Why Fiction Lies

Most religious activities make a lot of sense, especially in terms of group bonding.  It is religious beliefs that seem the most puzzling.  Many suggest supernatural beliefs are just a side effect of our having a theory of mind, and applying it liberally.  Back in 2001 I read and reviewed Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained.  Boyer noted 1) supernatural concepts tend to violate one ontological assumption each, making them maximally memorable, and 2) supernatural entities tend to know and care about human-socially-relevant info, and to punish humans who are not nice (i.e., cooperative).  I was puzzled that Boyer didn’t explicitly make what seemed to me the obvious suggestion:  we evolved a tendency to accept strange memorable group beliefs to create a high cost of leaving our group, and to show that we expect to be punished if we are not nice.

Our obsession with gossiping about each other makes a lot of sense, but more puzzling is our obsession with stories we know are not true, about unrelated people in strange worlds.  I recently finished literary-expert William Flesch’s Comeuppance, a literary expert’s evo psych account of why we like fiction (reviewed here and here).  Flesch says humans cooperate via a norm of celebrating cooperators and punishing defectors and those who violate this norm:

In narratives we … [are] disposed to want to see the cooperators triumph over the obstacles set up by defectors of various sorts.  …. [We] root for characters with a propensity for strong reciprocity, not because the judge them as like us or identify with them, but because  a disposition to reward cooperators and to punish defectors is itself a central aspect of cooperation. (p.126)

Social life is all about signaling our abilities and cooperativeness, and discerning such signals from others:

Understanding narrative at all requires understanding of signaling.  We monitor signals and the reliability of signals that others produce.  We take note of how others monitor signals, and what signals they produce in turn on receive signals that we also may receive.  One of the intricate pleasures of narrative … consists in keeping track of who knows what. We like to keep track of what other people are keeping track of. … Narrative relies on the psychological incentives to engage in such monitoring of how we respond to what we know about one another. (p.85)

Yes, we love to watch, and watching abilities serve us well, by why do we apply them so enthusiastically to false stories?  Why not just tell stories about real heros and villains?  One clue is that stories can signal things about authors and tellers:

Among the strong reciprocators to narrative events are the narrators of those events. … Gossip is a likely mode of altruistic punishment: the scandal monger punishes scandalous behavior. … Gossip … disciplines those who have violated whatever norms the gossipers are punishing.

But how is it altruistic to punish non-existent violators?  Only once does Flesch get close to the key: visibly consuming stories also signals things!

Vicarious feelings for others is therefore both a propensity for responding emotionally to the signals of others and itself a primary example of such a signal. … Our own monitoring of costly signals and our response to the response of others constitute our own costly and altruistic absorption in the interactions of others.  And of course we signal as well with the stories we love, a mode of signaling that can range from the simple desire to repeat them to the social capital of our own conspicuous cultural attainments.  Knowing a story and, still more, telling a story signals our own capacities for altruistic interest, affect, and punishment, capacities that the story will represent its characters manifesting in order to appeal to the audiences interest in monitoring these things.  (pp 123-124)

This explanation of fiction comes close to the above explanation of religious beliefs: 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.

We don’t believe the stories really happened, but we do tend to believe these “social truths” about their characters. We love to tell associates about our favorite stories, and prefer them to love them too.

As with religion, the beliefs of ours that most reassure others are not necessarily the most accurate.  In fiction, relative to reality, people know more why they act and what they want, good and bad personal characteristics correlate more strongly, personal character matters more relative to circumstance or larger social forces, and there are clearer ultimate resolutions to complex events.  What other social lies does fiction tell, and why does it reassure others that we believe them?

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