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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  • For the list:

    Fiction makes us better at hypothesizing and postulating.

    Granted, getting good at guessing the development of a fictional plot doesn’t equate directly to getting good at predicting the ‘real’ future, but the skills are undoubtedly linked.

  • billswift

    Fantasy can be speculative philosophy helping you to visualize what a world could be like that was fundamentally different from ours, for example, interventionist gods or different types of magic. As an aside, that is why I have not been able to get into Modesitt’s Recluce novels, despite really liking his science fiction; I cannot suspend disbelief enough to buy into his Order/Chaos magic framework.

  • spindizzy

    Television actors in interview often discuss their experiences with viewers who approach them in the street. A common observation is how many people fail to distinguish between the on-screen character and the actor who portrays them.

    This is a pretty gross error. I think the ability to keep fact and fiction separate in your mind must be a prerequisite for fictional thinking to be a useful cognitive tool.

  • burger flipper

    “Identifying with characters important in their world lets us admit we are unimportant in ours.”
    I might amend that to we are “only important” in ours.
    I think reading Catch-22 and the novels of Thomas Berger as a teen shaped, as well as reinforced, my thinking, though there’s obviously no way to know if they primarily appealed to my preexisting sensibility, and their cynicism may have done me more harm than good.
    I do think “good” fiction can instill/sharpen the knowledge that others, despite their flaws, are the heroes of their own lives and maybe open us up to examining our own lives/flaws. Most genre stuff and nearly all TV strikes me as primarily wish-fulfillment fantasy, and probably serves mostly as time-kill and advertisement foreplay.

    Surprised to hear EY described as anti-fantasy after seeing plenty of Pratchett, Dune, etc. quotes and references.

  • Ian C.

    For some people, fantasy can be a substitute, but that’s rare. I think for most people it’s just a boost and recharge to enable them to face the (sometimes) drudgeries of the real world.

    But just because fantasy serves a valid purpose in life, doesn’t mean it’s ok to use concepts like “Unicorn” in a logical proof.

  • Lake

    One aspect of reality is that people like fiction *a lot*, and it’s hard to see how one could investigate this fact without first familiarising oneself with a variety of widely-liked fiction.

    Music is quite similar in this respect – one can blamelessly enjoy it as a mere consumer or, in a more reality-orientated spirit, one can try to figure out how it works. Yet for some reason, one rarely hears it suggested that one should abandon music in order to concentrate on the unmediated sound of things.

  • Mike

    I like your #5

    Fiction can suppress irrelevant detail and emphasize important essences, like a math model.

    A lot of sci-fi/fantasy stories are very much hypothetical models of our human experience. The author says “what if: magic were real; you could read minds; aliens invaded Texas; etc?” The story answers that question, generally emphasizing one aspect of the human spirit above others.

    Most of the basic behaviors we learn as children are found in fairy tales or fables. The fantasy we read now are elaborations of these tales, but at their core they’re the same.

  • Seems like there is a bit of definitional blurring here. In one sense of the words, fiction is by definition fantasy in terms of being different from reality. In another sense, fantasy is a sub-genre of fiction emphasizing unusually fantastic worlds whose laws of physics are fundamentally different from our own, with magic, dragons etc. Non-fantasy fiction in this sense tends to focus on more plausible events and characters and would seem to have different advantages than the more fantastic stories.

    I think there are very busy people who are highly effective in the real world and for whom the time taken to read fiction would only detract from what they can accomplish. If they want to read, they would do better to read non-fiction to give them more tools to be even more effective at what they do. Down time might be better spent interacting with other people than retreating into fantasy stories. I don’t see a lot of advantages for them in reading about dragons (unless their work is to bioengineer dragons into existence).

  • Constant

    That is, does exposure to fiction tend to increase or decrease our ability to see reality as it is?

    The phrase “complements or substitutes” is symmetrical, so another interpretation is: does exposure to reality (i.e., experience and maturity) tend to increase or decrease our ability to understand (some) fiction?

