How can fiction—the fake struggles of fake people—transform the real world? Until recently we have had no idea. But in the last several decades psychology has begun a serious study of story’s effects on the human mind.
Fiction teaches us facts about the world, influences our morals, and marks us with fears, hopes, and anxieties that alter our behavior. As the psychologist Raymond Mar writes, “Researchers have repeatedly found that reader attitudes shift to become more congruent with the ideas expressed in a [fiction] narrative." In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than non-fiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence.
What is going on here? Why are we putty in a storyteller’s hands? The psychologists Melanie Green and Tim Brock argue that entering fictional worlds “radically alters the way information is processed.” Green and Brock’s studies shows that the more absorbed readers are in a story, the more the story changes them. Highly absorbed readers also detected significantly fewer “false notes” in stories—inaccuracies, infelicities—than less transported readers. Importantly, it is not just that highly absorbed readers detected the false notes and didn’t care about them (as when we watch a pleasurably idiotic action film). They were unable to detect the false notes in the first place.
And, in this, there is an important lesson about the molding power of story. When we read non-fiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally and this seems to leave us defenseless. Anecdotes about those rare ink people—like Rand’s John Galt or Stowe’s Uncle Tom—who vault the fantasy-reality divide to change history are impressive. But what is more impressive, if harder to see, is the way our stories are working on us all the time, reshaping us in the way that flowing water gradually reshapes a rock.
See also: Gottschall, J. (2012). The storytelling animal: How stories make us human. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. [library]