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?
These are in important respects empirical questions. In order to answer them we are looking at the psychological work in this area.
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).