    Surely the answer to this is “increase”. As we mature, our ability to understand (some) fiction deepens. This is probably fairly easy to test, by quizzing people who have different life experiences on their comprehension of (various works of) fiction. Anyway, if the answer is “yes”, then this means that there is some kind of overlap between reality and (at least some) fiction, and this in turn suggests that, likely, exposure to (some) fiction tends to increase our ability to see reality.

    Fiction can be, in effect, non-fiction to varying degrees. If you write a memoir and publish it as fiction, your readers will be reading what they believe to be fiction but will be reading non-fiction. If you write a memoir and change place and people names and sell it as fiction, then it is non-fiction to a slightly lesser degree. If you alter and rearrange episodes, then it is non-fiction to a lesser degree but may still be non-fiction to some degree. Some fiction may be just this: non-fiction, altered and rearranged.

    The advice to writers to “write what you know”, if followed, inevitably leads to the injection of some reality into fiction, since what the writers know is their lives and areas of expertise, i.e., reality. And if “write what you know” is in fact a successful strategy and not a myth, then the fiction that people tend to read, which will tend to be successful fiction, will tend to have incorporated into it what the author knows, i.e., the reality that he or she is familiar with.

  • Paul Gowder


    I’m not sure what that paper has to do with perception of one’s own importance? The relationship studied was self-regulation to [confirmation bias] the ability to take the objective standpoint. And from looking over the paper, I don’t see any obvious relationship between self-regulation and the perception of one’s own importance:

    From the article:

    “Self-regulation is defined as the “exertion of control over the self by the self” (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000, p. 247). Self-control (or self-regulation, respectively) is used when an individual tries to “change the way he or she would otherwise think, feel, or behave””

    It also appeals to a notion of “ego depletion,” which you might be thinking about as self-importance, but as far as I can tell, “ego depletion” just means the same thing as “having run out of mental resources to self-regulate” (i.e. exhaustion), nothing about self-perceived importance. E.g. in the article, the following passage appears:

    “Most relevant for the present research, reduced states of ego depletion have also been shown to be associated with reduced abilities to “persist in the face of frustration or failure” (Schmeichel et al., 2003, p. 33), which is a first hint that self-regulatory resources are necessary to deal with and withstand the negative psychological implications of standpoint-inconsistent information or feedback.”

    But that passage appears in the context of a paragraph about self-regulation, and the Schmeichel reference goes to a paper whose abstract is about self-regulation.

    Also, the paper distinguished “ego depletion” and “ego threat,” where ego threat seems to be more like the sorts of things (see the paragraph right before the “Study 2” heading) one might think of as self-importance. Also: “Instead of the white bear task, participants in the ego threat condition wrote a short essay about the most embarrassing situation in their life[.]” And ego threat wasn’t associated with more confirmation bias.

    Sadly, it’s so jargoney and draws so many subtle distinctions that it’s hard to tell what exactly it is that they’re really studying. But that’s the danger, I suppose, of reading out-discipline papers.

  • Paul Gowder

    Also, take a look at Stucke & Baumeister. 2006. “Ego depletion and aggressive behavior: Is the inhibition of aggression a limited resource?” European Journal of Social Psychology 36:1-13. They too define ego depletion as depletion of a limited capacity to regulate one’s impulses, nothing to do with self-importance.

  • Telling each other stories around a camp fire can probably have some positive effects – by allowing rehearsal of situations which have not happened. Dreaming may also be beneficial.

    But a huge industry of computer games and pornography creating fantasy superstimuli is probably not good for people.

  • Regarding that list of features, I’d say “important” is pretty subjective

    Has anyone ever tried to test whether people who read more fiction see reality more clearly, controlling for other features?
    I would hope one of those measures would be total reading.

    Tim Tyler, I found your page frankly horrifying, though I suppose I’m not one to talk.

  • Tobbic

    Assume fiction doesn’t tell us anything that has happened in reality. That is, by reading fiction we don’t get any new observations about reality. Even though this is the case, fiction can give us clues / new ideas / new perspectives about relationships between concepts and observations about reality. This assumes that fiction contains observations and links between observations that are akin to reality. So by reading fiction you can effectively look at belief system + subjective probability distributions from new angles perhaps allowing you to find new connections and insights. Thus, even though observations in fiction are not “real”, you can end up with an updated belief system.

