When can Fiction Change the World?

by Timothy Underwood11 min read24th Aug 202018 comments

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Fiction (Topic)Effective AltruismAliefWorld OptimizationCommunity
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I suspect that a nontrivial percentage of the people reading this became involved with the community because of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

So to the extent that those who were drawn to join the community because of that source are making the world a better place, we have at least one clear example of a novel having an important impact

I’ve made a living through self publishing novels for the last five years (specifically Pride and Prejudice variations, that is Jane Austen fan fiction). Recently inspired by conversations at EA Virtual and worries made more emotionally salient by GTP-3 examples, I decided that I wanted to put part of my professional time towards writing novels that might have a positive impact on conversations around AI.

As part of this I did some thinking about when fiction seemed to exert an influence on public policy, and then I looked for academic research on the subject, and I think there are people in the community who will find this write up about the subject interesting and useful.

Theoretical Model

I identified four common mechanisms that seemed to be involved when fiction had a large impact on opinions. This is not an exhaustive list, and there is some overlap and fuzziness around the boundary of each concept.

Radicalizing the already convinced:

A classic example is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel about a slave unjustly suffering written in the 1850s that was credited with helping to spark the Civil War. Uncle Tom’s Cabin did not introduce anyone to the idea that slavery was bad, or convince anyone who thought that slavery was a fine peculiar Southern institution that it was actually evil. However it seems to have radicalized Northern attitudes towards slavery, and it was part of the moment when enough one issue voters on slavery existed that the party system broke down and allowed the new abolitionist Republican party to win congress and the presidency in 1860.

Research has been done via surveys to find out if readers of popular novels about climate change have changed their views about climate change relative to similar readers who did not read any of them. Concerned readers become alarmed by climate change after reading, and those who were aware but not concerned become concerned. However, readers who think that climate change is a hoax usually don’t read ‘Cli-fi’ and when they do read it, their opinions are not changed. (Schneider-Mayerson, M. 2018 and 2020)

Evoking empathy for new groups:

Uncle Tom’s Cabin succeeded at radicalizing northerners by making them care about the fate of a particular southern slave. LGBTQ representation in media drive viewers to care about gay characters, and see them as normal human beings who deserve to have the same chances for happiness as anyone else. In the 1970s and 80s The Jeffersons and The Cosby Show helped convince white Americans that black Americans could be successful, intelligent and well dressed citizens.

Some of the research in cultivation theory specifically shows that heavy TV watchers as a group changed their opinions on minorities far more than the general public as positive representations of these groups became common.

On the other hand, negative representations can exist. For example anti semetic stories in which the long-nosed Jewish banker mistreats a poor person. Or media which portrays minority Americans as dangerous and violent. West German attitudes towards the Holocaust were substantially changed when a quarter of the viewing population watched the Holocaust miniseries in the seventies, and this likely contributed to passing laws that supported extraditions of more war criminals to Isreal.

Exposure to New Points of View:

After reading Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, the president at the time, Teddy Roosevelt supposedly stared at his morning sausage and was unable to stomach the possibility of human body parts being in it. The rest of the public was equally horrified by the prospect of tainted meat, and within a year the act establishing the FDA was made.

Methods of Rationality exposed many of its readers to a way of thinking about the world that they’d never seen and that they found highly engaging. When I read Atlas Shrugged as a teenager who was trying to decide if he thought God existed, I saw for the first time an expression of intellectually satisfied atheists who were confident in living and being happy living without believing that God existed. Supposedly many of the people who laid the foundation for the science of robotics were inspired by reading Isaac Asimov’s Robots series.

Community Building:

The science fiction community created a space for people interested in engineering and technology to meet each other informally in the early part of the century. Atlas Shrugged recruited people to join objectivist circles. The Less Wrong community recruited probably half its current population from people who loved Methods of Rationality.

