Fantasy and Reality: Substitutes or Complements?

Eliezer’s post Saturday on if we would really like fantasy worlds raises in my mind this key question: are reality and fantasy complements or substitutes?  That is, does exposure to fiction tend to increase or decrease our ability to see reality as it is? 

The main substitutes argument is simple and obvious but still compelling:  the more we practice thinking about reality the better we see it, but attention to fiction diverts attention from reality, reducing our reality practice. 

The complement arguments are many and subtle:

  • The real alternative to thinking about fun fiction isn’t thinking about reality, it is unthinking fun. 
  • Fiction can frame the familiar in grand terms, making us care and think more about the familiar.
  • Fiction can teach us about rare but important events few actually see in reality.
  • Fiction can describe how familiar situations appear to many different parties. 
  • Fiction can suppress irrelevant detail and emphasize important essences, like a math model.
  • Fiction is a part of reality, so exposure to fiction teaches about that part.
  • (I’ll add more here as I hear more good suggestions.)
  • Identifying with characters important in their world lets us admit we are unimportant in ours.

Has anyone ever tried to test whether people who read more fiction see reality more clearly, controlling for other features?  I find it suspicious that many say, "yes, fiction substitutes for reality on average, but `good’ fiction is different" but offer no independent description of "good" we could use to test this claim. 

On the last argument above, that fiction lets us admit to being unimportant, I’ll admit that it fits with Eliezer and I being both relatively anti-fantasy and thinking ourselves unusually important.

Added: Many seem eager to point out that fiction need not always be a substitute for reality, but will anyone defend the view that it is on the whole a complement? 

(This last part seems less relevant than I originally thought:)

A paper from the March Journal of Personality and Social Psychology adds further support, finding that people who feel less important find it harder to be objective: 

Confirmatory information processing … is the tendency of individuals to systematically prefer standpoint-consistent information to standpoint-inconsistent information in information evaluation and search. In 4 studies with political and economic decision-making scenarios, it was consistently found that individuals with depleted self-regulation resources exhibited a stronger tendency for confirmatory information processing … Alternative explanations based on processes of ego threat, cognitive load, and mood were ruled out. … Individuals with depleted self-regulation resources experienced increased levels of commitment to their own standpoint, which resulted in increased confirmatory information processing. In sum, the impact of ego depletion on confirmatory information search seems to be more motivational than cognitive in nature.

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