[LINK] The power of fiction for moral instruction

post by David_Gerard · 2013-03-24T21:19:23.724Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 37 comments

From Medical Daily: Psychologists Discover How People Subconsciously Become Their Favorite Fictional Characters

Psychologists have discovered that while reading a book or story, people are prone to subconsciously adopt their behavior, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses to that of fictional characters as if they were their own.

Experts have dubbed this subconscious phenomenon ‘experience-taking,’ where people actually change their own behaviors and thoughts to match those of a fictional character that they can identify with.

Researcher from the Ohio State University conducted a series of six different experiments on about 500 participants, reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that in the right situations, ‘experience-taking,’ may lead to temporary real world changes in the lives of readers. 

They found that stories written in the first-person can temporarily transform the way readers view the world, themselves and other social groups. 

I always wondered at how Christopher Hitchens (who, when he wasn't being a columnist, was a professor of English literature) went on and on about the power of fiction for revealing moral truths. This gives me a better idea of how people could imprint on well-written fiction. More so than, say, logically-reasoned philosophical tracts.

This article is, of course, a popularisation. Anyone have links to the original paper?

Edit: Gwern delivers (PDF): Kaufman, G. F., & Libby, L. K. (2012, March 26). "Changing Beliefs and Behavior Through Experience-Taking." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027525

37 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by gwern · 2013-03-24T22:28:39.837Z · score: 22 (22 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anyone have links to the original paper?

The article says the authors are one Kauffmann & Libby, and implies it was published in the last year. So:

Go to Google Scholar, punch in 'kauffman libby', limit to 'Since 2012'; and the correct paper ("Changing beliefs and behavior through experience-taking") is the first hit with fulltext available on the righthand side as the text link "[PDF] from tiltfactor.org".

I hope this will be helpful for the future.


FWIW, I've been compiling relevant material on this for a while. As it happens, I already had this study.

comment by David_Gerard · 2013-03-25T09:41:11.591Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Cheers! And yes, of course fiction is dangerous; that's much of the point. A frequently valid synonym for "dangerous" is "effective".

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-03-26T04:55:13.618Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A frequently valid synonym for "dangerous" is "effective".

I'd quote you in the next rationality quotes thread if there weren't a rule against it.

comment by David_Gerard · 2013-03-29T21:58:31.146Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was thinking of the bit of Unix philosophy that says: "Unix was not designed to stop its users from doing stupid things, as that would also stop them from doing clever things." (Doug Gwyn) Hasn't been quoted yet, so be sure to dive in at 00:00 UTC Sunday :-) Edit: Monday!

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-03-25T23:32:36.240Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I always wondered at how Christopher Hitchens (who, when he wasn't being a columnist, was a professor of English literature) went on and on about the power of fiction for revealing moral truths.

Fiction is also very good at making moral falsehoods appear to be moral truths.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2013-03-26T01:17:47.296Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it's likely more general than just moral truths. Combine fictional bias and availability bias, and I'm guessing fiction alters your model of the world. Read grim stories, predict a grim world.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-03-26T02:18:47.898Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Obligatory link.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-26T02:30:21.454Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-26T16:55:04.526Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I seem to recall a study showing that people who watch lots of TV tend to overestimate the probability per unit time of undergoing certain acts of violence by an order of magnitude. (But maybe it's just that people who watch lots of TV and people who don't suck at probabilistic reasoning are mostly non-overlapping groups, or something like that.)

comment by CronoDAS · 2013-03-27T00:43:25.094Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

On the flip side: as a child, my father wondered why anyone would ever commit a crime, because, as he saw on TV, criminals were always caught...

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-26T17:24:54.342Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-26T01:48:52.885Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

.

comment by David_Gerard · 2013-03-26T00:21:18.492Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, it's an effective tool, not necessarily a safe one.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-03-26T04:56:26.372Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The depressing thing is that the fiction that gets read is the fiction that people like to read, which is fiction that does not instruct them but tells them they're wonderful just as they are.

comment by ITakeBets · 2013-03-26T14:13:49.099Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A corrective has historically been the concept of good literature. See for example George Eliot, Anton Chekhov, etc.

Reading Anton Chekhov's stories, one feels oneself in a melancholy day of late autumn, when the air is transparent and the outline of naked trees, narrow houses, greyish people, is sharp. Everything is strange, lonely, motionless, helpless. The horizon, blue and empty, melts into the pale sky, and its breath is terribly cold upon the earth, which is covered with frozen mud. The author's mind, like autumn sun, shows up in hard outline the monotonous roads, the crooked streets, the little squalid houses in which tiny, miserable people are stifled by boredom and laziness and fill the houses with an unintelligible, drowsy bustle. ... There passes before one a long file of men and women, slaves of their love, of their stupidity and idleness, of their greed for the good things of life; there walk the slaves of the dark fear of life; they straggle anxiously along, filling life with incoherent words about the future, feeling that in the present there is no place for them. ... In front of that dreary, gray crowd of helpless people there passed a great, wise, and observant man: he looked at all these dreary inhabitants of his country, and, with a sad smile, with a tone of gentle but deep reproach, with anguish in his face and in his heart, in a beautiful and sincere voice, he said to them: "You live badly, my friends. It is shameful to live like that." — Maxim Gorky, Reminiscences of Anton Chekhov (BW Huebsch, 1921)

