Stories entertain, teach, and shape our identities. Even stories that revel in violence and perversion get the reader thinking: What’s right and what’s wrong?
Writing in The Boston Globe‘s weekly Ideas section, Jonathan Gottschall points out that the act of reading fiction causes us to make moral judgments. We identify with heroes and against villains. Even when entranced by antiheroes, like the mob bosses of The Godfather and The Sopranos, we understand they stand with evil.
Such identification can be naive. So we can’t count on fiction alone for our moral compass. But fiction brings us so deep into a situation that it offers a powerful way to engage readers on moral questions.
Gottschall, Joseph Carroll, John Johnson, and Dan Kruger, literary scholars all, recently published a groundbreaking work called Graphing Jane Austen. The authors surveyed more than 1,000 readers to understand their moral response to storytelling.
Contrary to suspicions about drama dating back to ancient times, Gottschall et al. show that fiction strengthens our moral foundations:
[T]he Austrian psychologist Markus Appel points out that, for a society to function properly, people have to believe in justice. … 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. …
That belief, of course, is not always right. We live in a world rife with inequality and poverty, greed and corruption, abuse and carelessness. So, you might say, fiction damages our ability to see reality.
To aspire to something great, we need the examples of heroes like Odysseus and Don Quixote, Huck Finn and Uncle Tom, Elizabeth Bennet and Ishmael, Atticus Finch and Harry Potter. By seeing complex if idealized figures struggle for higher values, we imagine ourselves doing the same. And we become capable of pursuing those ideals.
Washington & Lee psychologist Dan Johnson recently had people read a short story that was specifically written to induce compassion in the reader. He wanted to see not only if fiction increased empathy, but whether it would lead to actual helping behavior. Johnson found that the more absorbed subjects were in the story, the more empathy they felt, and the more empathy they felt, the more likely the subjects were to help when the experimenter “accidentally” dropped a handful of pens — highly absorbed readers were twice as likely to help out.
Gottschall et al. focus on fiction. Experiencing a fictional world does a couple of things. First, it takes us to a new place populated by people we otherwise could never meet. Second, because of the willing suspension of disbelief, it helps us to identify with the characters on a deep level. We forget our own circumstances. We become something else.
The best fiction, of course, also helps us to see the moral complexity of life. We don’t just root, naively, for heroes. We understand that the hero’s dilemma is rooted in difficult realities. The world can be harsh. Choices have consequences. Doing right itself entails costs. People get hurt even when they don’t deserve it.
We need great nonfiction, too, to root our understanding in our own “real world.” But fiction gives us higher standards — and makes us feel these higher standards — so we can live better lives.