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Norman Holland

Norman N Holland Ph.D.

Why Don't We Doubt Spider-Man's Existence? (2)

Is watching a movie a miniature psychosis?

This post is in response to
Why Don't We Doubt Spider-Man's Existence? (1)

Why do we willingly suspend disbelief? Transported by a film, tv, or story, we believe or at least we do not disbelieve in what we are perceiving even when it is obviously not true. This is totally unadaptive behavior. You cannot explain it evolutionarily. Even infants would recognize that Spider-Man's webbing among the skyscrapers does not follow the laws of physics. People have been using Coleridge's phrase, willing suspension of disbelief, to describe this phenomenon for more than two centuries. It describes very well the feelings we have in situations that Coleridge could never have imagined, like Spider-Man. But to explain the phenomenon, we need modern psychology and neuroscience.

Psychologist Richard Gerrig has convincingly rewritten Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief. Gerrig notes that we end up believing only some information from a fiction. That is, if I am reading Sherlock Holmes stories, I will take away information about hansom cabs and gazogenes as part of my permanent knowledge. But I will not believe that there was a Sherlock Holmes or a Dr. Watson. One can explain this phenomenon, Gerrig claims, by saying that we believe all and then we disbelieve some.

To justify this position, Gerrig introduces an idea from philosophy. Spinoza believed that, in order to comprehend what we perceive, we must at first believe it true. Only then, if necessary, do we disbelieve it. Psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert defines belief in this context as propensity to behave. In his view, people automatically accept what they perceive, get ready to act on it, and only on second thought, with a little extra effort, unaccept it. Gilbert cites a long line of research showing that people are particularly poor at ignoring, forgetting, rejecting or otherwise failing to believe that which they have comprehended. We suffer from "lie blindness."

Following Spinoza and Gilbert, Gerrig asserts that simply comprehending something automatically includes belief. When we read a fiction, says Gerrig, we presume that all the information that comes our way is true until we deliberately unaccept some. We process fiction (and plays and movies), he claims, by two different systems. One is unsystematic. It simply perceives and believes what it perceives. The other system is, in Gerrig and Gilbert's term, systematic, and it assesses the reality of what we are sensing.

This second, systematic reality-testing is turned off for moments or minutes by our knowledge that what we are watching is in fact only a story, only a play, or only a movie. We cannot change it. Fictional information is persuasive because it is processed via some nonsystematic route. Belief in fiction [that is, in the factual representations in a fiction-nnh] is determined not by a critical analysis, but by the absence of motivation or ability to perform such an analysis. Thus readers, he claims, will have to expend explicit effort to understand fictions as fictional.

A review of the psychological literature in this field suggests that this second system (involving memory via the hippocampus) weighs the reliability of the source of the information and the compatibility of the new information with already stored data. It would be some such second system that concludes, It's only a story and disbelieves, while the first system suspends disbelief and grants "poetic faith" for the duration of the transport. In this way, narratives trump reason.

Gerrig has experimented with readers' responses for a number of years. He and his associates have repeatedly demonstrated what they call anomalous suspense. Gerrig had his subjects (Yale students) read (on a computer, sentence by sentence) a little story. At the end of the story Gerrig would ask the subject to say whether a certain sentence was true or false. One version was called the no suspense version. Here is one of them:

George Washington was a famous figure after the Revolutionary War. Washington was a popular choice to lead the new country. Few people had thought that the British could be defeated. The success of the Revolutionary War was attributed largely to Washington. His friends worked to convince him to go on serving his country. Washington agreed that he had abundant experience as a leader.

The other version of the story was designed to create a little uncertainty about the outcome. In other words, this second version was designed to create suspense. Here is one of those:

Washington was a popular choice to lead the new country. Washington, however, wanted to retire after the war. The long years as general had left him tired and frail. Washington wrote that he would be unable to accept the nomination. Attention turned to John Adams as the next most qualified candidate.

Gerrig then asked the Yalies to say whether this sentence, George Washington was elected first president of the United States, was true or false.

What Gerrig found was that the response time was significantly longer for subjects who had read stories that created some suspense, some uncertainty, as to whether Washington would be our first president or not. Gerrig called this phenomenon "anomalous suspense." The suspense is anomalous because the Yale students knew perfectly well that in fact George Washington was elected our first president. So why the slight hesitation? Gerrig concluded that the answer came more slowly because the suspense, the uncertainty in response to the narrative, made the subjects believe in some temporary way that maybe George Washington didn't become America's first president.

You can see the same phenomenon in children. They have heard the story of Jack and the Beanstalk a zillion times, but every time, when the giant chases Jack, they get excited-will the giant catch him? Will he escape? When I was a child, one of my favorite stories was The Little Engine That Could. I can distinctly remember heightening excitement and suspense as the engine neared the top of the mountain. Yet I knew all the time that this was the little engine that could and did. As adults, we experience anomalous suspense when we see a movie like Casablanca for the umpteenth time. Will Rick put Ilsa on the plane with Laszlo? We know at one level of our minds that he will, but we still feel suspense. As Gerrig says, you have to actively construct disbelief.

Notice too that the narratives Gerrig used were non-fiction. They were factual stories about American history and pop culture and other things his Yale subjects would know. And this anomalous suspense happens in daily life. For example, a neighbor tells me about her nearly having a catastrophic auto accident. I know perfectly well that the accident did not happen, for my neighbor is standing there before me. Yet I will feel fear and worry and suspense about the fatal possibility. Such suspense doesn't make sense in the light of what I really know, but if I am transported by the narrative, I grant what Coleridge called poetic faith to the story, be it fiction or non-fiction.

What Gerrig's experiments imply is: if you subject yourself to any narrative, you believe it for the time you are making coherent sense of that narrative. In Descartes' terms, comprehension entails belief. Following a narrative brings anomalous suspense, whether the story is fiction or non-fiction. We momentarily believe with both. You have to construct disbelief actively, deliberately, and usually after the narrative is over.

The next question, then, is, What turns off our memory-based knowledge and, especially, what turns off our knowledge that fictions are not true? Stay tuned.

Some items I've referred to:

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. 1907 [1817]. Biographia Literaria. 2 vols. Ed. J. Shawcross. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ch. xiv.

Gerrig, Richard J. Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Ac.tivities of Reading New Haven: Westview Press, Yale University Press, 1998.

Gilbert, Daniel T., Douglas S. Krull, and Patrick S. Malone. "Unbelieving the Unbelievable;: Some Problems in the Rejection of False Information." Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 59.4 (Oct 1990): 601-13.

Prentice, Deborah A. and Richard J. Gerrig. "Exploring the Boundary Between Fiction and Reality." Dual-Process Theories in Social Psychology. Ed. Shelly Chaiken and Yaacov Trope. New York: Guilford Press, 1999. 529-46.

I am also drawing on an essay of mine and my latest book:

Holland, Norman N. 2008. Spider-Man? Sure! The Neuroscience of Suspending Disbelief. Interdisiplinary Science Reviews 33 (4):312-320. Available at

Holland, Norman N. 2009. Literature and the Brain. Gainesville FL: PsyArt Foundation. Available at


About the Author

Norman Holland

Norman Holland, Ph.D., specializes in the psychology of the arts. His latest book is Literature and the Brain.