Empathy, Justice and the Science of Story

An interesting preview in the Boston Globe of Jonathan Gottschall’s new book, Graphing Jane Austen, […]

David Zahl / 5.9.12

An interesting preview in the Boston Globe of Jonathan Gottschall’s new book, Graphing Jane Austen, which surveys some recent studies looking at the role fiction plays in society, most of which seek to determine why/how stories are ‘good’ for us. Which sounds a bit lame, I know, especially given how much the conclusions depend on what stories are being told (and how). The studies in question don’t tell us anything we don’t already know – storytelling appears to have two primary ‘benefits’: it instills empathy for others and can act as “social glue’ by promoting shared values. The values themselves are telling, e.g. the universally strong response to depictions of ‘poetic justice’ — stories in which the bad guys get punished and the good guys get rewarded. Our inner lawyers/karma chameleons love a good revenge tale, in other words. Or we can recognize virtue when we see/read it.

Obviously this is a somewhat dubious project from the get-go, as if literature is concerned with results or things that can be ‘measured’ (or storytelling can even be spoken of in such broad terms). But as far as harmless rabbit trails go, it’s a pretty fun one. If what the researchers are saying has even a little merit – and it probably does – the two so-called ‘benefits’ of fiction do relate to one another in an interesting way. That is, the empathy that great storytelling (whether it be on the page or the screen) can inspire extends to both heroes and villains, bringing the reader into contact with their similarities to both. It reacquaints a person with the reality of themselves, as opposed to the “lie” mentioned below. One might go so far as to say that true empathy actually deconstructs the good-bad/reward-punishment paradigm, paving the way for grace. It certainly does in the television shows he mentions…  ht DJ:

Until recently, we’ve only been able to guess about the actual psychological effects of fiction on individuals and society. But new research in psychology and broad-based literary analysis is finally taking questions about morality out of the realm of speculation.

This research consistently shows that fiction does mold us. The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, 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 make us rubbery and easy to shape.

But perhaps the most impressive finding is just how fiction shapes us: mainly for the better, not for the worse. Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds. More peculiarly, fiction’s happy endings seem to warp our sense of reality. They make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is. But believing that lie has important effects for society — and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place.

For a long time literary critics and philosophers have argued, along with the novelist George Eliot, that one of fiction’s main jobs is to “enlarge men’s sympathies.” Recent lab work suggests they are right.
The psychologists Mar and Keith Oatley tested the idea that entering fiction’s simulated social worlds enhances our ability to connect with actual human beings. They found that heavy fiction readers outperformed heavy nonfiction readers on tests of empathy, even after they controlled for the possibility that people who already had high empathy might naturally gravitate to fiction.

Stories — from modern films to ancient fairy tales — steep us all in the same powerful norms and values. True, antiheroes, from Milton’s Satan to Tony Soprano, captivate us, but bad guys are almost never allowed to live happily ever after. And fiction generally teaches us that it is profitable to be good. Take a study of television viewers by the Austrian psychologist Marcus Appel. Appel points out that, for a society to function properly, people have to believe in justice. They have to believe that there are rewards for doing right and punishments for doing wrong. And, indeed, people generally do believe that life punishes the vicious and rewards the virtuous. But one class of people appear to believe these things in particular: those who consume a lot of fiction.

In Appel’s study, people who mainly watched drama and comedy on TV — as opposed to heavy viewers of news programs and documentaries — had substantially stronger “just-world” beliefs. Appel concludes that fiction, by constantly exposing us to the theme of poetic justice, may be partly responsible for the sense that the world is, on the whole, a just place.

This is despite the fact, as Appel puts it, “that this is patently not the case.” As people who watch the news know very well, bad things happen to good people all the time, and most crimes go unpunished. In other words, fiction seems to teach us to see the world through rose-colored lenses. And the fact that we see the world that way seems to be an important part of what makes human societies work.