Fiction Shmiction: The Science of Stories and Unconscious Beliefs

In my previous article in this series I tried to convince you of one of my core beliefs: That the stories we tell matter because they become the fabric of the world we live in. One of the more interesting reader comments on that article guides us nicely to the core of the next issue I want to talk about. JYH wrote:

Until publishers are required to have their books lab-tested before they hit the market, I guess readers will just have to bear the responsibility for not taking fiction too seriously.

While my first article was about trying to establish that stories matter, I want to use this article to explain why the "We need to stop taking things so seriously" mentality is not only ineffective: It's disastrous.

Flying Under the Radar: Giraffes, Wheelbarrows, and Surrender

I'm reminded of the lyrics to "Thou Shalt Always Kill": Thou shalt not use poetry, art, or music to get into girls' pants. Use it to get into their heads. But how do we get into people's heads?

The answer is wildly complex and perilously simple. The most powerful things that get into our heads do so by flying under the radar. Let me give you a rather odd example. For a while, Facebook was plagued with giraffe pictures because of a riddle that most people got wrong (which prompted those who guessed wrong to change their profile picture to a smexy photo of a giraffe). That riddle reads:

It’s 3 a.m.: The doorbell rings and you wake up. Unexpected visitors! It’s your parents and they are here for breakfast. You have strawberry jam, honey, wine, bread, and cheese. What is the first thing you open?

Go ahead and answer if you haven't already encountered the riddle.

Okay. Think you've got it?

The correct answer is your eyes. 

The way this riddle works is fairly straightforward. You see apparent deceit, realizing that before eating you'd have to open the fridge, and before breakfast you'd have to open the door. Because we think we see how we're being deceived, we stop looking. We think we've got it all figured out, so we don't bother scouring the rest to see that, before we ever get to the door, we'd have to open our eyes.

Once you give up on finding more answers, you've surrendered against every layer you haven't yet reached.

Another story.

A factory experienced a run of thefts and the supervisor told the night guard to begin inspecting the workers before they left. The night guard did so, staying until everyone had gone. When the last worker of the night came through, the guard inspected him and his wheelbarrow thoroughly. At the end of the week, the supervisor called the guard in and told him that the thefts were still happening. The guard was baffled, and so began inspecting the workers more thoroughly. When the last worker came through, the guard asked him to empty his pockets and inspected every inch of his wheelbarrow. But again, the supervisor called him in and said the thefts were continuing.

During the third week, the guard became neurotically thorough, patting down every worker. When the last worker came through, he very nearly strip-searched him. He even searched for hidden compartments in the wheelbarrow. At the beginning of the next week, the supervisor called him in once again and told him the thefts had continued. Flustered, the guard elaborated on all he had done. "What more do you want me to do?" he asked. "I don't know," said the supervisor. "But we have to find the person who keeps stealing our wheelbarrows!"

This is how stories work: Like riddles we surrender against too early, or like a wheelbarrow that's searched but never questioned. When we think we know what we're looking for, when we think we've figured out the trick, we give up. "It's just fiction," we say, having spotted the major literary conceit: The magic! The space-ships! The nuclear wasteland! The zombies! The sparkly vampires! We think we've spotted where the story is untrue, and so allow all the other untruths into our heads without inspection.

For Science!: The Surprising Findings of Project Implicit

Those of you who follow my articles here on LitReactor know I try not to just present anecdotes (or riddles or jokes); I try to back my views up with Science! After all, while the items above may be illustrative or entertaining, the plural of anecdote is not data. As luck would have it, though, there are plenty of relevant studies on this topic.

I recently read The Hidden Brain, a compilation of such studies and stories, and had the chance to speak with its author (Shankar Vendantam) on some of the topics that bore further interest to me. One famous set of findings cited in the book is the series of studies done by Project Implicit over at Harvard. While the methodology is a bit complex to get into here, the summary is simple enough: It's a fast, reliable test to determine unconscious bias.

(It deserves a better representation here, so I'll simply add that it doesn't test bias in beliefs directly. It tests the bias in our associations between ideas, including our ideas of specific ethnic groups, genders, and so on. The best way to get a better sense of Project Implicit is to browse the site and take a few of the tests yourself.)

Some of Project Implicit's findings were saddening but unsurprising. Many people still have negative associations with minority groups. Many still have trouble associating women with the business sphere. You get the idea. But some of the findings were ... well, odd. For example, people who belong to or declare as being part of a minority group were still likely to hold the same negative stereotypes about that minority. In America, people of every race had an easier time associating white faces (as opposed to faces that showed other ethnic origins) with positive concepts.

