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A performance of King Lear in Ontario, Canada. (Photo: tsaiproject/Flickr)

‘Relatable’ Indeed: Fictional Stories Are More Moving Than We Predict

• August 05, 2014 • 4:00 AM

A performance of King Lear in Ontario, Canada. (Photo: tsaiproject/Flickr)

New research finds people mistakenly believe real-life stories will be more emotionally gripping than those that are the products of an author’s imagination.

Public radio host Ira Glass was widely ridiculed last week following an ill-advised tweet, in which he expressed his admiration for John Lithgow’s Central Park performance as King Lear, but added: “Shakespeare: not good. No stakes, not relatable.”

It goes without saying that anyone who can’t relate to Lear—which is to say, anyone who can’t imagine making a complete fool of him or herself in old age, and paying a terrible price for such self-delusion and hubris—is simply in denial. Glass has since walked back his statement as basically indefensible, and the controversy has produced some intelligent discussion about the apparent limits of our empathy.

Talk to actual theater professionals, however, and you’ll find that the key problem they face isn’t audience apathy, but rather the presumptive fear of boredom.

If a production of a great Shakespeare tragedy is even minimally effective, audiences tend to get deeply involved; if they didn’t, the plays wouldn’t exert their continuing pull on our imagination. But many potential theatergoers don’t expect to have such a reaction, and are therefore reluctant to buy tickets. The plays, they fear, are too old, too far removed from their worlds—not “relatable” enough, in other words.

“Although forecasters predicted less intense emotional reactions when reading about a distant (fictional) event than when reading about a proximal (real) event, experiencers actually reported equally intense emotional reactions when they believed the story was fictional as when they believed it was real.”

A recently published study suggests this disconnect between expectation and experience extends beyond the Bard. In a series of experiments, it finds people incorrectly believe they will have a stronger emotional reaction to stories that are based on fact, or ones that are set in the recent rather than the distant past.

Based on this inaccurate belief, people “may choose to see a play about their home town, watch a basketball game live on television, or read a novel based on a true story, but miss out on seeing a more enjoyable play about a distant city, watching a more exciting game recorded earlier, or reading a more entertaining fictional novel,” write Jane Ebert of Brandeis University and Tom Meyvis of New York University.

Studios are smart to advertise a film as “based on a true story,” they write in the Journal of Consumer Research, but audiences are not smart to use that as a guide to their likely emotional reactions. In fact, this research reminds us, fictional stories can evoke huge feelings.

In the first of their seven experiments, 52 undergraduates read a tragic story about a girl who died from meningitis. Members of the first group, the “experiencers,” were told that it was either real or fictional. Immediately after reading it, they revealed how absorbed they were in the story and how sad it made them feel.

Those in the second group, the “forecasters,” were asked after reading the piece to predict how knowledge that it was either real or fictional would have impacted their emotional reaction.

“Although forecasters predicted less intense emotional reactions when reading about a distant (fictional) event than when reading about a proximal (real) event,” the researchers write, “experiencers actually reported equally intense emotional reactions when they believed the story was fictional as when they believed it was real.”

The second, similarly structured study featured 232 people recruited online. This time, they were told that the sad story they read had happened “recently” or “a long time ago.” (Members of a control group were given no time frame for the tragic events, which involved a young woman who is hit and dragged by a car.)

Once again, “forecasters expected that knowing the event happened a long time ago would greatly reduce their emotional response,” the researchers write. In fact, however, “experiencers showed emotions that were very similar, regardless of whether they believed the event happened recently or a long time ago.”

The researchers found one exception to this pattern. In another study, 253 undergraduates watched the final eight minutes of the boxing movie The Champ. They were randomly told it was an entirely fictional story, or that it was based on fact.

Half the members of each group watched the segment in its entirety, while the others saw eight one-minute clips separated by 15-second delays. (Participants were told this “glitch” occurred because the movie was downloaded from a remote server.)

Watching the film in that stop-and-start way reduced its emotional impact, but only among those viewers who were told it was fictional. The researchers believe the breaks gave people time to think about the fact this was not a true story, which reduced their emotional involvement.

All of which confirms that unbroken concentration is necessary for the sort of immersion that leads to emotional identification with fictional characters. This is why so many arts professionals are wary about allowing “tweet seats” and other opportunities for social networking during performances. Anything that pulls us out of Lear’s world and back into our own will break the spell.

Which raises the question: Did Ira Glass, by any chance, check his smartphone during the scene changes of King Lear? Perhaps the fault isn’t in our stars, but in our inability to keep our eyes off of our Androids.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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