14
May
12

Fiction is bad for you, part 4

(Previously here, here, and here.)

Will Wilkinson finds a study:

Researchers at Ohio State University examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own – a phenomenon the researchers call “experience-taking.”

They found that, in the right situations, experience-taking may lead to real changes, if only temporary, in the lives of readers.

This isn’t always such a great thing.  While reading American Psycho, I rather disturbingly found myself thinking in run-on sentences like Patrick Bateman.  Speaking of Bret Easton Ellis:

In an interview celebrating the launching of his most recent book, Imperial Bedrooms, Bret Easton Ellis recounted how many fans of his work would come up to him and say “You’re the guy who wrote Less Than Zerothat’s the book that made me want to live in L.A.!”

(Don’t click on those last two links if you’re not willing to fall down the Tropes Wiki black hole.)

So, should we only read stories about good people, the kind to whose lives we ought to aspire?  Yes, careful reader, that is a lead-in to a Robin Hanson link:

Imagine that all you know about someone is that they have zero interest in stories. Not movies, not novels, not nothing. They prefer instead to stay focused on the real world. The only “stories” they want are accurate histories of representative people. What do you think of this person?

GET OUT OF MY HEAD, ROBIN HANSON!

You might want to hire this person. But would you trust them to be loyal? Would you date them? Marry them? Most people feel a little wary of such story-less people, just as they are wary of atheists. People fear that atheists will violate social norms because they do not fear punishment from gods and spirits. Similarly, people fear that story-less people have not internalized social norms well – they may be too aware of how easy it would be to get away with violations, and feel too little shame from trying.

This is perhaps more plausible if they believe those story-less people never went to high school.

A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

Next question for the interested reader: Am I attacking stories, in part or in whole, because I aspire to/identify with the subculture that includes Will Wilkinson and Robin Hanson, and thus makes skepticism of stories a high-status behaviour?  Answers in the comments, please show your work for full credit.

Here’s Will again:

So the next time you hear a good story about why the financial recession, or any other economically significant event, was caused by a single collection of bad actors — or how a simple linear narrative “explains” an important event — remember this: Just as we are wired to like a diet rich in fats and sugars, we have an appetite for simple, coherent narratives. Neither habit is good for our long-term health.

(Inevitable aside: We’re not necessarily wired to like a diet rich in fats and sugars.)

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9 Responses to “Fiction is bad for you, part 4”


  1. 1 perlhaqr
    May 15, 2012 at 06:23

    The point about religion vs: stories seems a bit odd. I like reading / hearing / watching fiction because I like being told stories, but I don’t believe in the Thor onscreen any more than I believe in the one worshipped by Asatruar.

    That, to me, seems far more the point than anything about high / low status activity. I simply don’t have (or have managed to break) whatever belief circuitry other humans seem to have in such abundance. (And, in fact, I find the entire Christian notion of “belief” a bit offensive. Presuming theie creation myth is true, JHVH made humanity with the power of reason, and then demands its abnegation in order to make it to Heaven.)

    • May 15, 2012 at 10:46

      The point about religion vs: stories seems a bit odd.

      Not really odd if you take Robin at face value. His first post argues that religious belief inhibits “far mode” truth-seeking behaviour, but seems to make believers happier — so why not believe, or at least fake it well enough to get the happiness benefit? Most of his commentariat responded with “fuck happiness, I want the Truth!” His second post argues that stories inhibit “far mode” truth-seeking behaviour.

      My point in this series of posts is that stories are more or less an unpatched security vulnerability in the human mind. If you tell me a story based on false premises, I’ll be much more likely to accept those premises as true than if you simply asserted them without the story.

      I simply don’t have (or have managed to break) whatever belief circuitry other humans seem to have in such abundance.

      You and me both. I didn’t understand faith until I read Fear and Trembling, and even then it was more like reading about pair production — okay, this is a thing that exists; I trust the source and the numbers all seem to work out; but damned if I can figure out what I’m supposed to do with it.

      • May 15, 2012 at 11:44

        My point in this series of posts is that stories are more or less an unpatched security vulnerability in the human mind. If you tell me a story based on false premises, I’ll be much more likely to accept those premises as true than if you simply asserted them without the story.

        Maybe I should buy everyone in the world a copy of Freehold then. Not that I think it’s based on false premises, just the opposite in fact. But I’d like to see it’s premises accepted more widely. :D

        That said, I’m not sure I actually agree. I’ve read fiction that had… radically different operating assumptions than the ones I work with, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t any more inclined to accept marxist utopianism or radical environmentalism afterwards than I was before reading them.

        On the gripping hand, perhaps I’m just set in my ways.

        • May 16, 2012 at 15:20

          Let me flesh out my argument a little, because I think you and LabRat are getting a slightly different idea from the one I’m trying to support.

          I’m working from the premise that the brain treats imagined experiences and real experiences in a very similar way. This is, for example, why visualization is such a powerful sports-performance tool.

          When I read a story, I imagine its events in my head. But those events are derived from the author’s premises and assumptions, so if I’m reading (say) Foundation I’m simulating living in a world where very precise social engineering actually works. That’s sufficiently different from my own premises to provoke some cognitive dissonance, so I notice them, and unless the story has other compelling virtues (or when those virtues get old and aren’t replaced with new ones) I’m likely to put the book down (or throw the sequel across the room).

          But if I don’t have any particular opinion on precision social engineering — maybe I’m fourteen and haven’t given it much thought — then I’ve just simulated a bunch of experience where social engineering is the Macguffin that saves the day. I might not even recognize that I’m doing so.

  2. 5 lelnet
    May 16, 2012 at 14:01

    “Am I attacking stories, in part or in whole, because I aspire to/identify with the subculture that includes Will Wilkinson and Robin Hanson, and thus makes skepticism of stories a high-status behaviour?”

    I suspect you are. But of course, the only evidence one way or another is locked inside your head, where no one but you has access, and you aren’t considered a completely trustworthy reporter. I thus cannot offer anything rising to the level of a proper _argument_ for my suspicion, but rather merely assert that it strikes me as being more plausible than the contrary assertion.

    • May 16, 2012 at 14:33

      But of course, the only evidence one way or another is locked inside your head, where no one but you has access

      Not true. We can’t see alpha particles, but we can see the ionized trails they leave in cloud chambers. Similarly, you can’t get access to my motivations, but you’ve surely seen some consequence of those motivations that makes you think I’m signaling status rather than (or as well as) making an honest argument. What evidence did you find? (As you note I’m not a trustworthy reporter of what goes on in my head, so this’ll probably be new to me and I’m genuinely curious.)

  3. 7 rethoryke
    May 23, 2012 at 11:43

    The following explains virtually every English department I’ve ever been in, and why I didn’t mind walking away:

    “Surely if there were any truth in the notion that reading fiction greatly increased our capacity for empathy then college English departments, which have by far the densest concentration of fiction readers in human history, would be legendary for their absence of back-stabbing, competitive ill-will, factional rage, and egocentric self-promoters; they’d be the one place where disputes are most often quickly and amiably resolved by mutual empathetic engagement.

    It is rare to see a thesis actually falsified as it is being articulated.”

    Full article: “Can Science Explain Why We Tell Stories?” http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/05/can-science-explain-why-we-tell-stories.html#ixzz1vcV1BGX1


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