Do we Suspend Disbelief? Nope.

by F.

Well, how do we think of characters in a film? Do we suspend disbelief? Nope. We think about them pretty much like real people, which is what common sense suggests. There is an excellent article in Nature about this:

The mental state that arises when we interact with unreality is complex. We get involved to the extent that, say, we cry when Bambi’s mother dies, but not so involved that we walk out of the cinema and strike up a conversation with the nearest rabbit. Whatever the explanation is, says psychologist Richard Gerrig of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, it isn’t the much-touted suspension of disbelief, because disbelief is not the default. “People believe everything, and one must expend effort to disbelieve,” says Gerrig.

The brain, it seems, has a default setting of credulity, and a keen appetite for consuming and producing stories. Narrative is a crucial tool in our efforts to understand the world and some brain areas seem specialized for processing it3. Information presented in narrative form lowers our critical faculties, and experiments show that the more deeply people become immersed in a story, the easier it is to sway their attitudes towards those advocated in that story4. This resonates with A Scanner Darkly, when an undercover cop becomes so engrossed in his ‘fictional’ identity as a drug dealer that his police persona begins to pursue his criminal one. Resisting our susceptibility to stories is a useful skill in a media- and advertising-saturated world, says Gerrig. “We need to get kids and adults to construct disbelief. Because people don’t know about this tendency, it puts them at risk.”

“It’s not important whether you label something as fiction or non-fiction,” Mar agrees. “The true distinction is between narrative and non-narrative expository forms that don’t draw you into their world.” It also looks as if the ability to lose yourself in a fictional world might reflect your ability to navigate the genuine social world. Mar and his colleagues have found that the more time a person spends reading fiction the greater his or her empathy and social skills; for readers of expository non-fiction (such as, to pick an example at random, science journalism) the correlation is negative5. I thought it would be best to keep back that particular piece of reality until the end.

The full article can be found here.