Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fiction's Psychocognitive Effects, Part II + Toibín & Eugenides in Conversation

Last month I posted a little musing entitled "Can Fiction Improve Empathy and Provoke Aggression," which focused on some of the more recent findings by psychological researchers, cognitive scientists, and communications scholars on the neurocognitive effects of fictional works of art and entertainment, which, as I was mentioning to a colleague recently, suggest that at least on these and similar accounts, and despite lacking our extensive contemporary knowledge of how the brain functions, Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, and a few other past thinkers were in fact right, and some of the major 20th century literary theorists and philosophers who wrote about how language works were perhaps off track. The other day I came across a link to another such study, "Misinformation on TV Drama Can Gain Credibility," which reporter Tom Jacobs wrote up on Miller-McCune's newssite. Yet again, it seems, poetic and philosophical wisdom accrued over centuries is more correct than we might think.

Jacob focuses on a study, "The Delay Hypothesis: The Manifestation of Media Effects over Time," by University of Utah communications researcher Jakob Jensen, who looked at the effects of misinformation embedded in a fictional TV show.  Jensen and a research team had 147 students watch an episode of Boston Legal that contained misinformation about EpiPens, which are used to deliver safe doses of epinephrine to people suffering from various kinds of anaphylactic or similar allergic reactions or shocks. In the episode, however, the delivery went awry, a narrative twist that upset EpiPen advocacy groups.  Immediately after the episode, Jensen gave all the students a questionnaire exploring how they related to the characters, how real the show seemed, and how deeply it drew them into its world. He then gave half of the students a questionnaire on the efficacy and safety of EpiPens.

Two weeks later, Jensen and his team mailed all the students a survey on the show, but only asked those who had not previously received the second part of the questionnaire their thoughts on the efficacy of the EpiPens. As it turned out, "individuals queried two weeks after exposure to the television program were more likely to endorse the false belief than those queried immediately after exposure."  This mirrored the results of a 2007 study by University of Cologne researchers Markus Appel and Tobias Richter. As Jensen and his colleagues note, "Two studies have now shown that fiction (written and televised) can produce a delayed message effect," a potentially problematic outcome given that "people are bombarded by mass media every day all over the world, and a sizeable (and growing) body of mass communication research has demonstrated that much of this content is distorted in a multitude of ways."

In essence Jensen was observing a "sleeper effect," in which a piece information in sediments in our minds and we forget it came from an unreliable source, or misinformation sediments and we forget not just the source but that it's misinformation.  Jacobs points out that the "sleeper effect" was first proposed in the 1940s, and confirmed in a 2004 meta-analysis. Yet Plato feared this effect, among others--the "empathy" and the "aggression," as well as other possible modeled and reflective responses--in persuasive, imaginative fictional works, while Aristotle argued that in fact they could have positive, "cathartic" effects.  Many centuries later Nietzsche, among his many other insights, suggested that we engage in such truth-making, sometimes out of lies, half-truths and self-rationalizations, on a societal basis, thus creating truths and sometimes embedding them in various forms of narrative (including religion), however contrary they may be to the material facts around us. One response might be to reject such truths and facts altogether and create one's own, as more than one political operative, party and entire nation has done over the years.

In their 2007 paper, "Persuasive Effects of Fictional Narratives Increase of Over Time," Appel and Richter concluded:

The present study suggests that fictional narratives can have a persistent implicit influence on the way we view the world, and that these effects may last longer than the effects of typical explicit attempts to change beliefs by presenting claims and arguments. Apart from the unintended consequences this instance might have, fictional narratives are a powerful educational tool which on the one hand may be used in a planned and reasonable way to change beliefs and behavior concerning existential topics such as HIV or school education (Singhal et al., 2004). On the other hand, applied fictional persuasion also includes the marketing of political ideas and products in television soap operas without viewers’ awareness (e.g., Lilienthal, 2005) and similar phenomena.

