By Matthew Hutson, published on July 1, 2008 - last reviewed on May 23, 2012
No one roots for the jocks in Revenge of the Nerds. If the bespectacled set, downtrodden by the brawny lettermen, didn't rise up to secure glory (and girls), it would be a terrible movie. Research suggests that not only are we drawn to stories of people getting their just desserts, but fictions following this satisfying arc may increase our faith in the fairness of real life.
Psychologists call this innate karmic sense "belief in a just world." Previous studies have shown that fiction persuades: Protagonists' attitudes about, say, seat belt use rub off on readers. But "if you could demonstrate that belief in a just world—which is part of a larger socialization process—is a media effect, that would be a bigger surprise," says Markus Appel of the University of Linz in Austria.
So Appel asked Germans and Austrians how often they watched various types of TV shows. He found that those who view more fiction believe more strongly in cosmic justice. He also found that the biggest TV watchers overall endorsed "mean-world" beliefs, fearing, say, walking alone in the dark. (Beliefs in fairness and meanness are uncorrelated.) Fans of tabloid shows had especially dire outlooks.
Choosing what to watch based on preexisting beliefs could explain Appel's findings, but he suspects his data reflect a two-way interaction where our viewing habits also guide our beliefs. Just don't go expecting your school mathletes to beat the meatheads on field day. —Matthew Hutson
Invented tales in Books, TV, and cinema are a force for social change.
Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes Uncle Tom's Cabin, stoking the abolitionist movement and catalyzing the Civil War.
The Fonz gets a library card on Happy Days and declares, "Reading is cool." Library card applications shoot up 500%.
J.K. Rowling brings Dumbledore out of the closet and calls her novels "a prolonged argument for tolerance."