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Do Fictional Characters Affect Our Real Life?

At some level, do we believe everything we see on TV?

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Old, Boring, White and Mean: How Professors Appear on the Small Screen," the author Jenny Rodgers proposes that most fictional television portrayals of professors are quite narrow, as the title of her article states. She cites research by Barbara F. Tobolowsky, who found that students are arriving at college thinking that their professors will echo those who they see on screen. Faculty are seen as unfriendly and not helpful, because that’s what students have seen on the screen. This causes problems when students are unwilling to seek help from their professors, thinking them unapproachable.

That otherwise intelligent, college-going young people would confuse fiction and reality in this way would be laughable if only it wasn’t another one in a line of anecdotes about people confusing fictional characters with their real-world counterparts. Even though there hasn’t been rigorous empirical research on this question (although some is currently in progress in my and others’ labs), adults often forget where the line of fiction ends and reality begins. This is particularly true when it comes to watching actors—who, after all, are real humans, who are doing their best to realistically portray characters.

Insteresting cases pop up when television actors portray a character for a long time. For instance, a recent New York Times article stated that actress Claire Danes’ portrayal of a bipolar woman on the show Homeland is so realistic that the producers have been receiving letters expressing concern for her safety and asking that she be allowed to take a break from portraying her character to receive treatment for her bipolar disorder—stating that her portrayal is too accurate to be fake.

Robert Young, who played a doctor on Marcus Welby, M.D., a popular TV show in the early '70s, reported receiving mail every week with medical mysteries, asking for his expertise to help solve these cases. Actors playing doctors on a variety of television shows have received similar mail. Of course, this has led to humorous situations as well—Neil Patrick Harris, who played Doogie Houser, the prodigy doctor—was in an advertisement for deodorant that played off of his previous role. In it, he states “trust me, I used to play a doctor for pretend” as he incorrectly places a stethoscope on a patient’s nose. This ad is particularly humorous because we know that actors have previously been cast in commercials to discuss products that the characters they play may have some expertise with. Advertisers hoped that consumers would therefore trust the actor.

The question is, why television actors, and why is this bias hard to overcome?

It may be familiarity—because we see these actors week after week in situations in which they portray the difficulties of bipolarism, or have the skills of talented doctors, we associate the actor with the actions and words they portray, and that connection becomes so strong that we are unable to overcome it when we see the actor out of character.

There is the personal nature of the relationship we have with our television. Unlike movie actors, or those in plays onstage, television actors come into our homes, and given the popularity of DVR-devices, these actors are available to us whenever we want to watch them.

Another possibility is that actors are “typecast”—that is, they are put in roles that they have enough similarity with, that their actual personality isn’t different from the character. (Many actors actively work against this, “playing against type”, or trying to get hired as a variety of characters to avoid this rut.)

What’s interesting is we don’t think space cowboys are real, or that there are fairy tale characters come to life and living in present-day Maine. But, the actors may still be confused with their characters, because in the end, it’s the interpersonal story that we care about—the relationship among the characters’ personalities and objectives. (For some great work on this topic, check out Jen Barnes’ work on why we like fiction—she's also an author who writes fiction).

This confusion may also come from our "alief" system. The philosopher Tamar Gendler proposes that we have two cognitive systems at work when we engage in fiction: “belief”, where we know the fiction to be false, and “alief”, where there is an unconscious process that causes us to believe TV actors are doctors, or to have emotional reactions to fictional characters breaking up in a book.

And it’s not just actors being confused with their characters. The so-called “The CSI Effect” is named because legal professionals often worry that juries have begun to think all crimes should be solvable like CSI. The amount of evidence jury members expect to see in order to convincingly find someone guilty has gone up. There’s no conclusive evidence that the CSI effect is causing differences in the burden of proof on prosecutor, although there is some preliminary evidence that juries may be less likely to accept circumstantial evidence during trials. There has, however, been an increase in interest in forensic evidence and enrollment in forensic science majors since the television show debuted (the direction of causality is still up for debate).

But the confusion of fiction and reality can also have positive effects—as recently written in the Psychology Today blog The Storytelling Animal. In a post entitled "The Power of Fake Gay (and Black) Friends," Jonathan Gottschall discusses how the appearance of gay and lesbian characters in television shows has made audience members more accepting of gays and lesbians in real life. In fact, this was a reason given by Vice President Joe Biden when he discussed his recent endorsement of gay marriage. The characters start to feel like “friends,” and research has shown that having gay friends acts as a social influence, increasing acceptance of gay issues.

In the end, when asked whether we actually think Claire Danes is bipolar, or whether Neil Patrick Harris actually graduated from medical school, or whether all crimes will actually have the level of evidence left behind that shows up in an episode of CSI, most people will probably say no. But, there seems to be an automatic level on which we think yes, and that can affect behavior. Research from my lab is also showing that children seem to say “yes” under a lot of conditions: they believe that physical traits transfer from character to actor (if the character gets hurt, so does the actor). They think that emotional traits are also shared (if the character is sad, so is the actor; although adults actually show some confusion here as well, perhaps due to the popular notion of Method acting). Popular press articles like to ask actors how similar they are to their characters, increasing confusion. Moving forward, actors may not be able to get away from fans seeking their legal, medical or investigative advice, but perhaps we can begin to explore under which circumstances adults and children think traits and knowledge transfer from character back to actor.