on what we think, feel, desire about our own lives? Do we acquire new beliefs (or worries, or hopes...) about the real nature of love, or the evils of social conformity? To the extent to which we do that, how does it happen, and how rational is it?
We have started by considering a growing body of studies that go under the heading of ‘Transportation studies’ (see Green & Brock 2000), which suggest that ‘being transported into a story-world’ tends to change readers’ attitudes in ways that reflect the views expressed, explicitly or implicitly, by the story in question. A story where a young girl is stabbed to death by an unrestrained psychiatric patient, even if explicitly labeled as fiction, seems to influence readers’ judgments about real levels of violence and injustice in the world. Psychologists in this field describe such attitudinal changes in terms of belief changes – and ones of a peculiarly irrational kind, which they call ‘narrative persuasion’. In this they are influenced by the work of Dan Gilbert, who argued for a ‘Spinozistic’ account of belief acquisition according to which we automatically believe everything we hear, while disbelieving means ridding ourselves of a belief already acquired: something requiring effort that, for various reasons, is not always forthcoming. Engagement with a fiction can be one of such reasons: stories absorb the readers’ attention, lowering their epistemic vigilance and preventing them from activating the appropriate processes of belief rejection. Readers’ epistemic vigilance might well be lowered also by the fact that they take the purpose of the narrator to be mere entertainment, rather than persuasion, so they’re even less motivated to assume a critical stance. This would explain why, according to some studies, readers tend to be even more influenced by fictional than by non-fictional stories (Prentice & Gerrig 1999).
These and other explanations of readers’ responses in terms of irrational belief changes might be questioned in various ways.
First, it might be questioned that what actually changes are readers’ beliefs. The evidence available so far doesn’t fully support this conclusion. That evidence consists of readers’ self-reports of agreement/disagreement expressed just after having read a story. But we know that people’s introspective reports of their own views are often inaccurate. Moreover, there is currently little evidence that tendencies to avow changed attitudes survive beyond the period immediately after reading. It seems tempting to conclude that, in most cases, readers’ avowals express fleeting emotional changes, rather than real changes of belief.
Second, even granting that fictions can change readers’ beliefs, we might question the irrationality of such changes. It might be perfectly rational – or, at least, not less rational than common processes of belief formation are – to take fictions as indicators of the serious opinions of their authors, and treat such inferred opinions as respectable candidates for beliefs, coming sometimes to embrace them. We very often get our opinions from the testimony of others, and are generally not very careful in judging the reliability of those we trust; trusting the author of a fiction ought not to be ruled out as essentially irrational.
Some support for the rationality of fiction-driven attitudinal change comes also from recent developmental work on children’s understanding of fiction. There is suggestive evidence not only that children at pre-school age can already distinguish fictional stories/characters from real ones, but also that they tend to be significantly less influenced by the former than by the latter (Richert & Smith 2011): a finding, this, in contrast with the above mentioned suggestion about the greater persuasive effects of fiction due to readers’ reduced vigilance. Moreover, it seems that insofar as children let themselves be influenced by fiction, they do that in a quite selective and critical way: they start quite early to develop and refine a good capacity to learn from fiction – making sensible decisions on what information included in a fictional story should be safely applied also to the real world, and what should not (Woolley & Cox 2007).
These two lines of inquiry – one on adults’ experiences of transportation into narratives and the other on the development of children’s fictional competence – have run quite separately from each other; and we notice some tension in the conclusions that psychologists tend to draw from them concerning the influences of fiction, respectively, on adults and on children. One of our aims is to form a consistent overall picture informed by these two research strands, and eventually to develop a theory of the various ways we are cognitively affected by fiction.