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k.oatley Fiction Twice Facts

k.oatley Fiction Twice Facts

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Published by channailana
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Published by: channailana on May 14, 2010
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Review of General Psychology
1999,
Vol. 3, No. 2, 101-117Copyright 1999 by the Educational Publishing Foundation1089-2680/99/S3.00
Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact:Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation
Keith Oatley
University of TorontoAlthough fiction treats themes of psychological importance, it has been excluded frompsychology because it is seen as involving flawed empirical method. But fiction is notempirical truth. It is simulation that runs on minds of readers just as computersimulations run on computers. In any simulation, coherence truths have priority overcorrespondences. Moreover, in the simulations of fiction, personal truths can beexplored that allow readers to experience emotions—their own emotions—and under-stand aspects of them that are obscure, in relation to contexts in which the emotions
arise.Fiction means something made, even some-thing made up. As compared with things found,such as the data of science, people aresuspicious of it. This suspicion leaks intocommon usage: Fiction has come to meanfalsehood.The work from which has sprung muchliterary criticism, and some psychology ofreading and writing, is Aristotle's
Poetics
(trans.1970).In it poetry, like fiction, meant somethingmade, covering all literary works includingdrama. In what follows, I use the term fictionrather than poetry, but with the same inclusivesense. This article can be thought of as arguingfor a new relevance of the
Poetics
in modernpsychology.The
Poetics
combined literary criticism andpsychology; indeed, it assumed an easy relation-ship between the two.
1
In modern times,however, psychology has become empiricalscience. As such, it seems to offer
no
serious rolefor fictional literature. Narrative accounts ofhuman behavior by any single observer, withoutregard to sampling or the subjective bias of any
This article is based on an address I gave as retiringexecutive officer of the International Society for Research onEmotions, at the society's ninth meeting in Toronto, August1996. The writing and research for this article weresupported by the Social Science and Humanities ResearchCouncil of Canada, whom I thank warmly.Correspondence concerning this article should be ad-dressed to Keith Oatley, Centre for Applied CognitiveScience, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Univer-sity of Toronto, 252 Bloor Street West, Toronto, Ontario,Canada M5S 1V6. Electronic mail may be sent tokoatley@oise.utoronto.ca.
individual perspective and without methods thatallow generalizability, fail to meet even minimalstandards for empirical psychology. And if tosuch defects is added the admission that fictionis a difficult-to-disentangle mixture of what hasbeen observed, remembered, and imagined byan author, then the predicament of fiction inpsychology seems hopeless indeed (see Oatley,1992).Consider, for instance, Carlson and Hatfield's(1992) textbook on emotions, in which excerptsfrom novels are used and in which, every 10pages or so, a literary quotation is offered, set offfrom the text (e.g., "The ancestor of everyaction is a thought, Ralph Waldo Emerson"; p.
80).
According to the authors, they used artisticand literary "reference points [meaning illustra-tions] ... to add liveliness and a human aspectto the scientific presentation" (p. x). Carlson andHatfield correctly caught the psychologist'susual sense of the issue, which is that it may beregrettable that scientific psychology is oftendry, and therefore, as a concession to students,some illustrations are allowed. Note, however,that beyond
this,
no role for fictional literature inpsychology is envisaged.The assumption that fiction is largely irrel-evant to serious psychology was difficult tocounter until Gerrig's (1998) book. He showedthat fiction is easily accommodated by ordinary
1
To help bring psychology closer to literary criticism, Ipresent much of the argument in this article not in the formof inference from empirical data but as literary quotation,from which I hope certain phenomenological effects may beexperienced.101
 
