Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

king-lear

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.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.



October 28 • 6:15 AM

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.


October 28 • 6:00 AM

Why Women Are Such a Minority in Elected Office

The obvious answers aren’t necessarily the most accurate. Here, five studies help clear up the gender disparity in politics.


October 28 • 4:00 AM

The Study of Science Leads to Leftward Leanings

Researchers report the scientific ethos tends to produce a mindset that favors liberal political positions.


October 28 • 2:00 AM

Who Funded That? The Names and Numbers Behind the Research in Our Latest Issue

This list includes studies cited in our pages that received funding from a source other than the researchers’ home institutions. Only principal or corresponding authors are listed.


October 27 • 4:00 PM

School Shootings: What’s Different About Europe?

There may be a lot of issues at play, but it’s undeniable that the ease of access to guns in the United States is a major contributing factor to our ongoing school shooting crisis.


October 27 • 2:00 PM

The Best Investigative Reporting on Campaign Finance Since 2012

From dark money to a mysterious super PAC donor, here are a few of the best investigations of money in politics since the last elections.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.