Review of General Psychology
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
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
(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
combined literary criticism andpsychology; indeed, it assumed an easy relation-ship between the two.
In modern times,however, psychology has become empiricalscience. As such, it seems to offer
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 email@example.com.
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.
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
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
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