A paper about fiction influencing international relations argued that the Left Behind novels were part of the structure that maintained unity amongst Christian Evangelicals during George W Bush’s presidency. (Musgrave)

How attitudinal changes lead to real world changes

Influencing specific important individuals:

Ronald Reagan became more opposed to nuclear weapons after watching The Day After. Scientists who started the field of robotics read Asimov. Paul Ryan and Alan Greenspan are huge fans of Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged. Many of us are here because we liked Methods of Rationality. Often specific influential individuals then cause major changes because they were influenced to do so by reading a specific book or watching a specific movie.

Supporting a mass movement:

Uncle Tom’s cabin radicalized Northern abolitionist attitudes, and was part of the process that led to the Republican party. Radicalizing environmentalists via cli-fi possibly has led to groups like Extinction Rebellion and enthusiasm for buying Teslas. Anti-war films reduced political willingness to keep troops in Vietnam and Iraq. Nuclear apocalypse films increased political support for the Test Ban Treaty. Global warming films are definitely part of why the public in most countries supports things like the Paris Agreement, or why California passed a cap and trade policy. LGBTQ rights and civil rights are more likely to get friendly supreme court rulings, friendly company hiring practices, etc because they are popular, which is partly because of media representations.

How does fiction change attitudes?

Transportation theory; synthetic experiences and aliefs:

The brain doesn’t fully treat fictional evidence differently, and fiction gives a veneer of the real and specific to ideas that before were just general and abstract.

Professor Paul Bloom at Yale describes this phenomenon as fiction creating ‘aliefs’, where the emotional portion of our brain responds to things that are not real as though they were. For example most atheists are unwilling to sign a contract selling their soul to the devil, which Bloom interprets as being an example of part of the brain treating the fictional entity as real. However, as we all know the real world is theoretically over determined, and refusing to take twenty dollars to sell your soul to the devil might be a reasonable response in a case of potentially infinite stakes with trivial residual uncertainty.

Feeling deeply transported into a different world in a key part of fiction’s appeal, and it seems to be an important part of how fiction can make people treat fictional examples as though they were concrete and real. (Busselle 2009)

A research manipulation to make readers feel more emotionally engaged before exposing them to a story changed how believable they found it, while changing whether a story was labelled as fiction based on a true story, or a true story did not.

Cli-fi readers talked about now feeling like climate change would actually happen to actual people. This led to increased radicalization as they had a sense of connection to this future. Having characters who the readers could identify with acting in familiar settings that create a sense of place and being a real location may have been what drove that success. (Schneider-Mayerson 2018)

Fiction influences readers by making the problem seem more real, creating a feeling of emotional verisimilitude and plausibility, and making the problem seem vivid and concrete.

Lesson for EA writers: Someone, possibly Mark Twain, said that you need to give your readers two familiar things for every strange idea you introduce. If you want to get at a broader audience (not necessarily a mass audience!) to be moved by your book, try to make sure you actually hit that target.

Cultivation theory:

According to this model, people think the world is like the media they are repeatedly exposed to. As a result people who watch lots of TV think there is more crime and that more people are lawyers than people who don’t watch very much TV. They also like minorities and LGBTQ groups as well today as low TV watchers, after decades of positive media representation of those groups. However in the early surveys before this representation happened, high TV watchers were more bigotted against minority groups. (Mosharafa 2015)

A Harvard professor convinced lots of TV shows to insert designated drivers into episodes where the group went to a party and got drunk as part of the public safety campaign. Given how much money different companies pay to have people be seen in movies drinking Pepsi while flying somewhere on Southwest, after they paid with a Chase credit card, we can assume that ideological product placement probably has some impact.

Maybe we could try to convince screenwriters to look for a chance to get their characters to be mentioned doing EA type things, like donating a regular percentage of their money to extreme poverty reduction, or talking about impact evaluations after mentioning they’ve donated to something.

Audiences will reject and resist ideas that disagree with their preexisting assumptions. They also will draw lessons and meanings from fiction that are congruent with what they already believed.

Example: After reading a cli-fi novel where a PoV character betrays and murders another PoV character at the very end of the novel, conservative and moderate readers drew the lesson from the book that you can’t trust anyone, and that you need to be grateful for the little things in life. They also tended to identify with the ruthless and initially amoral rich male character, rather than the middle class activist/journalist or the poor Latina immigrant. (Schneider-Mayerson 2020)

Example: Teenagers and children make fun of media that is obviously trying to convince them to act in a way that adults would like them to, for example anti-drug messages in shows for teenagers seem to have had a very limited effect, especially when the ‘facts’ in the message are broadly believed to be false.

