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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