The Spell of Art

In the preface to Dave Eggers' 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, he makes the reader a generous offer. If we are bothered by the dark truth of the work - it is a book set in motion by the near simultaneous death of his parents - then we are free to pretend it's not true at all. In fact, Eggers will even help us out:

"If you are bothered by the idea of this being real, you are invited to do what the author should have done, and what authors and readers have been doing since the beginning of time: PRETEND IT’S FICTION. As a matter of fact, the author would like to make an offer...If you send in your copy of this book, in hardcover or paperback, he will send you, in exchange, a 3.5” floppy disk, on which will be a complete digital manuscript of this work, albeit with all names and locations changed, in such a way that the only people who will know who is who are those whose lives have been included, though thinly disguised. Voila! Fiction!"

It's a literary joke rooted in an old idea. The reason we believe that fiction is easier to take than the truth is because fiction requires, as Coleridge famously put it, a willing suspension of disbelief. This means, of course, that we can always suspend our suspension, return to reality, break the spell. Fiction is safer because it gives us an exit - all we have to do is remember that it's fiction.

Such intuitions about the emotional impotence of fiction (and the greater impact of The Truth) underpin a vast amount of culture. It's why there's something extra serious about movies that begin with the words "based on a true story," and why fantasy novels and comic books are considered such escapist fare. It's why horror movies need camp - we have to be reminded that it's fake, or else we'd be too scared - and why we take pulp fiction to the beach. (The truth is less relaxing.) Even my three year old daughter gets it: when she's frightened by a My Little Pony monster, she tells herself that it's all pretend. Just a cartoon. The artifice of the art is her comfort.

It's an intuition that makes sense. It sounds right. It feels right.

But it's wrong.

That, at least is the conclusion of a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research by Jane Ebert at Brandeis University and Tom Meyvis at NYU that tested the emotional impact of fiction versus non-fiction. In one experiment, the scientists gave several dozen undergraduates a tragic story to read about a young girl who died from meningitis. Some of the subjects were randomly assigned to the "real" condition - they were told the story was true - while others were told it was a work of fiction. Then, they were asked to rate, on a nine point scale, the extent to which the story made them feel sad and distressed. Although people expected the true story to have a greater emotional impact, that wasn't what happened. Instead, those assigned to the fictional condition - they were told the death was pretend - actually felt slightly more negative emotion. The difference wasn't statistically significant (a mean of 5.79 versus 6.18) but the aesthetic expectations of the subjects were still incorrect. In short, we are much better at suspending our disbelief than we believe.

Ebert and Meyvis confirmed this in a follow-up study. Two hundred and seventy undergraduates were shown the last eight minutes of The Champ, a "movie about an ex-boxer who fights one last fight to give his young son a better future." (Spoiler alert: the boxer dies, and his son weeps over his body.) Once again, they were randomly assigned to a fictional story condition - "none of the events depicted in the movie actually happened" - or a true story condition, in which they were told that the movie was a dramatized version of a real life. As expected, there was no significant difference between the emotional reaction of those who thought the movie was pretend and those who thought it was true. However, there was one condition in which believing The Champ was fiction made a difference: when the viewing of the movie was briefly interrupted - the subjects were told, in advance, that the movie needed to be downloaded from a remote server - those who believed it was all make-believe felt significantly less sad. (Breaks didn't affect the experience of those told it was true.) According to the scientists, the brief interruptions shattered the illusion of the art, giving viewers a chance to remind themselves that it was only art.

Of course, we often watch emotional shows filled with breaks - they're called commercials. Given the data, it's interesting to think about the toll of these breaks. One possibility is that watching television shows without commercials - as happens on Netflix or HBO - provides viewers with a far a more affecting experience. But the researchers speculate that the reality of viewing is a bit more complicated. “While we don't test this in our research, we speculate that the effects of commercials will depend on what consumers do during them,” wrote Professor Ebert in an email. “If viewers are distracted by the commercials, then they may not be able to incorporate the real/fictional information while watching the movie - i.e., they won't be able to remind themselves it is only fictional. However, if viewers pay little attention to the ads they may be able to incorporate this information.” If true, this would imply that the problem isn’t commercials per se - the problem is bad commercials, since they’re the ones that interrupt the emotional spell. (I assume the same goes for DVR viewing, which requires us to fast-forward through several minutes of blurry ads.)

The larger lesson is that people are not very good at predicting their emotional reactions to aesthetic experiences. Despite a lifetime of practice, we still falsely assume that fiction won't touch us deep, that we'll be less moved by whatever isn't real. But we're wrong. And so we're gripped by Tolstoy and cry to Nicholas Sparks; we're wrecked by Game of Thrones and scared by Spider-Man. We underestimate the power of art, but the art doesn't care - it will make us feel anyway.

Ebert, Jane, and Tom Meyvis. "Reading Fictional Stories and Winning Delayed Prizes: The Surprising Emotional Impact of Distant Events.” Journal of Consumer Research. October 2014.