The Blog Lives



“People believe everything”

By Mike Lin

My place of work has a subscription to Nature, so I read it pretty regularly now. Apart from the scientific papers, for which it is the most prestigious journal in the field, there is also a good news section with well written, in depth articles on topics that might interest scientists. Here is a quote from one in the June 22nd issue discussing how the mind deals with real, fictional and artificial (like cartoon) video footage differently (linked here if you’ve got the credentials):

The mental state that arises when we interact with unreality is complex. We get involved to the extent that, say, we cry when Bambi’s mother dies, but not so involved that we walk out of the cinema and strike up a conversation with the nearest rabbit. Whatever the explanation is, says psychologist Richard Gerrig of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, it isn’t the much-touted suspension of disbelief, because disbelief is not the default. “People believe everything, and one must expend effort to disbelieve,” says Gerrig.

The brain, it seems, has a default setting of credulity, and a keen appetite for consuming and producing stories. Narrative is a crucial tool in our efforts to understand the world and some brain areas seem specialized for processing it. Information presented in narrative form lowers our critical faculties, and experiments show that the more deeply people become immersed in a story, the easier it is to sway their attitudes towards those advocated in that story. This resonates with A Scanner Darkly, when an undercover cop becomes so engrossed in his ‘fictional’ identity as a drug dealer that his police persona begins to pursue his criminal one. Resisting our susceptibility to stories is a useful skill in a media- and advertising-saturated world, says Gerrig. “We need to get kids and adults to construct disbelief. Because people don’t know about this tendency, it puts them at risk.”

“It’s not important whether you label something as fiction or non-fiction,” Mar agrees. “The true distinction is between narrative and non-narrative expository forms that don’t draw you into their world.” It also looks as if the ability to lose yourself in a fictional world might reflect your ability to navigate the genuine social world. Mar and his colleagues have found that the more time a person spends reading fiction the greater his or her empathy and social skills; for readers of expository non-fiction (such as, to pick an example at random, science journalism) the correlation is negative. I thought it would be best to keep back that particular piece of reality until the end.

It is often considered patronizing to assume that people can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction, but this article begs to differ.

So some lack social empathy, but others lack the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Many of the worlds problems might be attributed to one or the other of these deficiencies. As usual the optimal path is a balance between the two.

Comments are closed.