question of the day: Is fiction — including the fiction we see in movies and on TV — good for us?

Alice in Wonderland John Tenniel

Jonathan Gottschall at explains “Why fiction is good for you”:

We spend huge chunks of our lives immersed in novels, films, TV shows, and other forms of fiction. Some see this as a positive thing, arguing that made-up stories cultivate our mental and moral development. But others have argued that fiction is mentally and ethically corrosive. It’s an ancient question: Does fiction build the morality of individuals and societies, or does it break it down?

[N]ew 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.

Fiction is often treated like a mere frill in human life, if not something worse. But the emerging science of story suggests that fiction is good for more than kicks. By enhancing empathy, fiction reduces social friction. At the same time, story exerts a kind of magnetic force, drawing us together around common values. In other words, most fiction, even the trashy stuff, appears to be in the public interest after all.

The whole thing is worth a read, but that’s the gist of it. I like it because it backs up my own feeling about storytelling: that it’s the most human thing we do, and the one thing that distinguishes us from other animals, far more importantly than the use of tools. (I suspect that whales and perhaps dolphins may also tell stories to one another — could whalesong be stories? — and if we discover that that is the case, that may be the thing that forces us to decide that they are “people” more like us than like other animals.)

What do you think? Is fiction — including the fiction we see in movies and on TV — good for us? What other possible benefits could fiction give us beyond reinforcing common values and instilling a useful morality?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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