Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Fictional empathy: we can’t help ourselves

Ophelia Benson (followed by Norm Geras) has been wondering why we care about fictional characters? Obviously there has to be a certain quality of representation involved, but even so: we never truly forget that the people we’re seeing on a stage or screen, or reading about in a book, are not real. They don’t exist and the things that are ‘happening’ to them don’t actually happen either.

(One distinction neither Ophelia nor Norm draws is between a moving biography and a moving work of fiction. In both cases what you’re getting is just a performance or just spoken/written words, so even if biographical you’re at a remove from the events. But I think the interesting question is about why we can be as touched by constructions we know to be imaginary as by reconstructions we know to be accurate.)

Ophelia reckons it’s down to the fact that we’ve evolved as social animals, and as a result “we have this hypertrophied faculty of thinking and feeling about the interior worlds of other people - so hypertrophied that it works even (or especially) on people who don't actually exist”.

I think that’s right. Young children often attribute intentions, emotions and other mental states to inanimate objects; I myself am sometimes tempted by the thought that my computer is consciously trying to thwart my every move.

And yet… we know, at every point in the experience, that these fictional characters aren’t real. The anthropomorphising infants don’t know any better, and when they do, they stop thinking about objects in this way. So why does the feeling persist in adults who do know better?

Have a look at this. Hopefully you’ll have seen it before:

This is the Muller-Lyer illusion. Which line is longer? The bottom line looks longer, but of course they’re both the same. The optical illusion is produced by the inward/outward angling of the fins at the ends. Certain built-in unconscious expectations about perspective and size affect the way we see these lines, whether or not we know better and try to see them otherwise.

I think our fictional empathy is a bit like that. We’re presented with what may very superficially seem to be real people undergoing real events. Our theory-of-mind faculty comes into play, but it does so in a way that defies, at least partly (we can always redirect our attention) conscious control and better knowledge. Our emotions are being produced essentially intertwined with – not as a result of – our comprehension of the narrative.

And I think there’s another factor. Norm suggests that:

part of the power of fiction is that we take it as telling us something credible about real people. So though the characters are fictional rather than real, might it be that what happens to them we take as embodying things that either have really happened or could really happen to real people; and so, through the characters, we sorrow for others, rejoice or whatever, in a more abstract way?

This makes sense too. When we encounter a real-life instance of, say, heroism or compassion, we are emotionally affected. No surprise there: it’s real. But what if some of that emotional reaction is not just about how taken we are by so-and-so’s particular bravery, but rather relating to how glad we are that such bravery can exist, and how this is symbolically inspirational as well as specifically laudable?

I think such reaction to the abstract often does play a part in our reactions to the particular. And so, this generalised part of the emotional response could well carry over into our responses to fiction: an example need not be real to be a good example (as I’ve argued in a very different context before).

Curiously, I think, the converse of this process happens at the same time: we not only generalise from fiction to the world as a whole but also draw specific parallels or contrasts with ourselves. One thing I’ve long found is that a good piece of fiction leaves me thinking about it for some time after; a great piece of fiction leaves me thinking about my own life as well.

(Update: Mick Hartley and George Szirtes have also posted their thoughts on this, and very interesting thoughts they are too.)


Anonymous said...

Compelling stuff Tom, even though you've made the whole thing up. (Sorry, sorry, sorry....)

Tom Freeman said...


Anonymous said...

I pretty much agree with your assessment and Norm’s. I think externalizations of feelings comes into play as well, along with the basic concept/idea of storytelling and escapism.

Do you not think the way children attribute emotions to inanimate objects is a good way to practice/harness empathy? I haven’t really thought about it much, but when I read your bit about it I distinctly remember it being used, if not exploited, to teach and instill empathy. (My mother was big on teaching empathy over discipline)

Sorry for commenting incredibly late. I’d comment on your other, current entries if my thoughts were prone to staying on-topic. Anyway, after exhausting other blog networks, I came to your blog to look at some of the blogs you’ve linked and eventually ended up back here again. Damn the Web and its webs.

I hope Hal is treating you well.

(Sorry if this posts twice. I don't think it will, but just in case)

Tom Freeman said...

That's interesting. I'm trying to remember if I have any dim memories of being chastised for chucking a teddy bear across the room, but I'm not sure if I do.

Definitely teaching empathy rather than just discipline is a good deal. Any system of rules is going to fail to give you a good answer in some situations, and then you've got enforcement issues as well - the lesson learned might end up being 'don't get caught'.

And going off on tangents is exactly what the webis for! Just don't let the spider catch you...

(I may be missing something here: Hal? Huh?)

Anonymous said...

Hal 9000, from '2001: A Space Odyssey', the naughty computer that takes control? I doubt your computer is that lethal but if you download the film, you may just appease it. Plus, in the spirit of personification I thought it'd work.