Assumptions, Beliefs, and Behaviors

These unconscious and unquestioned beliefs (what I'll just call "assumptions") are fascinating, but as I noted, Project Implicit doesn't provide a test on what we consciously believe. It tests which concepts we associate with most closely. Our beliefs (what we consciously acknowledge) should certainly be more powerful in swaying our behavior. Just because I have these unconscious associations doesn't mean I'll act in accordance with those associations ... right? 

Wrong. As described by Vendantam in The Hidden Brain:

[O]ver the past decade, many experiments have shown that results on the Implicit Association Test predict people’s behavior in real-world settings. In tests conducted before the 2008 presidential election, for example, the speed at which people unconsciously associated Obama with being American predicted whether they supported the biracial candidate in both the Democratic primary and the general election. [...] How do we know that unconscious attitudes about Obama preceded the conscious justification of those attitudes? In the experiment, it was people’s unconscious attitudes [...] rather than their conscious views about the issues, that better predicted whether they voted for Obama or preferred another candidate.

The same connection between assumptions and behavior have been demonstrated in numerous other tests, including tests that look at how hiring practices show a subtle discrimination against those not associated with the white-male image of corporate America. In this study, a series of identical resumes were submitted, with one minor change in resume content: Some had white-male names and some had traditionally African-American names. Those resumes with African-American names received far fewer calls for interviews. (The same experiment has been conducted with similar results but with male-specific vs female-specific names.)

In the end, our beliefs are actually less powerful than our assumptions in influencing our day-to-day behavior.

The Formation of Assumptions

How do these associations form? These are the ideas that get in under the radar. It's in the media, the daily interactions, how we talk about things—in short, in every way we hear stories. (As you'll remember from my first article in this series, these are all types of communication that use stories as a social building block.) In the case of social roles, the stories we're exposed to help us define a "type" of person, and help establish what roles each "type" is expected to fill.

When I met with Vendantam, we discussed Project Implicit and ways to counteract our own implicit associations. He discussed some studies done in this vein using the Project Implicit tests. Undermining the associations was simple, it turned out. Something as minor as having exposure to stories, ideas, or images that provide us with the target association could shift our results. Looking at a picture of a woman in business attire in a business setting could strengthen the association between women and business. Hearing the story of an African-American man who is kind, professional, and well-educated is enough to more strongly associate all African-American people with these positive traits.

The single most powerful example of story-telling as a mode for creating assumptions came from a test that was aimed at something entirely different.

The Accidental Discovery of Long-Term Priming

Carol Dweck's research on "self-theories" (dubbed "mindsets" in the popular literature) categorized people as being in a "fixed" or "growth" mindset: having a set of beliefs that viewed the "self" as a basically unchanging entity ("fixed mindset") or as a changing, growing entity ("growth mindset"). To test the impact of these mindsets on persistence, academic performance, and other target variables, Dweck primed participants to get into one of those mindsets.

How? In younger age groups, Dweck used a children's book that talked about famous people throughout history (like Einstein, for example). For older groups, she used the format of a news article. In both cases, the bulk of the content was identical: Only the conclusion sections differed. The "fixed" version of the children's book talked about how the famous people must have been innately skilled ("Einstein was a rare type of genius," etc.), while the "growth" version talked about how even these famous people had struggles and failures that helped them grow into the sort of people they were famous for being ("Einstein struggled with some of his classes," etc.).

The priming was effective for Dweck's test, but the secondary discovery is what I find to be truly compelling. The simple exposure to these different explanations in Dweck's priming stories was found to have a statistically significant impact on students six months after the original study.

Or, in layman's terms, stories are pretty damn powerful.

The Illusion of Invulnerability

I've talked a whole lot about research into unconscious beliefs, but I've managed to wiggle around directly supporting the original question of whether we can disempower things by taking them less seriously. Here I'll reach for yet another study (one of my favorites), this one looking at the impact of deceptive advertising.

The study found a significant negative correlation between the beliefs about how vulnerable one is to advertising and how vulnerable one actually is. In other words, those who believed they were influenced were less influenced, while those who believed themselves to be impervious were far more deeply swayed. As the published version of the study stated:

Far from being an effective shield, the illusion of invulnerability undermines the very response that would have supplied genuine protection.