  • Paul, I may have misread that paper’s abstract.

    Is anyone defending the claim that fiction is on the whole a complement to reality?

  • Ian Emery

    There have been many studies done by communications experts describing the link between fiction and reality. The most recent effect is the “CSI Effect”, where juries are demanding forensic proof before they will convict a suspect. What was an open and shut case ten years ago, may not be today.

    Here’s some links.

    Another effect I learned about in my Comm theory classes years ago is crime drama effect. The more crime you see on TV, regardless if it’s real (as in TV news) or fiction (as in crime dramas like Law and Order, NYPD Blue, or going back further, Hill Stree Blues), the more crime you think there is. I don’t have any links for this, but I’ll go home and check my texbooks…

    Based on these documented effects, I would say that fiction and reality are not complements, but substitues. The more fiction you expose yourself to, the more your version of reality does not match what is actually happening. Your belief structure, and the decisions you make don’t match up with what rational actors would do in the same situations.

    Even though you may end up with an updated belief system, it may not be one based in reality. Had you spent you time reading or watching non-fiction, you may have come up with an entirely different system.

  • Miguel

    Well, I’ve a somewhat different view (sorry if other commenters already said this, I only skimmed through them). Let me give an example: a physicist don’t have much to gain, *as a physicist*, by reading the Harry Potter books. But he can be a _happier_ *person* after such reading, so if physics is not the whole of his life he should go for it (and since its all up to his values, you cannot describe his choice as either rational or irrational). Now, if the joy he derives from excelling at physics supersedes the joy derived from reading fiction, then he would be better off reading another physics journal (the same reasoning applies in the case he values his career higher than short term satisfaction).

    I’m a tax auditor, and I became no better at detecting tax frauds after reading Harry Potter, but I was certainly happier than if I’d read e.g. another US GAAP textbook. And reading fiction surely doesn’t make me _worse_ at fraud detection, it only keeps me from improving my skills (so there’s a time allocation issue here, but this is a standard part of life).

    Fiction can harm you if you fall prey to the “generalizing from fictional evidence” fallacy, but a lot of non-fiction can cause even worse effects, if you don’t know what to read (for instance, actually believing in Deepak Chopra’s ideas is worse than any case of generalizing from fictional evidence I can think about).

    I apologize in advance for any troubles understanding my english, but it is a second language for me.

  • Paul Gowder

    Maybe fiction could give us practice in particular kinds of cognition and in evaluating particular kinds of fact patterns? For example, a murder mystery might train us to engage in deduction from small evidence spread over lots of places. Or it might pose moral problems that cause us to think about our moral beliefs. More generally, fiction might train us to evaluate a broader range of situations than we’d otherwise consider.

    Or it might just train our aesthetic senses, and that might give us a better handle on what others experience. (A popular movie, for example, is popular because many others like it — indeed, that’s constitutive of its popularity — so watching it might help us empathize with those others.)

    All speculation, natch.

  • Caledonian

    Maybe fiction could give us practice in particular kinds of cognition and in evaluating particular kinds of fact patterns? For example, a murder mystery might train us to engage in deduction from small evidence spread over lots of places.

    You don’t read many murder mysteries, do you? That is precisely what they do not do. They are explicitly crafted so that people will NOT figure out the real explanation, through a combination of literary misdirection and leaving out information that the detectives possess.

    Your suggestion is akin to saying that prestidigitation is performed to teach people how to pay attention properly. That is not what it does, and not what it is intended to do – it fulfills a totally different function.

  • Pyramid Head

    One of the rare instances where I agree with Caledonian. I always thought of murder mysteries as intellectually unfair. The murders are often solved through luck combined with prior knowledge possessed by the detective but not revealed until the end. And this tradition goes way back to Sherlock Holmes and Augustine Dupin…

  • lowrads

    Existence is rife with fictions. These are not limited to economics, governments, history, ethics, institutions of all stripes, and all other Spectacles. Exposure to more fictions and more notions in general just makes us better are recognizing them and their nuances. It is only the human being that has a notion of “meaning,” hence it does not come from experience, the cosmos, or some elaborate epistemology. Giving meaning to the universe is our only real unique talent or gift, so we might as well make an effort to be talented at it.

