ANDY: Don’t you just love literature?
BENNY: Um… I guess. Why?
ANDY: It’s great. I learn so much when I read.
BENNY: You mean from reading educational non-fiction?
ANDY: No – well, I guess that too. But I was referring to reading novels. A great novel has so many insights into life.
BENNY: I think so too. Do you think fiction can also convince people to belief false things about the world, however? You know, like propaganda.
ANDY: Propaganda is one thing, artful literature is another. It’s scientifically proven by a dude named Gerrig: when reading people momentarily suspend their disbelief and in doing so, they can absorb whatever useful lessons they like from the text, while ignoring all the bits that aren’t true. There’s a difference between fact and fiction.
BENNY: That’s really cool. Someone should like, totally write a blog post about this stuff.
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When consuming fiction, readers lower their guard and become more likely to passively accept false statements about the real world such as “mental illness is contagious” and “chocolate makes you lose weight.” The classic metaphor of “suspension of disbelief” must be replaced with an alternate concept, the “construction of disbelief.” The default human reaction to new information is acceptance. Analyzing and determining whether this information is true or not only follows afterward. Disbelief is an active process of rejecting previously accepted information.
The way that we read varies with the genre of what we are reading. In reading non-fiction, people are in “Non-Fiction Mode,” expecting to encounter statements about the real world that may or may not cohere with their prior models of reality. In this state of mind, statements such as “mental illness is contagious” are examined critically and compared with prior knowledge. In reading fiction, however, people expect to delve into an alternate world, rather than to be educated about the real world. As a result, people let their guards down and are more likely to reproduce in-story errors as facts on later tests. Fictional knowledge is incorporated into real-world knowledge during reading and the two streams of knowledge may remain entangled afterward.
In mentally simulating fictional stories, read statements are vaguely stored in memory. Two weeks later, readers will still have that information in their heads but will no longer remember where it came from. The false information can feel even truer after a two-week gestation period than it does immediately after reading.
This is not to say that fiction transforms humans into passive recipients of fictional content, enabling a non-probabilistic hypodermic needle effect. But narrative devices such as suspense eliminate the additional careful attention people apply when they usually encounter information that runs counter to their real-world beliefs. Melanie Green and Timothy Brock identified transportation into a story as the process by which people’s high levels of engagement override their caution. During transportation, readers are especially vulnerable to persuasion from in-story messages. Narrative transportation is an exception to the two standard dual-mode theories of persuasion.
The elaboration-likelihood model of persuasion proposed by Petty and Cacioppo accepts two routes to persuasion: central and peripheral. The central route to persuasion is taken when a reader is highly attentive and motivated by self-interest to analyze the quality of arguments and the strength of the evidence supporting them – and yet gets persuaded anyway. This is what happens when people are persuaded by philosophical arguments, for example. The peripheral route to persuasion is taken when a less attentive reader relies on heuristics and cues as shortcuts for coming to a conclusion. The peripheral route to persuasion requires less strength of argument, but information believed through the central route is generally longer lasting and more resistant to counterarguments.
Slater and Rouner argue that the elaboration-likelihood model of persuasion (ELM) is incomplete because of its inability to account for how, in narrative transportation, information obtained through the peripheral route can be durably integrated into prior knowledge. They propose an “extended ELM” (E-ELM) that accounts for transportation. The E-ELM also considers identification with fictional characters to be a strong pathway to persuasion.
The most obvious way for media content to have mass effects on society is for it to persuade people to new beliefs that stimulate new behaviours. As Foy and Gerrig say, "Those works of literature that most effectively immerse their readers have the greatest potential to do both good and harm." It’s important to understand the ways that benevolent and malevolent media producers can plant information into readers’ heads. Rate of false-vs-true belief absorption might be one of the best criteria for determining whether a given artwork’s effect on society is largely positive or negative.