Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Effect of Fiction on Self-Regard

The relationship between reading fiction and ethics is a complex one. There is good evidence that reading fiction itself increases empathy and thus expands one's moral sphere. The more complex the work, the more liberalized one's thinking is, in fact.

But what about content? Does content matter? Do we have to read "moral content" to better develop our morals? Must we avoid "immoral content" to avoid degrading our morals?

A recent study of the effects of reading Fifty Shades of Gray on young women suggests "immoral content" may in fact have a negative effect on life choices.Amy Bonomi, the study's lead researcher, reports that there is a positive correlation between women reading Fifty Shades of Gray and having eating disorders and being in abusive relationships. Of course, having a positive correlation does not mean we have causation demonstrated, and she does point out that we don't know if such women are more likely to read the book or if the book is influencing behavior, so there are still many questions we need answered in this study.

It is certainly possible, for example, that women who have eating disorders and are in abusive relationships (or are prone to such) are attracted to literature that seems to confirm their world view. Most of us are not comfortable with the fact that there are people whose world view is such that they believe abuse -- whether at their own hands or at the hands of others -- is desirable, but it is clear there are such people who hold such a world view. It does not seem likely that a book is going to influence someone who is not otherwise prone to seeking out abuse toward themselves to pick up such behaviors. I don't believe people are that weak-minded that a single book could have such an influence. More likely is self-selection.

Of course, self-selection means reenforcing one's world view and the behaviors associated with that world view. We all like confirmation that what we are doing is "normal." And finding one other person -- even a fictional person -- who is okay with that world view can make one feel more normal.

For example, I'm a big fan of Big Bang Theory. I watch it almost every day in reruns. The characters in many ways reenforce my own behaviors and world view. I probably relate to Sheldon Cooper the most -- probably because he is written such that he probably has Asperger's. However, I like Leonard the most -- probably because he puts up with Sheldon's behaviors (and we all need a friend like that). The show is comforting because it reenforces my world view.

On the other hand, I am quite fascinated by House of Cards. If there is any show with characters who are the complete opposite of me, it is House of Cards. Especially Frank Underwood. Everything is strategy, and for me everything is analysis. I don't do strategy well. It is almost painful to strategize, and I'm mentally exhausted when I have to do so. The show actually helps me with some of the areas I need to develop. Certainly one should not go as far as Underwood, but his general ways of thinking are a corrective to my extreme at the other extreme way of thinking.

Now, is it possible that a hyper-strategic thinker might become a calculating murderer by watching House of Cards? It doesn't seem likely. More likely is that hyper-strategic thinkers will be attracted to House of Cards as a show that confirms their world view.

In any case, the relation between fiction and morals is complex. The relation between the content of fiction and morals is hardly straightforward, but I would venture to guess that the long-term effects of reading fiction is on balance a benefit to one's expanding moral sphere. But the relationship between fiction and the way one treats oneself and the way one thinks one ought to be treated is something that needs to be investigated in more detail.
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