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-03-26T14:25:43.855Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've often wondered why we like reading bleak stories. That sounds like the explanation is that reading Chekov makes you feel like "a great, wise, and observant man".

comment by ITakeBets · 2013-03-26T14:34:57.395Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree, but it may be that the best way to accomplish that end, or at least the route Chekhov has taken, is actually to make wise observations. If we are capable, as a culture, of sometimes recognizing writers whose observations are indeed wise, who help us to simulate the experiences of other people, or better possible selves, with high fidelity, then good literature is probably worth a look. That has been my experience, at least. (Another reason to enjoy reading bleak stories might be an aesthetic appreciation for the beauty of the language, for example.)

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-26T05:42:46.606Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-25T00:56:49.175Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

.

comment by torekp · 2013-03-25T23:53:21.127Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A key passage:

Research shows that regular contact with homosexual friends or family members is a better predictor of gay-friendly attitudes than gender, level of education, age, and even political or religious affiliation. And the same seems to be true for the illusory relationships we form with fiction characters.

Nice find.

comment by Tenoke · 2013-03-25T17:59:51.454Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with this and I will simply copy a relevant comment that I've made before:

A somewhat related thing that I do is to read/watch stories with clever/intelligent/rational (or whatever I want to be) characters such as Death Note/HPMOR (I have a bunch of other examples) which both seems to prime me to think a bit like them (or to enter in a mode where I think that my narrative is similar to theirs) and also gives me role models on which I can fall back to in some situations (like in your Naruto example). This has definitely at least partially worked (might be placebo) as I almost always have more motivation on which I act to study/do productive things after watching/reading such a story.

comment by bbleeker · 2013-03-26T13:46:48.014Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Where can I find this Death Note? And other examples? I love HPMOR, and I'd love to read more like it!

comment by Tenoke · 2013-03-27T11:37:16.136Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My other examples are mainly other fanfics (like Luminosity) and anime (like Code Geass). Also in terms of Tv shows things like Sherlock and Doctor Who can work in this way.

comment by David_Gerard · 2013-04-01T12:35:15.681Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

License Note. Read only after you've read Death Note.

comment by ArisKatsaris · 2013-03-26T14:37:38.235Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's an anime series: http://web.hi10anime.com/death-note/
I'd also recomment the two live-action movies (http://web.hi10anime.com/death-note-movies-e2/) which I believe to be slightly better than the anime, for reasons that would be spoilerish to talk about.

The site I linked above has a few problems recently with accessability due to ads. I've lately had best success downloading when I use Firefox.

comment by ygert · 2013-03-27T12:39:26.152Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Incorrect. That anime series and the movies were based off of Death Note, but are not the original Death Note. The original was a manga, which you can read here. If you want to watch the movie of the book or the TV show of the book you may, but in general in cases like this (and in this cas in particular as well) I find that the original is much better. Death Note is so good, however, that after reading the manga through to the end you may want more. If so, then go to the anime and the movies, but I very strongly recommend you start with the original.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-26T17:26:36.706Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Psychologists have discovered that while reading a book or story, people are prone to subconsciously adopt their behavior, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses to that of fictional characters as if they were their own.

For that matter, I sometimes catch myself adopting the behavior, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of real people as if they were my own, too.

They found that stories written in the first-person can temporarily transform the way readers view the world, themselves and other social groups.

I don't think they have to be written in the first person for that to happen. At least in my case, I don't think there's any noticeable difference between stories written in the first person and stories written in the third-person subjective, and I think that I've also identified with characters from stories in the third-person subjective and third-person omniscient.

comment by shminux · 2013-03-25T05:33:05.614Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wonder what the average relaxation rate is and if there is any residual.

comment by gwern · 2013-03-25T14:25:02.414Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The effect sizes (eyeballing the graphs) are pretty small. I think the take-away here is more about 'a lifetime of media consumption' rather than any one piece of media.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-03-25T13:56:43.840Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

From my totally scientifically collected and sample-bias-free personal experience, the short-term effect has a half-life of 3 days at most, with the effects generally being undetectable after a week.

A well-designed study of this would be interesting.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2013-03-25T15:20:21.717Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"I've lived the lives of all the characters in all my books, and all their mighty wisdom thunders in my head."

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-25T15:53:51.026Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

.

comment by TimS · 2013-03-25T10:36:55.306Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting. I've always seen the Disney fairy tales as very helpful primers on parenting (in the what-not-to-do sense). But I don't think I identify with any particular Disney characters.

comment by gwern · 2013-03-25T14:23:42.356Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Tell that to a little princess begging her parents for a horse just like X.

comment by DanArmak · 2013-03-25T12:16:33.220Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

First:

This gives me a better idea of how people could imprint on well-written fiction. More so than, say, logically-reasoned philosophical tracts.

And then:

This article is, of course, a popularisation.

That's like a meta-comment on the article, isn't it?

comment by David_Gerard · 2013-03-25T14:16:17.924Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's turning the paper into a story, and stories are most of how humans communicate.

comment by DanArmak · 2013-03-25T17:13:34.084Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And that model predicts the results given in the article.