  • Wendy Collings

    I assume thought experiments must be counted a form of fiction.

    Is fiction on the whole a complement to reality? I doubt that it is inherently either a complement or a subsitute. It depends how you use it.

    (PS, Miguel – your English is fine. Much easier to understand than the stilted language quoted from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.)

  • Nanani

    Fiction as a complement to reality – an engaging, richly detailed, internally consistent fictional world is an excellent complement to reality.

    Immerging oneself in such a fictional world, such as Middle Earth, provides a great place to exercise rationality within a simpler model than the real universe. The same principle reaches video and table-top role playing games, where understanding how things work within that fictional universe is an important part of the fiction.

    I would then say that fifth reason is the most important one, and that to be good fiction in the sense of complementary-to-reality, the fantasy must be set in an internally consistant world.

    In fiction set in the real world, the more accurately it represents reality the better the fiction. The characters will then be fictional and the situations hypothetical.

  • Here’s my layperson take: if we were to imagine no fiction could exist in our world, what would the results be? A less powerful understanding of the world or a more powerful understanding of the world? We’d have to eliminate all unreality. I’m not sure how we could function. No thought experiments, no probabilities to stand in for certainties, no theories based on probabilities, no trusting your gut or instincts.

    It seems like we live in a fiction of sorts, for the most part, whether we want to or not. There seem to be more useful fictions than others, Newtonian physics over theological explanations of how the world works, for example, but both are replaced by a more broadly useful theory. And that could be overturned if we were to find out we were really a simulation on someone’s computer living in a world governed by their whims. And it seems we’ll never (as far as I can tell) get the certainty of knowing we’re not currently in a position like that.

    We just have to do the best we can with what we have. Certainty seems like such a small portion of experience sapped of inference–the moment we are experiencing right now minus what we think it is.

    Thinking about a person’s self-image and personal history–I wonder how much of what seems interesting or important is certainly true. Even probably true. What if you demanded certainty or high probability to be the only thing allowed to be a part of one’s self-image or personal history? Could people function or feel happy without a strong sense of self that could, perhaps at best, be a weak approximation of the reality?

    It seems to me life is a fiction by and large, constructed from the certain present moment, which we hope to be true, seems to be useful, and could largely be overturned by new knowledge. Perhaps learning to enjoy fiction helps us to enjoy life. “Oh, what I thought was real was the creation of some evil genius? Well, it was quite a good story. Now I have to ‘write’ a new one.”

  • Thanatos Savehn

    I vote for “complements” as I think fiction helps us to uncover reality in at least three important ways.

    In one sense fiction helps us understand causality by letting us examine counterfactuals. Murder mysteries come to mind.

    In another, fiction helps us to glimpse the shape of the curve as it were. We identify variables, plug in different values and plot the results in hopes of finding some otherwise hidden pattern. Think Star Trek.

    Finally, fiction helps us comprehend our selves, our nature; what motivates us and what drives us – whether primordial or … otherwise; and here I refer mainly to fantasy, in all its forms. The Lord of the Rings being an excellent example.

  • James

    For more on fiction as a complement to reality, read Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. One argument he makes is that fictional places located in reality like Disney World etc. perform a function in society where one can go to satisfy his experience of “fiction,” then return to the “reality” of everyday life. While books, movies and other formats are relatively easy to classify as fiction, fiction and reality experienced directly in life are not as clearly distinguishable as we are conditioned to believe. Social rules can be considered a default designation of roles out of many possible–in this light societal constructs can share qualities of fiction. But because they are internalized, they less than regularly occupy our attention.
    “All the world’s a stage.”

  • Folks, thinking about reality – making theories about it and trying out various scenarios in your mind – doesn’t count as fiction, it counts as reality.

