Data On Fictional Lies

A spectacular paper analyses a dataset of 519 Victorian literature experts describing 382 characters from 201 canonical British novels of the nineteenth century.  Characters were described by gender, as major or minor, as good or bad, by role (protagonist, antagonist, friend of p, friend of a, or other), by a five factor personality type (from a ten-question instrument), as their (5-point-scale) degree of twelve different motives (converted to five factors: social dominance, constructive effort, romance, nurture, subsistence), and as the degree of ten different emotions they arouse in readers (converted to three factors: dislike, sorrow, interest). Experts agreed 87% of the time.  They found:

Antagonists virtually personify Social Dominance – the self-interested pursuit of wealth, prestige, and power. In these novels, those ambitions are sharply segregated from prosocial and culturally acquisitive dispositions. Antagonists are not only selfish and unfriendly but also undisciplined, emotionally unstable, and intellectually dull. Protagonists, in contrast, display motive dispositions and personality traits that exemplify strong personal development and healthy social adjustment. Protagonists are agreeable, conscientious, emotionally stable, and open to experience. … The male protagonists in this study are relatively moderate, mild characters. They are introverted and agreeable, and they do not seek to dominate others socially. They are pleasant and conscientious, and they are also curious and alert. They are attractive characters, but they are not very assertive or aggressive characters. …

In Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, Boehm (1999)… argues that … humans developed a special capacity, … for enforcing moralistic or altruistic norms. By enforcing these norms, humans succeed in controlling “free riders” or “cheaters,” and they thus make it possible for genuinely altruistic genes to survive within a social group. Such altruistic dispositions, enforced by punishing defectors, would enable social groups to compete more successfully against other groups and would thus make “group selection” or “multi-level selection” an effective force in subsequent human evolution. …

If Boehm and others are correct, … by derogating dominance and enacting the triumph of the communitarian ethos, … agonistic structure in the novels would articulate real features of human nature, but like culture in general, the novels would exaggerate the magnitude of those features.  Agonistic structure in these novels seems to serve as a medium for readers to participate vicariously in an egalitarian social ethos. … as prosthetic extensions of social interactions that in non-literate cultures require face-to-face interaction. …

Could it not plausibly be argued that the novels merely depict social dynamics as they actually occur in the real world? If that were the case, one would have no reason to suppose that the novels mediate psychological processes in the community of readers. The novels might merely serve readers’ need to gain realistic information about the larger patterns of social life. To assess the cogency of this challenge, consider the large-scale patterns revealed in the present study and ask whether those patterns plausibly reflect social reality:

The world is in reality divided into two main kinds of people. One kind is motivated exclusively by the desire for wealth, power, and prestige. These people have no affiliative dispositions whatsoever. Moreover, they are disagreeable, emotionally unstable, undisciplined, and narrow minded. The second kind of people, in contrast, have almost no desire for wealth, power, and prestige. They are animated by the purest and most self-forgetful dispositions for nurturing kin and helping non-kin. Moreover, they are agreeable, emotionally stable, conscientious, and open-minded. Life consists in a series of clear-cut confrontations between these two kinds of people. Fortunately, the second set almost always wins, and lives happily ever after. This is reality, and novels do nothing except depict this reality in a true and faithful way.
In our view, this alternative hypothesis fails of conviction. The novels do contain a vast fund of realistic social depiction and profound psychological analysis. In their larger imaginative structures, though, the novels evidently do not just represent human nature; they evoke certain impulses of human nature. Vicarious participation in the novel stirs up the reader’s impulses to derogate dominance in others and to affirm one’s identity as a positive, contributing member of his or her social group. It may not be too much of a leap to suggest that the emotional impulses aroused by the novel carry over when the novel is put down, actually encouraging people to suppress dominance and cooperate with others in real life.

This agrees a lot with William Flesch’s Comeuppance, but like it focuses too much on group selection, instead of individual selection, pressures.  As I suggested ten days ago,

Both religion and fiction serve to reassure our associates that we will be nice.  In addition to letting us show we can do hard things, and that we are tied to associates by doing the same things, religious beliefs show we expect the not nice to be punished by supernatural powers, and our favorite fiction shows the sort of people we think are heroes and villains, how often they are revealed or get their due reward, and so on.

Hat tip to Fortune Elkins.

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  • marc

    Interestingly most women find exactly the opposite attractive in real life – men who are dominant, ignore/flout social conventions (alpha males) – tend to be most successful, at least in the short term.

