Paul Bloom raises a fascinating question in his recent essay The Pleasures of Imagination: Do we enjoy imaginative experiences because at some level we don’t distinguish them from real ones?
Bloom’s question makes me wonder about the way politicians harness the imaginative techniques of fiction to build support. Do we sometimes suspend disbelief for a leader with a particularly engaging story?
"The emotions triggered by fiction are very real" according to Bloom. "When Charles Dickens wrote about the death of Little Nell in the 1840s, people wept—and I’m sure that the death of characters in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series led to similar tears."
And not only do people respond emotionally to fictional events much the same way they respond to real life events, but fictional narratives can change a person’s beliefs about the real world. Psychologist Melanie Green argues that the fact-fiction distinction is overstated. In a series of experiments she and her colleagues have shown how narratives can change attitudes and opinions — even when subjects explicitly told they are fictional.
Bloom observes that "real events are typically more moving than their fictional counterparts" but:
… while reality has its special allure, the imaginative techniques of books, plays, movies, and television have their own power. The good thing is that we do not have to choose. We can get the best of both worlds by taking an event that people know is real and using the techniques of the imagination to transform it into an experience that is more interesting and powerful than the normal perception of reality could ever be.
As examples, Bloom suggests reality TV programs like The Real World, Survivor, The Amazing Race, and Fear Factor. But I can’t help thinking of American presidents. Ronald Reagan was a talented and engaging story teller. According to his biographer Lou Cannon, Reagan exasperated campaign aides by telling stories that turned out to be unverifiable or demonstrably wrong.
Reagan’s supporters have mostly forgiven him. For example, Reagan’s famous anecdote about a Cadillac driving "welfare queen" turned out to be a heavily exaggerated account spun out two real life cases. But according to Ross Douthat, the Gipper was just using a story "to get at the underlying reality of an easily-abused welfare system".
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argues that George W Bush also relied on dubious anecdotes to make a point. "Like President Ronald Reagan, reality to him is not about facts, but about higher meta-truths" says Kristof. Kristof uses Bush’s tale of a lost stuffed animal to illustrate his point.
In the dying days of Bush senior’s presidency, Vice President Dan Quayle severed any connection to fact when he attacked fictional TV character Murphy Brown for "mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘life-style choice.’ "
Now Reason’s Matt Welch accuses President Obama of engaging in make-believe stories in order to score political points.
But if the psychologists are right, maybe supporters don’t really if the stories are made up. If they approve of the message, they’re prepared to cut their candidate some slack. And maybe some voters don’t mind if the candidate themselves starts to resemble a fictional character.