(For more on this, check out the original article, "Dispelling the Illusion of Invulnerability: The Motivations and Mechanisms of Resistance to Persuasion.")

It may well be an intuitive response to think the appropriate way to disempower stories is to see them as less important. Here the truth has kicked our intuition right in the gazebo. The way to combat the influence of stories is to see them as important, to declare problematic beliefs as problematic, and to challenge the embedded "wheelbarrow" assumptions in every story we encounter—in the media, on the page, on the web, and in our everyday lives. The way to disempower dangerous beliefs isn't to dismiss them, but to pull them into the spotlight.

Want More?

I'm glad to be able to continue this series! The response to my original "Fiction Shmiction" article was encouraging, and more importantly, it was enough to let me justify doing a second article. I would love to write a third! Specifically, I want to tackle some of the difficult questions on how to approach writing when viewing it as an inherently political act. Do we portray the world as it is or as we idealize it? Is there a way out of that binary conception of the question? They're questions well worth unpackaging.

Before writing that article, though, I'd love to hear who among you would be interested. If you're game for one more round, please let me know in the comments, or by sharing, liking, or tweeting this article.




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postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words June 9, 2014 - 10:07am


great series. I still can't believe how fiction needs to be defended. Plato really got the ball rolling on that front.

In other trivia: Spanish and French (and likely a whole host of other languages) use the same word for "story" as for "history". So, what is the difference between those two words in English? How does having two words alter how we think about stories, facts, & fiction? Or does it?

I don't know..

cshultz81's picture
cshultz81 from Oklahoma is reading Best Horror of the Year Volume 8 June 9, 2014 - 11:33am

Awesome article, Robbie.

As to your question of whether fiction should reflect the real world, or an idealized world that reflects the author's personal beliefs: I think it should be both. Much of fiction, but particularly in the speculative field, posit "if, then" scenarios. In sci-fi, it could be "If we keep ignoring climate change, then we'll certainly live in a Waterworld" (sorry, terrible example). In horror, which taps into our modern-day fears, the "if, then" scenario usual emerges from the protagonist ignoring all the sinister warning signs, and meeting evil as a result. But unless were dealing with a hardcore cynic, there's always a way out, a means of correcting the damage done, be it finding a bit of land not submerged in water and preserving it (is that how Waterworld ended? I can't remember), or reciting the ancient magic words that will dispel the evil back to hell from whence it came. 

So, to recap, fiction should show us where we are, where we're going, and how to avoid terrible fates.

Sofia's picture
Sofia from London, UK is reading everything June 9, 2014 - 2:43pm

Very interested in seeing more.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list June 10, 2014 - 1:35am

Great follow up to the last article. I look forward to seeing your next installment.

CSolunar24's picture
CSolunar24 from Chicago is reading Mere Christianity June 10, 2014 - 12:39pm

Robbie Blair strikes again! I loved it! Definitely going to check out that Project Implicit. As counterintuitive as it may at first seem, only through a conscsious probing of of a belief/issue can one find the subtlites that are glaringly apparent when viewed from a different angle. Looking forward to more of these.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like June 11, 2014 - 9:31am

I like this sort of thing, but I was disappointed that you didn't respond to my questions on the first article. Perhaps you didn't see them. Perhaps you felt they were not worth responding to. Dunno.


RE: this one -- I'll start with this: The eye-opening riddle's setup and composition do not prohibit the reader from reasonably coming to the conclusion that their eyes are already open. "What is the first thing you open?" The present-tense question comes after a series of facts in the same tense. And how do you know it's your parents if you haven't opened your eyes and the door? There's no reason to conclude that the question asks 'What is the first thing you opened in the entire proceeding?' instead of 'What is the first thing you will open once you have reached this point in the proceeding?' Therefore, it's fallacious to say the reader is tricked into thinking they know what's going on, for the story itself (if it counts as a story) is too vague. Add to this the fact it doesn't refer to anything which is actually happening, and you lose the ground on which to claim there is a correct answer. The only ground you would have left would be authorial intent. And if the intent was to produce a riddle which undeniably (though indirectly) points to or leads to its solution, then the riddle is a failure.

Fiction meant for its own purposes (or created its own sake) works differently from a riddle with a solution in that there is no answer to it in the way there is potentially an answer to a question. Reader response (no matter how complicated and significant) to a bit of art or literature is not the same as an answer to a question or riddle.

Larawe's picture
Larawe September 15, 2014 - 1:46pm

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