When I discussed this with my graduate fiction class the other night, one student noted that one way to think about this was that fiction and fictional works were essentially propaganda, or could have propagandistic effects. I agreed and thought to myself that many an author, going back many centuries, had intuitively grasped this concept, and instantly thought, in terms of the Anglophone novel, of Samuel Richardson's thoughts about the possible salutary moral effects of works such as Clarissa and Pamela, to give an early example. But, so had many a philosopher, pope and tyrant understood this, which was perhaps one explanation why so many rulers and their censors had taken such extreme steps over the years, from proscribing works of fiction to burning them to proscribing and burning the authors behind them.  I also thought of the long history of important critical work by authors and scholars that raised questions about the effects of various kinds of representations, especially sexist, racist, homophobic, classist, and other discriminatory ones, and the not-infrequent dismissal of such questions based on flawed understandings, particularly of subtle, delayed and influential psychocognitive effects of fiction narratives and the representations embedded in them. To give one example, I was thinking of all of the deleterious representations, stretching throughout the history of Hollywood cinema, from its inauguration up through today, of African Americans, and how even in the face of rational challenges, the "sleeper effect" still plays a role. (This came up a few years ago when I assigned the Joan Crawford vehicle Mildred Pierce in my aesthetics class for the unit on "sentimentality," and we spent a portion of the class talking not about that concept but about the minstrelsy imposed, extraneously to the plot, on Butterfly McQueen's character, which was the sort of eruption that Tisa Bryant explored in her wonderful first book, Unexplained Presence.) One could make similar arguments for other groups. The same is true, I realized, for a good deal of American literature, which also got me thinking in a converse sense about the appeal to respectability among New Negro and early 20th black bourgeois leaders.

So, whether in the absence of intentional, conscious propagandizing, as with a J.W. von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, which precipitated a spate of suicides much as its young protagonist had subected himself to, or when it is overt, as with Ayn Rand, whose dreadful novels' spellbinding effects on so many often quite intelligent, sometimes extraordinarily smart minds, might perhaps now be clearer to the rest of us, the psychocognitive effects of fictional narratives, whatever the media or genre--stories and novels; films and videos; TV shows--still, it seems, tend to be understimated.  Fiction and fictions, then, and as I explored in the discussion this summer, of metaphor, which is to say LANGUAGE in its various imaginative forms, modes and genres, is more important and powerful than we tend to credit it, thus raising some important ethical questions that I don't think writers discuss enough, on an individual basis, with each other, or with readers. (J. M. Coetzee directly poses and dramatizes some of these ethical questions around writing in his strange and powerful novel Elizabeth Costello.) Perhaps I'll pursue some of these questions on here at some point soon.


This piece reminded me of something I had been wanting to post, a brief conversation in the New York Times at the very beginning of this month, featuring two highly lauded contemporary fiction writers, Colm Toibín and Jeffrey Eugenides. In it they discuss their work and fiction as an art form, focusing especially on their choices of realism as a mode and genre. I wish the piece were longer. I also wish the NY Times would post more such conversations and less of its own reporters' narratives masquerading as news, but that is unlikely to happen, so at least I've gotten that out.

Says Eugenides:

The predicament of the contemporary novelist isn’t that different from the one in which my heroine finds herself in “The Marriage Plot.” You told me earlier that when Madeleine tells Leonard that she loves him, her avowal is open to being “read” or mocked. That is, she knows from structuralist theory that the words “I love you” are a trope and that romantic love is a social construct. And yet that doesn’t keep her from being desperately in love with Leonard. Isn’t this how a lot of novelists feel right now? We know from our Derrida that narrative is exhausted and character a fraud. We know that we might be “mocked” for persisting in writing realist fiction. But we keep on doing it! Because we think there is something about reality, and especially about human consciousness, that can be accurately described and that the novel is the best way to do it.

Ah yes, there is something about reality, and especially about human consciousness, that can be accurately described--but, Mr. Eugenides, as many a predecessor has shown and as the mind scientists above demonstrate, there are quite a few things about human consciousness than can be shaped and molded as well. And the novel is one way to do.


  1. What a thought-provoking post. That study really shows the importance of fiction and the responsibility writers have to their audiences. It makes me think of a list compiled on the TV Tropes site of the numerous instances that misinformed writers have created books, TV shows, and films that get the facts wrong. It's called "Did Not Do the Research."

  2. Thanks for posting this! A friend and I have been talking about strategies adopted by Du Bois and Locke and Baldwin that took the aesthetic, and really, fiction, as the grounds for staging claims, eschewing, or at least bypassing the authority of sociology and philosophy. We have been thinking about how the fiction-effect is so already engrained within certain disciplinary formations (sociology and anthropology, for instance) that anti-racist and anti-colonial activists choose to confront these fictional dimensions in provocative ways (thus, the innovative form of Fanon's Black Skins, as a formal rupture into the logics of philosophy and psychoanalysis). Which is all to say, very exciting!

    Final thoughts on the Rugby WC?