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 Zero, that’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:
- Stories are like religion (Overcoming Bias)
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.)