  • Ian Emery

    The reason fiction cannot compliment reality is fictional characters don’t act like real people do. That’s why we like them. They are more heroic, more evil, more sinister, and more daring then we are. Your responses to stimuli are partially shaped by the experiences you’ve had, and if most of those experiences have been fictional, you won’t react like someone whose experiences are reality based. I’m not arguing that there should be no fiction, only that the more fiction you read and watch, the more your view of reality is warped. Eventually, your expectations of reality become based on fictional experiences. Think of stereotypes and prejugdeces as perfect examples. The more you are exposed to these fictional representations, the more you believe them to be true, and act accordingly. I would argue that the closer to reality fiction is, the more it impacts your view, and it can be dangerous, if used purposely to change how you view the world.

  • Robin writes: “Folks, thinking about reality – making theories about it and trying out various scenarios in your mind – doesn’t count as fiction, it counts as reality.”

    Also in the post:

    “Fiction can suppress irrelevant detail and emphasize important essences, like a math model.”

    There seem to be other items on the list that suggest fiction could be seen as a theory about reality. So why is the math model counting as reality and the fiction not?

  • biltwick

    I’d agree with Eliezer on the idea that happiness depends on being able to appreciate the world that you live in, regardless of its laws. In a world where you can quickly manipulate underlying structure for quick satisfaction, the desire to understand more or improve (for humans at least) is quickly ignored because you can quickly achieve what you want.

    In Terry Pratchett’s ‘The Last Hero’, the equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci is considered strange by wizards, as they deliberately begin by deciding what they want and then phrasing the spell, whereas he takes time to understand the structure of the universe first, and in doing so creates more complex and longer-lived effects than those wizards, who care only about the results and not the means (much like politicians I think!).

    And the danger of having the ability to change physical reality en masse is dangerous in large numbers. As for the ‘caring universe’, the fact that reality has multiple organizers, each believing themselves worthwhile, the idea of favoring just one is grossly unfair, in those settings which have deities, many are often species-specific (racism and ethnocentrism on a cosmological level). Magic in these settings is usually a convenient shortcut, and if the ability is inherent (genetic or ‘chosen ones’) then prejudice results (ex. Muggles in Harry Potter).

    Even with elemental-level abilities that depend on consciousness, consciousness itself is the greatest ability of all, to understand and influence reality by proxy or directly. The key to your future is whether you can continuously improve as individuals or as groups without destroying the fabric of reality.

  • This is exactly the criterion that I use to judge literature. Good literature teaches you more about how the world works. Bad literature generally reinforces popular views to the point of dysfunction.

    This is a data-driven theory; I arrived at it after years of puzzling over the fact that there were some books that I really enjoyed, like Tom Clancy or Robert Jordan novels, that I still thought were not very good books; and books that I didn’t “enjoy” very much, like Dostoyevsky novels, that I thought were excellent. Although I loved reading Robert Jordan novels, I forgot them almost immediately afterwards. By contrast, I would often find myself drawing analogies between something in a good novel and something in my life. So I decided to judge a novel by how often I was reminded of it by real life.

    For example, in love, there are certain counterproductive habits and attitudes common to women, and others common to men. A woman who learns about love from romance novels, or a man who learns about love from porn, will be worse off than before, because these genres give women and men pleasure by pandering to these bad habits. Romeo and Juliet is quite different, but also dysfunctional: it portrays love as only for the very young; instantaneous rather than being grounded in any qualities of the beloved; perfect and needing to overcome only external obstacles rather than any friction between the lovers themselves; and inevitably destructive. These and other popular works, like politicians, make people feel good about themselves by justifying the beliefs they are most defensive about – which are, not coincidentally, the beliefs most likely to be unjustified. Real life events rarely remind one of these dysfunctional narratives.

    Catch-22, by contrast, was a good book for me. At a time in my life when parents, church, and school were all teaching me to respect authority, tradition, and the Proper Way of Doing Things, Catch-22 gave me a glimpse of the man behind the curtain.

  • I think the fact that they’re basically separate means that any effect is indirect and depends partly on the person.

    Dogs and Stocks: Substitutes or Complements?

    Does exposure to stocks tend to increase or decrease our ability to see dogs as they are?

  • Doug S.

    I use fantasy as a substitute for recreational drug use.

  • The Last Real New Yorker

    Nice homepage promoting eugenics, Tim Tyler.

    Can we please get this clown’s comments banned?

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