Of Stories, Character, and Beliefs

Here I will link several posts that I see as related.  At the moment I don’t have time to tie them together in a coherent way, so will just put them out there in a somewhat disconnected fashion in the hope of sparking some good discussion.

Scott Adams:

I would like to see a study of decision-making based on how much fiction one consumes. My hypothesis is that consumers of fiction will draw their “experience” in part from fiction and it will warp their understanding of what is practical or possible in the real world…I think exposure to fiction makes you less grounded in the real world (subconsciously) and more likely to make decisions the way the captain of the Enterprise would have done it, for example.

This is a quite different view of the role and value of fiction from the one expressed in an article I summarized in my post Fiction and Empathy:

In one experiment, researcher Keith Oatley and colleagues assessed the reading habits of 94 adults, separating fiction from nonfiction. They also tested the subjects on measures of emotion perception (being able to discern a person’s emotional state from a photo of only the eyes) and social cognition (being able to draw conclusions about the relationships among people based on video clips.) This study showed a “strong” interconnection between fiction reading and social skills, especially between fiction reading and the emotion-perception factor. This correlation, of course, does not by itself demonstrate the direction of causality. Another study involved assigning 303 adults to read either a short story or an essay from the New Yorker and following up with tests of analytical and social reasoning. Those who read the story tended to do better on the social reasoning test than those who read the nonfiction essay.

Dr Oatley has referred to fiction as “the mind’s flight simulator.”

And here is an argument that reading fiction will make you a better investor:

Unlike historical accounts, through well-drawn characters it is possible to absorb the world through another perspective, an immensely valuable skill for investors looking for ideas (or trouble). A memory bank of fictional characters will also help when the market “hive mind” pushes prices in unexpected directions, answering the question “what kind of person buys here?”  The primary lesson of fiction is learning “this is how people act”, when they’re scared, confident, happy, determined or demoralized. Not how I would act, or how I think they should act, but how the combination of different experiences and different patterns of cognition lead to aggregate outcomes. Empathy.

In her post the message and the story , SF writer Sarah Hoyt offers some thoughts on how novels can influence the worldviews of their readers:

But part of it is that I doubt the effectiveness of overt messages in stories. I don’t scruple to say I was raised by Heinlein, nor that I wasn’t the only one. The man might have had no biological kids, but he has sons and daughters all over the world, including me.

But then we have to look at how he raised me. Remember I came at Heinlein through (mostly) the later books because most of the Juveniles (Door Into Summer and Have Spacesuit Will Travel excepted) were either not translated to Portuguese or no longer available when I came along. And yet, what I took from his books was not the obvious messages: “Though art God” or the bedhopping or multiple marriages as the natural way to live. (Oh, for a while, but that was the spirit of the times, too, being the late seventies.) What I took from the books were not so much the messages as “the way to be.”

By creating characters that were tough, questioning, strong, and, most of all, useful, he made me want to be that way. I took as my model (being touched in the upper works) the broken caryatid, not just for characters but for what a human being should be, lifting whatever the burden without complaining.

Now, it takes a certain type of personality to teach at that level. I’ve seen it in some teachers, too, who, regardless of whether they teach you history or English, really give you a model you aspire to being. The left, being daft, thinks this has to do with the character/teacher looking like you. They think only black people can model to black children. This is part of their insanity with “there must be so many characters of tan per book.” And also with promoting incompetent teachers to positions of power, because they have a certain ancestry or skin color.

But it doesn’t work that way. It’s more subtle. It’s more about being who you are in such a strong and convincing way and making the characteristics you have or approve of so admirable that people want to follow them.  Which is what Heinlein did.


In the article on Fiction and Empathy, Dr Oatley cites work attempting to assess the impact of different kinds of media on the empathy effect. In one test involving preschool children, it was found that kids reading more stories or watching more movies had higher empathy, but that the empathy levels were *not* higher among those who watched a lot of television. Oatley suggests that the reason probably lies in the fact that TV shows explore fewer topics and themes that require adopting a character’s point of view. I suspect that to the extent this effect is real, it is probably more a consequence of the stories being told, rather than the the experiential characteristics of the media themselves. In particular, I’d guess that both the TV programs and the movies which are engineered to appeal to particular demographics are much less likely to be empathy-promoting than those that are developed via the individual creativity of authors/screenwriters.

