How Fiction Affects Us

November 28, 2012 Katharina Lochner
coffee break

The Effect of Movies and Books

Have you been to the cinema recently? Have you read a novel shortly? Have you done it just for the pleasure, because it is relaxing, fun, exciting? But having fun or unwinding might not be the only positive effects fiction can have on you. Reading novels or watching films might be even more beneficial.

Researchers Raymond A. MarKeith Oatley and Jordan B. Peterson found fiction readers to outperform nonfiction readers on a test of empathy, or the capability to understand what another person might be thinking or feeling. The original article was published in the journal Communications. Keith Oatley describes the study in more detail in an article in the Huffington Post. He comes to the conclusion that fiction is a kind of simulation of the social world. The more we devote ourselves to fiction, the more opportunities to practice we have, and the better we can deal with social situations in the real world. Keith Oatley also runs a blog on the topic of fiction.

The effect of fiction goes even further: it can change our behaviour. In his experiment, psychologist Dan Johnson found reading fiction to increase not only participants’ empathy, but also their prosocial behaviour. This study was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. Finally, fiction seems to impact our belief systems. Researcher Markus Appel compared people who watched drama and comedy on TV to those who preferred news programmes and documentaries and found the former to be stronger believers in a just world. This finding is not surprising because those who watch a lot of news and documentaries see the injustice that happens around the world every day. The original article was published in the Journal of Communication.

These studies are described in more detail in an article in the Boston Globe. Jonathan Gottschall, who wrote the article, comes to the conclusion that fiction acts as a kind of social glue. It defines group identity and reinforces cultural values.

This means that fiction is a lot more than pure entertainment. It shapes our beliefs and our worldview. Thus, it is no surprise that storytelling is becoming increasingly popular in business and marketing. Stories are a powerful means of communication. This means that we have to choose carefully what we watch and read because fiction is so much more than just pastime.

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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