    • Philip Goetz

      I suspect it isn’t the behavior itself that women find attractive, but getting away with it.  Whatever the social conventions are, the man who breaks them and suffers no penalties proves he is the alpha.

      Well, provides evidence he is the alpha. In most cases, the man who breaks them and suffers no penalties is a stupid man who miscalculated the cost/benefit, but got lucky.

  • Marc, yes the point is that fiction lies, misleading people who believe its social patterns, but benefiting them via others approving of their believing such lies.

  • Abigail

    “Daniel Deronda” by George Eliot fits this pattern very closely.

    Scott Peck and others believe that the “disagreeable” people, the antagonists, are less mature than the social people, and that there is a progression of maturity. But then he also thinks one can mature from being a rationalist to being a mystic, and some here might doubt that.

    I observe that dominant, attractive males may be cooperative. I do not think these sets are mutually exclusive.

  • Grant

    I tend to agree with Abigail. “Dominant” can also mean “leader”, and may not have anything to do with non-cooperation (many leaders, by definition, define what “cooperation” is). Women most certainly don’t like men who don’t cooperate with the norms they value.

    Still, does fiction lie less today? Nowadays, protagonists are often highly individualistic, often not cooperating with their social groups when their social groups err. They are also often socially dominant. Or is this just cooperation with what we see as a “higher” set of norms?

  • Max M

    The sorts of stories that I find interesting are stories where these patterns are not clear at all. For example, in the popular Japanese anime movie “Princess Mononoke” – the character of Lady Eboshi seems at times to be the Villain driven by a quest for power and dominance over all groups in the film. Yet she is also compassionate, thoughtful, well adjusted, composed, and intellectually curious… In fact, this sort of “Villain” is typical of the work of Hayao Miyazaki, who is arguably the most popular director and film-writer in Japan for the past few decades. As I recall from Japanese lit, these sorts of “Villains” are far more prevalent in their fiction than in western fiction, which would indicate this dynamic is more memetic than genetic.

    So perhaps this trend is mostly within Victorian-era literature, or perhaps western literature in general. Japanese literature and film, to the best of my knowledge, doesn’t follow this trend nearly as often.

    • Miyazaki is pretty unique in this respect. He explicitly calls out and disdains this, saying things like “The concept of portraying evil and then destroying it – I know this is considered mainstream, but I think it’s rotten. This idea that whenever something evil happens someone particular can be blamed and punished for it, in life and in politics, is hopeless.”

      There’s plenty of anime which takes simplistic points of view, and anime which don’t are often exceptions that prove the rule – eg. _Mobile Suit Gundam_ was a groundbreaking mecha in part *because* the enemies weren’t such bad guys (although there were still plenty of Evil characters).

  • bogdanb

    It would be interesting to see a similar study on literature *outside* the “canonical British novels of the nineteenth century” class. I sympathize with the conclusions above, and intuitively it *seems* to me that they’d apply for literature in general, but I have enough reasons to be wary of such an extension.

    Thinking of this a bit longer, I have a vague sensation* that in several “old”** mythologies there are common occurrences of a “trickster” character that don’t fit very well with the pattern above. (Such characters are very ambiguous, even in the antagonist/protagonist distinction.)

    (*: I don’t feel knowledgeable enough in the subject to elevate the feeling above this.)
    (**: in the sense that they’re not yet influenced by the ones in the common substrate of the “western culture” I’m more familiar with. For all I know they’re current in African or Asian countries. I’m thinking about Norse mythology, and I vaguely remember similar characters in Amerindian and African mythologies.)

    Not that this invalidates the theory (it would still apply to most “common” literature), but it might at least offer interesting insights.

  • bogdanb

    See, Max had the same reflex I did. (Actually, the Japanese examples he mentioned crossed my mind, too. Even Sailor Moon had some very non-standard (by western standard) antagonists. But I don’t have enough knowledge of older Asian literature to know if this is a recent effect, which is why I didn’t mention it.)

  • frelkins


    Great – Asian literature! Of course the novel is usually said to have been invented in Asia in the early 11th century. The earliest novels have a strongly Buddhist character, which to some extent remains in Japanese and even Chinese society. (We Westerners can fight this first novel question by pointing to some early Latin & Greek lit, but let’s not get into that now.)