But I do think the kind of media used to tell a given story can have a major influence on the story’s psychological effect, as McLuhan argued long ago.  See my post metaphors, interfaces, and though processes, in which I reference the work of Neal Stephenson in distinguishing between the explicit word-based interface to information and the graphical or sensorial interface.  In the realm of fiction, a novel would be an example of the first category, whereas the same story presented as a movie or a TV program would be an example of the second.  I said:

I’d observe that as a general matter, the sensorial interface is less open to challenge than the textual interface. It doesn’t argue–doesn’t present you with a chain of facts and logic that let you sit back and say, “Hey, wait a minute–I’m not so sure about that.” It just sucks you into its own point of view.

…and mentioned the so-called “tunnels of oppression” which have become popular for indoctrination educational purposes on many college campuses as examples of sensory-mode information presentation.

I don’t think there’s any question but that Scott Adams is correct about the influence of fiction on belief systems, and would argue that the influence is generally stronger and much less subject to conscious questioning when the story is presented in iconic form (movie, TV, “tunnel of oppression”) rather than in text form.  I’m sure there are many people who have seen movies with dramatic scenes of cities being drowned by rising sea levels, said to be caused by global warming, who were influenced to be worried about “climate change,” without necessarily reviewing the evidence about such climate change or lack of same.  Similarly, I’m sure that Nazi-era propaganda movies portraying Jews as subhuman influenced many Germans in the direction of such beliefs, even though the cinematic Jews had little or nothing in common with the real, everyday Jews that these Germans knew personally.

But I don’t conclude therefore that fiction is a bad thing or that it makes one “less grounded in the real world,” as Scott Adams put it….quite the contrary, I believe that a broad diet of fiction generally makes one more grounded in the real world.  The danger occurs when all or most of the fiction tends to point in the direction of a particular worldview–especially a worldview strongly demanded by those who control state power or are on the edge of getting it–with little or none pointing in the other direction.














8 thoughts on “Of Stories, Character, and Beliefs”

  1. I can’t remember his exact wording (maybe he can correct me if it’s wrong), but Charles Cameron once said there’s a lot of myth in reality and there’s a lot of reality in myth.

    Or something like that. The point being, I suppose, that the subjective world around us is so open to interpretation that a good roundabout allegory is sometimes the better way to deal with it than straight reportage.

  2. “claiming that theatre gave birth to democracy in ancient Greece”

    I read Mary Renault’s novels about ancient Greece and learned a lot about Greek life, including Pisistratus. I read them after reading JB Bury’s History of Greece which gave the bare facts and her novels filled in the details. She is very much into gay life but I could ignore that.

  3. I read constantly when I was young. I would go the library and repeat my mantra that began: Best, Clarke, Conklin .. and went on through all the SF authors I knew about.

    I find it interesting that I thought Heinlein was a bit of a fascist from a very early age. There were others with very simple right wing views I could identify before I even knew about all this right – left nonsense. Jerry Pournelle likes his heroes to have very simple, almost childish, macho viewpoints. This when I was 12 perhaps. Us lefties start early I guess.

  4. Empathy is the key thing. All media generates sympathy for the lead characters, but film/TV rarely gets past that to actual empathy. Written fiction, particularly when written using multiple POV characters, draws you into the characters motives and self-rationalizations.

    As an example – in Solzhenitsyn’s “The First Circle” there is a fascinating scene written from Stalin’s POV that captures the paranoid mind. A great book if you haven’t read it, the title refers to Dante, on the gulag of scientists – zeks still, but valuable ones treated better because they were not freely replaceable. A thoughtful exploration of the moral compromises, both with the state and with one’s own conscience, made within a totalitarian state.

  5. Texan99 mentions this post over at Grim’s Hall, and says:

    “In recent years I’ve been reading more history than was my early habit, when I tended more to fiction. I find that I have a hard time remembering the history and keeping it straight unless I can tie it into fictional worlds. Modern fiction set in historical periods can be a problem, since most authors jam everything so full of anachronisms, but this problem can be ameliorated slightly by reading fiction written during the time in question. The trick is not to take the fiction as an accurate statement of history, but as a suggestion of what facts an author of that period took for granted, and what things hadn’t even occurred to him yet.”

  6. There are certain fiction writers that I read over and over. One is Neville Shute. Another is Mary Renault about ancient Greece. Another is WEB Griffin about the US military and about Argentina. Others who have some experience with his themes have told me that his accuracy is astonishing. The street names around Fort Rucker, for example, are accurate,

    I am not into popular writers much. Daniel Silva has been good in a few novels but most of that genre I ignore. I also read a lot of history. Right now I’m reading Conrad Black’s US History. I’ve also started to reread JB Bury Greek History for the tenth or so time. If my wife’s health holds up I want to visit Greece again this year.

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