102OATLEY
cognitive processes such as inferring fromincomplete evidence. His is a subtle argument,one that reaches thought-provoking conclu-sions. He proposed that, for psychologistsinterested in language, fiction is of interestbecause it has the same status that illusions havefor psychologists interested in perception. Be-cause of its clear nonveridicality, fiction canhelp to demonstrate cognitive processes thatunderlie both fictional and nonfictional under-standing. Gerrig concluded, correctly I believe,that both fiction and veridical understanding arebased on schematic construction.
2
The primary psychological discovery of theconstructive nature of narrative understandingwas due to Bartlett (1932). He showed that whenpeople read a story, their comprehension andremembering of it are not faithful renderings.They are based on idiosyncratic and societalschemas available to the reader; these schemasassimilate salient details and the emotional toneof a story and can then, if remembering isrequired, generate a construction of it that ismore or less inaccurate. With Bartlett's finding,one can see that it is not just that stories aremade up; in people's understanding of them,they suffer uncontrolled changes and a furtherdrift toward the inaccuracy with which fiction isassociated. In a postmodern context, anotheraspect of this finding is that fictional stories arepolysemous. People necessarily make differentinterpretations of them.The abilities of cognitive construction ofhuman beings have, of course, led to philosophi-cal suggestions that social psychology mightproperly be based on social construction (e.g.,Gergen, 1994). It is not my purpose to makesuch a case here, but my proposals are easilyassimilated to this movement.Although Gerrig was persuasive in demon-strating processes such as schematic construc-tion that are common to both fiction andveridical understanding, the tenor of his argu-ment about the truth value of fiction remains oneof suspicion. He and his colleagues (Prentice,Gerrig, & Bailis, 1997) included, in theirintroduction to an experimental article, theobservation that in
The Lyre of Orpheus
thenovelist Robertson Davies has a charactertalking about fetal alcohol syndrome, but withthe facts wrong. Their experiments were empiri-cal demonstrations that readers encounteringassertions in fiction tend simply to accept them.They found that, as compared with participantsreading a fictional passage who had firsthandknowledge of its setting, participants who didnot have such firsthand knowledge tended tobelieve information that was false. The problemwith fiction, according to Gerrig—and accord-ing to the conclusions of these experiments—isnot that of explaining what Coleridge called the"willing suspension of
disbelief"
(Gerrig, 1998,
p.
6), which implies that some special effort orsome special psychological process is necessaryto explain how fiction works. The problem isquite the opposite. It is nonfiction, with itsprimary representative science, that requiresspecial effort. Fiction lowers barriers to assimila-tion; all too easily, it can undermine the effortfulprocesses of science. One can imagine thatGerrig would have thought Coleridge morecorrect to have written that science requires thewilling suspension of facile
belief.
At the conclusion of his book, Gerrigsuggested that fictions may, nonetheless, beuseful in intermediate stages of thought, becausethey are cancelled when valid results arereached. He speculated that, perhaps, "informa-tion from fictions ... has provided a positivebalance of utility over the period in which ourmental processes were shaped" (Gerrig,
1998,
p.237). So, despite the interest of his argumentthat fiction is supported by the same cognitiveprocesses as ordinary comprehension, in the endGerrig too separated fiction—untrue and poten-tially misleading—from psychology, with itseffortful procedures for reaching valid empiricalconclusions.In this article, I argue that such separation hasbeen a loss to both fields, and I make analternative proposal. Fiction is dismissed in thiskind of way only if it is understood as defectiveempirical description. I accept Gerrig's conclu-sion that fiction is to be understood by means ofthe ordinary processes of cognition, but Ipropose a conception within which fiction couldhave a wider place in modern psychology.Modern psychology as science has allied itself
2
Gerrig's (1998) proposal that fiction is a kind ofcognitive illusion seems not to be readily compatible withhis idea that fiction might be useful as an intermediate stagein valid thought. I &o not believe, for instance, that anycomparable argument for the utility of illusions has been putforth by perceptual psychologists. Perceptual illusions areregarded as having no intrinsic functions and as by-productsof normal processes.
 
FICTION AS COGNITIVE AND EMOTIONAL SIMULATION103
with only one kind of truth: truth as empiricalcorrespondence. This kind of truth is necessarybut not sufficient. If psychology is to be fullypsychology, there must be consideration of twoother kinds of truth as well: truth as coherencewithin complex structures and truth as personalrelevance (see Table 1).Empirical psychology obeys criteria of thefirst type of truth. Fiction fails this criterion butcan meet the othertwo.One could say, then, thatfiction can be twice as true as fact.The proposals that fiction can fulfill thecriteria of truth as coherence (as in simulations)and truth as personal insight both give a centralrole to emotions, so before putting theseproposals forward, let me offer a word about thisrole. Bruner (1986) has argued that narrative isthat mode of thinking in which human agentswith goals conceive plans that meet vicissitudes.He compared it with the paradigmatic mode,which is used to reason about scientific matters.(This is the more effortful mode mentionedearlier, which requires suspension of too-facilebelief and careful use of different kinds ofinference in coordinated sequences [Oatley,1996].)Not all narrative is fiction. Aristotle made thisdistinction: History is about the particular, aboutwhat has happened, whereas poetry (fiction) isabout the universal, about what can happen. Onecould add that empirical psychology, with itsconvention of past-tense descriptions of datathat have been gathered, can be grouped withhistory.A further distinction of psychological interestis that (as many people have pointed out)whereas nonfiction is primarily informational,fiction is concerned with the emotions. Vicissi-tudes tend to elicit emotions. Thus, one couldadd to Bruner's proposal the following: Fic-Table 1
Types
ofTruth,Methods
to
Approach Them,and Criteria for Their Recognition
TypeMethodCriterionCorrespondence Empirical Valid discovery of facts,reliability, practicalusefulnessCoherence Simulation Production of emergenteffects without adhoc interventionPersonal Reflection Recognition, insight
AuthorWorldReaderText
Figure 1.
Diagram of the relations among author, world,reader, and text, after an idea of Abrams (1953, p. 6).
tional narrative is that mode of thought aboutwhat is possible for human beings in whichprotagonists, on meeting vicissitudes, experi-ence emotions.A typical fictional narrative is based on thefollowing schema (Rumelhart, 1975): agentwith goals and a plan that typically involve otheragents —• vicissitude —• emotion, which mapsonto Aristotle's proposal that a story has abeginning, a middle, and an end. Moreover,because the concern here is with a psychologynot only of writers and texts but of readers too, Ishould note, as Aristotle did, that in fictionemotions tend to be experienced by the reader.Mimesis: Relation of the Text to the WorldMy first proposal concerns the relation ofliterary works of art to the world. Abrams (1953)offered a schema of literary criticism during thelast 2,300 years (see Figure 1) that clarifies thisquestion. The relation in question is indicated bythe link between "text" and "world." Thequestion of how writing can relate to the worldhas been a concern of literary critics fromAristotle onward, and the writing of this articleis itself an indication that the problem has notbeen fully solved.The term used by Aristotle to describe therelation of world to text was
mimesis.
It was thecentral concept of the
Poetics.
Over the timeduring which such matters have been writtenabout in English, the term has almost universallybeen taken to mean imitation or representation.Shakespeare's version was that drama holds "as'twere the mirror up to nature"
{Hamlet,
III, ii,1. 22 [Methuen])hb Philip Sidney (1595/1986),a poet who was Shakespeare's contemporary,
mimesis
meant "a representing, counterfeiting,or figuring forth" (p. 114), and English transla-

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