Does fiction make us less empathic?

Title: Does fiction make us less empathic?

Publication: Teorema. 35: 47-68

Date: 2016


Abstract: It is said that certain kinds of fictions have the capacity to enhance our empathic powers. I offer three contributions to this debate. First, the evidence for this claim is poor. Secondly, it is important to distinguish a capacity on the part of fiction to encourage empathic responding and a capacity to enhance our rational control of empathy. Finally, I suggest a number of ways in which fiction may discourage empathy or the prosocial behaviour we expect empathy to provoke; I examine one of these ways in some detail.

Truth and trust in fiction

Title: Truth and trust in fiction

Author: Joint author with Anna Ichino

Publication: Sullivan-Bissett, E., Bradley, H. & Noordhof, P. (eds.) Art and Belief, Oxford: Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 63-82

Date: 2017


Abstract: This chapter examines two pathways through which fictions may affect beliefs: by invading readers’ cognitive systems via heuristics and other sub-rational devices, and by expressing authorial beliefs that readers take to be reliable. Focusing mostly on the latter pathway, the chapter distinguishes fiction as a mechanism for the transmission of uncontroversial factual information from fiction as a means of expressing distinctive perspectives on evaluative propositions. In both cases, the inferences on which readers rely are precarious, and especially so with evaluative cases where there is little hope of independent verification. Moreover, trust, which in other contexts can increase the reliability of beliefs transmitted from person to person, cannot be much depended on when it comes to belief transmission from author to reader.

Reading Fictional Narratives to Improve Social and Moral Cognition: The Influence of Narrative Perspective, Transportation, and Identification

Title: Reading Fictional Narratives to Improve Social and Moral Cognition: The Influence of Narrative Perspective, Transportation, and Identification

Publication: Frontiers in Communication, E-ISSN 2297-900X. doi:10.3389/fcomm.2020.611935 (Authors in publication order: Wimmer, L., Friend, S., Currie, G., Ferguson, H.)

Date: 2021

Abstract: There is a long tradition in philosophy and literary criticism of belief in the social and moral benefits of exposure to fiction, and recent empirical work has examined some of these claims. However, little of this research has addressed the textual features responsible for the hypothesized cognitive effects. We present two experiments examining whether readers’ social and moral cognition are influenced by the perspective from which a narrative is told (voice and focalization), and whether potential effects of perspective are mediated by transportation into the story or by identification with the protagonist. Both experiments employed a between-subjects design in which participants read a short story, either in the first-person voice using internal focalization, third-person voice using internal focalization, or third-person voice using external focalization. Social and moral cognition was assessed using a battery of tasks. Experiment 1 (N=258) failed to detect any effects of perspective or any mediating roles of transportation or identification. Implementing a more rigorous adaptation of the third-person story using external focalization, Experiment 2 (N=262) largely replicated this pattern. Taken together, the evidence reported here suggests that perspective does not have a significant impact on the extent to which narratives modulate social and moral cognition, either directly or indirectly via transportation and identification.

An error concerning noses

Title: An error concerning noses

Author: Joint author with Jerrold Levinson

Publication: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, volume 75, issue 1, pages 9–13

Date: 8 February 2017


Abstract: We identify a strategy for getting beliefs from fiction via three assumptions: (1) a certain causal generality holds in the fiction, and does so because (2) causal generalities in fiction are (with noted exceptions) carried over from what the author takes to be fact; (3) the author is reliable on this topic, so what the author takes to be fact is fact. We do not question (2). While (3) will, in particular cases, be doubtful, the strategy is vulnerable more generally to the worry that what looks like a causal generality may be instead an authorial intervention of a kind from which no causal connection can be inferred; in such cases (1) turns out to be false though it may seem at first sight to be true. In consequence we have extra reason for being careful in forming beliefs based on fictions.

Models as fictions, fictions as models

Title: Models as fictions, fictions as models

Publication; The Monist. 99: 296-310

Date: 2016


Abstract: Thinking of models in science as fictions is said to be helpful, not merely because models are known or assumed to be false, but because work on the nature of fiction helps us understand what models are and how they work. I am unpersuaded. For example, instead of trying to assimilate truth-in-a model to truth-in-fiction we do better to see both as special and separate cases of the more general notion truth-according-to-a-corpus. Does enlightenment go the other way? Do we better understand fiction’s capacity to generate knowledge by thinking of it as a kind of modelling? If we see, as we should, fictions and models are parts of larger patterns of cognitive activity that include institutional frameworks, the best answer is no.

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