Example: Tom Clancy’s influence on the Republican policy elite was much smaller during the George W Bush presidency when the use of preemptive wars that he thought were a bad idea had become the preferred elite policy. (Musgrove)

What goes wrong?

Democracy counts numbers not intensity

If the radicalized people simply become more passionate members of a blocked political coalition, it doesn’t do anything. There needs to be a way to transmit the increased passion for the subject into an actual change. Movements like the Extinction Rebellion are reflections of the way that the blocked political coalition in favor of stronger climate policies is now engaging in civil disobedience because it is clear that they are not going to be able to directly achieve the policy victories they view as desperately important through purely democratic processes.

Attitudinal changes are temporary:

A group of psychology freshmen were assigned to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and compared to a group of freshmen who weren’t assigned to read it. Their attitudes right after they read the book were changed in the direction of the book compared to the control group, but after a year’s time their opinions had mostly returned to what the control group thought. (Hormes et al 2013)

Books generally do not convert opponents:

Southern slave owners did not generally read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and if they did, they wrote thought it was an unrealistic and dishonest portrayal of slavery instead of deciding that slavery must be ended. Climate change hoaxers do not generally read cli-fi novels, and when they do, they say that the climate change scenario portrayed was unrealistic.

The Left Behind novels may have tied together Evangelicals in the conservative political coalition, but nobody who wasn’t an evangelical Christian had the slightest interest in reading them. The framework of the argument in a book must match the presuppositions of the audience (Musgrave).

The changes in attitude that come with fiction often depend on the reader not having much personal experience with the situation. In the case of events that are common in media, but uncommon in personal life, people will automatically recall media examples of the situation, for example murder trials, chemical explosions or international spy rings. But if you ask them to recall an event that is both common in real life and in media, such as dates or highway accidents, they automatically think of their own experiences or those of friends (Busselle 2003).

Southerners had many personal experiences with slavery that would have dominated fictional portrayals in how they thought about it. AI researchers have daily personal experience with AI being extremely dumb and not suddenly destroying the world.

Lesson for EA writers: People who disagree with the model of the world they think is expressed by your book probably won’t read it. If they do read the book, they will be in a ‘am I allowed to disbelieve this’ mindset, rather than trying to figure out if it is actually true. So be aware of what ideas will feel strange and might create resistance in your desired audience and either figure out a way to make your argument so that it follows logically from their existing presuppositions, or figure out a way to market your book to an audience that shares your presuppositions or is undecided on them.

Example: The Day After was an explicitly non partisan film designed to simply show ordinary Americans being ordinary and then dying because of the nuclear exchange. The Republican establishment that controlled the presidency at the time did not need to react to the movie as a partisan attack, but as expressing authentic concerns.

Backlash:

Fictional portrayals of effective torture provoked extensive debate and elite backlash arguing against the portrayal, and thus the effect of these scenes on the support for torture was at best ambiguous, and likely null. (Payne)

But despite the response, did this portrayal possibly legitimize, or give a platform for the idea that torture could be a wothy tool in extreme situations, and thus even though the public debate did not fully support the idea, it still became more popular and legitimate?

My suspicion is that this effect was negligible. The idea that torture might be effective and legitimate to use in extreme circumstances already existed. I remember as a teenager spontaneously thinking about torturing terrorists as probably being useful on the morning of Sept 11, 2001. It is a natural idea for people to have.

Media that showed effective torture reflected this pre-existing belief. Possibly the belief could have been delegitimized in the way racism was delegitimized after the 60s by showing that it had no political or social power, but simply not speaking about the possibility of torture being effective would not have done that. The idea did in fact have political power and was believed by many elites in the party holding the presidency and congress.

Most likely the net effect of 24 cinematically displaying effective torture was zero.