    It’s widely said that Tale of Genji is the first novel, written by the Japanese princess Murasaki Shikibu. Genji is a sophisticated and highly psychological novel, that doesn’t have a “plot” in the Western sense but rather relies on time to illustrate social mores and Buddhist ideas.

    In some ways the first novel was also the first post-modern novel, but that is due to its Buddhist sensibilities. Genji includes devices like a blank chapter and ending the book literally in mid-sentence as the “omniscient” narrating consciousness abruptly ends. Genji and the reading experience are supposed to illustrate the truth of Buddhist ideas about time, identity and compassion, exalting courtly behavior.

    Genji starts out as largely good, but then falls into error – he does some serious wrong, including rape. He is by turns the hero and not, until wisdom and karma “redeem” him. The book also contains what is perhaps the first anti-hero, Kaoru. Genji would fall perfectly into Robin’s niceness theory, under my impression of it.

    The Chinese Qing Dynasty Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin is likewise fascinating, but has a more “normal” structure. It’s later, from the 18th cent., and has Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian features. Like Genji, it is highly psychological and may surprise readers by its in-depth understanding of women.

    Dream of the Red Chamber is particularly apt for Robin’s point because the Chinese name for the main family of characters is similar to the Chinese word for “fake!” The book admits is it “a lie of fiction” even as it tells a penetrating and fascinating social tale, if your idea of fascinating runs to say, a dynastic Jane Austen.

    It explores directly the tensions between social expectations of being a good person and what it takes to actually succeed in the real world thru its enormous cast of characters – yet the end message is that it is better to obey your family, be devout, and stay nice – Confucian ideas. Again, I think good grist for Robin’s mill, as it considers individual niceness and group niceness.

    While Red Chamber is incredibly beautiful, complex, and sad – it’s a 3-hanky book – I think only the most devoted contemporary readers could make their way through its story, with more characters than a Russian novel. Genji is probably more enjoyable for a modern reader, and I highly recommend it to all.

  • There is another explanation besides the one Robin advances.

    Novelists are a self-selected group. Most people would get bored sitting alone and writing long enough and often enough to become a successful novelist; they would stop to socialize or to go outside. That goes a long way to explaining why protagonists tend to be introverts. If the successful novels were written by salespeople, I would expect more extroverted protagonists.

    (And introversion is strongly correlated with alertness and inversely correlated with dominance.)

  • All, other genres may well not tell the same lies, but I expect they still tell lies that people gain by being seen as believing. I hope there will be studies like this of other genres.

  • I do not wish to dispute their findings. But I do have a bone to pick with the authors’ conclusions. They use a moral score card to evaluate characters according to what goals a character pursues. They construct a list of motives and goals, principally devised by consulting the biological imperatives discussed in evolutionary psychology. In pursuing these goals, the authors found morally repugnant characters tend to be obsessed by wealth, prestige and power, whereas heroes tend to strive for socially constructive goals like aiding others, obtaining education, and forming friendships. What I find suspicious is that these findings support Jonothan Haidt’s description of a liberal moral sensibility. A liberal morality, you’ll remember, has a very high sensitivity along two dimensions: avoiding harm to others and promoting fairness. So I take these findings less as evidence for the moral importance of biological imperatives (such as coalition building), but more as evidence to support Haidt’s description of the liberal sensibility. In other words, liberal readers tend to like characters who are both concerned with preventing harm and driven by a sense of fairness.

    So what’s the problem? Well, it could be that these novels merely reinforce the liberal sensibility. Those readers attuned to the moral concerns of the Victorian novel–mainly to its repudiation of social dominance–will tend resonate with the moral tone of the characters represented in the story. But I want to hazard a guess that another set of novels, those novels tuned to a different moral frequency–perhaps those involving authority and sanctity–will have different effects on its readers. On another frequency: look how disgusting most left-wingers find Ayn Rand.

  • Drunken Priest, I recall in Brian Doherty’s “Radicals for Capitalism” he mentions how many liberals read and enjoyed books like The Fountainhead without even realizing the political message Rand was trying to push. I have an aunt who was a big Rand fan in college. She’s currently married to an employee of the Internal Revenue Service.

  • Pat

    Linking religion and fiction: the western trend of one-sided characters has roots in christianity. Protagonists of former mythologies seem to be much more ambiguous. Of course this is subject to our current view.

  • Philip Goetz

    “This agrees a lot with William Flesch’s Comeuppance, but like it focuses too much on group selection, instead of individual selection, pressures.”

    How do you know how much is too much?

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