New website is under construction.

Jun 14, 2009

Writing and Empathy

I think the basic substance of literature is the exercise of empathy. Some stories stretch our brains more deeply, but all offer the possibility of imagining other lives, other minds, and other points of view.

While I believe we humans create art for art's sake (unlike ants) that doesn't mean art doesn't also enhance our existence in other ways.

We put ourselves into someone else's shoes for the duration of the story. Research has shown "that merely imagining positive contact with members of an out-group can help improve attitudes towards that group."

In an initial experiment, Rhiannon Turner and Richard Crisp had half of 25 students aged between 18 and 23 spend two minutes imagining a positive encounter with an elderly person, whilst the remaining students imagined an outdoor scene. These were the specific instructions for the imagined contact group: "imagine yourself meeting an elderly stranger for the first time. Imagine that during the encounter, you find out some interesting and unexpected things about the person."

Afterwards, the students who'd imagined meeting an elderly person subsequently showed more positive attitudes towards elderly people than did the control group.

Of course, a lot of writing which attempts to do this too clumsily comes across as mere propaganda. And, speaking of propaganda, we know literature and other media can be used to whip up hate and bigotry just as easily as empathy.

Even if stories promote a good cause, the power of stories to model human behavior has always been a two edged sword, both coveted and feared by those who want to push a social agenda. For instance, another study found that watching tv can convince you to donate a kidney.

Participants were asked to watch a selection of episodes from popular TV dramas with storylines that included both positive and negative depictions of organ donation, and then complete surveys that assessed a range of factors related to how strongly the viewer had been influenced by the storylines (and no small potatoes here; more than 5000 people completed the House survey).

The results: viewers who were not organ donors before watching the dramas were more likely to decide to become one if organ donation was portrayed positively and if characters in the show explicitly encouraged it. Viewers who reported emotional involvement with the narrative were significantly more likely to become organ donors. And, finally, viewers clearly acquired knowledge from the content of each drama – whether it was accurate or not.

And that’s the “depending on how you look at it” part of this. The study is really telling us a couple of different things: emotional involvement with narrative affects the way people think, and supplies knowledge that may very well not be true. Most people would probably agree that organ donation is a social good, and if TV dramas encourage it then all the better — but, the troubling part is that the same dynamic driving the good can also serve up the bad with equal effectiveness. Pseudoscience, vaccine alarmism, and quackery of every flavor proliferates just this way.

This also opens a conundrum for writers. Is it important for your story to convey the "right" message, to model "good" behavior -- to combat racist stereotypes, for instance, or teach people to think in a new way? Or is it more important to show the "truth", even if it's ugly or sets a "bad" example? Or do you want to deliberately shock and upset any conventional sense of right or wrong? Even if you do have a message, does trying to push it actually make the reader resist it? Even if you don't have a message, can you really tell any story without conveying a message, whether you want to or not?


Ban said...

Nope. Un/fortunately, everything one says, writes, draws, sings is gonna influence those around them ... positive or negative depends as much on the nature of the reciever, their current mood, biases and situation, as the author/artist what have you. One can only hope authors/artists are aware of this so they will make every effort to convey their 'message' in a responsible manner.

Jessie Oliveros said...

I just finished reading the Glass Castle, a memoir by Jeannette Walls. It is interesting that you should write this because I was thinking just yesterday about how she portrayed homelessness. Her parents were homeless. She didn't portray it as a social evil, but as the fact of the matter-her parents wanted to be homeless, even though they could easily both go get jobs. Which would kind of go against the grain, but that is how it was in her life, and that is fact not fiction.

scott g.f.bailey said...

I don't think it's possible to be neutral, not if you're writing a story you care about. But I do think that it's better to ask a question than make a statement about theme. "Is this bad?" is easier to digest as a reader than "This is bad." I think.

Unknown said...

Interesting topic...

My thoughts:

1) Do you have to "preach?" No. But if it fits with you or your story: yes. If you are writing a story about a black girl in Alabama in the 1960s, it'd be stupid not to include race on some level in the story. But that may not fit at all with another story.

2) Is truth more important than the lesson? Yes. Take Huckleberry Finn. It showed Jim and Huck's relationship in a very realistic fashion, without being terribly preachy. Many people don't get the lesson of that book.

I guess it's the difference between intent. Compare Narnia--a very clear moral lesson, a very clear purpose behind the story. Something less subtle, perhaps, would be A Wrinkle in Time--the same lesson and purpose, but more subtle.