Keith Oatley, Ph.D.

Keith Oatley Ph.D.

The Psychology of Fiction

Why Read Fiction?

Why fiction is important in psychology

Posted May 12, 2010

Psychologists have made big advances by means of methods such as experiments, interviews, questionnaires, and controlled observations. So it may seem that fiction has no more place in psychology than ideas of a flat earth have in the physical sciences. Perhaps a quote from fiction may be ail right for an illustration when a photo won't do, but surely nothing in fiction is comparable to an article in a refereed psychological journal. Even the word "fiction" gives it away. It means something made, something made up.

This view was widely held. Perhaps it still is. But it's wrong. Narrative fiction isn't a set of observations that are flawed by lack of reliability and validity. It's a simulation. Narrative was the very first kind of simulation, one that runs not on computers but on minds. It's a kind of simulation that enables us to enter social contexts that otherwise we would never know.

As Aristotle pointed out in Poetics, "the historian speaks of what has happened, the poet of the kind of thing that can happen" (pp. 32-33). Although Aristotle talks of the historian, in modern times he might have talked of the empirical psychologist who reports what has happened in a psychological study. And when Aristotle talks of poet, nowadays he might sooner have said fiction writer. (Like "fiction," "poetry" also means something made.) So, as we enter a book, play, or film, in a fictional world of what could happen, we set aside our own immediate concerns. Often we take on the concerns of a protagonist. Always we enter a world that is somewhat different than our own. In a narrative world we can compare our own reactions, thoughts, and feelings, with those of the characters in a story. Thereby we can come to know better both ourselves and others.

Many fiction writers are as scrupulous about getting their facts right as psychologists are when they write a paper. The central concern for fiction, however, is not to report such facts. That indeed is the province of science. It's to invite readers to think and feel into the simulations they run as they read a story.

Aristotle (c. 330 BCE). Poetics (G. E. Else, Trans.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press (current edition 1970).

The illustration is the cover of the book edited by Melanie Green, Jeff Strange, and Tim Brock (2002). Narrative impact: Social and cognitive foundations. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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