However, fictional representations may be part of how particular policies change from polarized to bipartisan over time. For example the military preparedness policies promoted by a story about an invasion of Britain by Germany written in 1871 were strongly disliked by the Liberals who were in power at that time, but twenty years later, military preparedness against the chance of an invasion was funded with bipartisan support (Kirkwood 2012).

Lesson for EA authors: Be aware of pushing against an established opposition. If you can’t undercut the coalition against your preferred policy, you probably will achieve very little. Robin Hanson’s political orthogonality thesis, the idea that you will be most effective at pulling the debate in a direction without an established opposition is relevant here.

Depressing people too much to act

As they are focused on disasters, often cli-fi books create intense negative affect, depression, and a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. This can lead people to paradoxically act less. (Schneider-Mayerson 2018)

Conclusion:

Audiences have a sophisticated response to what they read. They will notice the things that aren’t said or even considered in the books they read. If it is clear that a book is trying to promote a particular political point of view, many readers will strongly discount the intended message. They will also spontaneously come up with objections to arguments that do not feel correct to them.

For change to happen it does not only need to change opinions, there needs to be a way for the changed opinion to be turned into action.

Simply radicalizing people doesn’t matter without a path for change.

This especially true if there is a blocking coalition that is unaffected by the attitudinal change. Uncle Tom’s Cabin mattered because the North had enough people to politically dominate the country, and because the South delegitimized itself in Northern eyes by seceding.

In many cases politically motivated fiction that successfully radicalized those who consumed it probably did very little:

For example, Climate change fiction will only matter in the long run if it weakens the power of the blocking coalition (since the supporting coalition will act whenever it is in power anyways). And it doesn’t seem to weaken the blocking coalition directly.

Possibly, despite the failure of the broader coalition, cli-fi books are actually making an important contribution by intensifying the salience of climate change in the supportive political coalition. Climate change is viewed as an extremely important issue outside of the US, and one of the political coalitions in the US is dedicated to pushing forward climate policies. An Inconvenient Truth and The Day After Tomorrow and cli-fi novels are plausibly why the US might someday pass strong climate change policies, and why California and Germany already have.

In cases where the goal is for small numbers of people to engage in intense efforts by donating substantial amounts of money or of changing their professional plans, radicalizing a few people is probably more valuable than convincing a majority to vote differently. Democratic political majorities require broad, but shallow, agreement. Deep engagement by narrow communities might improve AI safety norms, expand the use of randomized control trials in global poverty reduction research, or fund charities that give poor American inmates bail money

Finally: Highly successful changes can take a long time to become real.

The laws against debtor’s prison and child labor that Charles Dickens promoted were passed over decades. The scientists who attribute their interest in robotics to Isaac Asimov’s only started making substantial progress decades after the first stories were published. To the extent that Ayn Rand’s novels have led to any concrete policy changes, it has taken a long time, and those policy changes were not large.

Rick Busselle & Helena Bilandzic (2009) Measuring Narrative Engagement, Media Psychology, 12:4, 321-347

Rick W. Busselle & L. J. Shrum (2003) Media Exposure and Exemplar Accessibility, Media Psychology, 5:3, 255-282

Jenny Kitzinger, (2009) Questioning the sci-fi alibi: a critique of how ‘science fiction fears’ are used to explain away public concerns about risk. Journal of Risk Research

Paul Musgrave, J. Furman Daniel. Working Paper on Fiction and International Relations Theory

Schneider-Mayerson, M. (2018). The Influence of Climate Fiction: An Empirical Survey of Readers. Environmental Humanities, 10(2), 473–500.

Schneider-Mayerson, M. (2020). "Just as in the Book"? The Influence of Literature on Readers' Awareness of Climate Injustice and Perception of Climate Migrants. ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment.

Eman Mosharafa, (2015) All you Need to Know About: The Cultivation Theory, www.researchgate.net/publication/337077784_All_you_Need_to_Know_About_The_Cultivation_Theory

Rodger A. Payne, Popular Culture and Public Deliberation about Torture

Hormes JM, Rozin P, Green MC and Fincher K (2013) Reading a book can change your mind, but only some changes last for a year: food attitude changes in readers of The Omnivore's Dilemma. Front. Psychol. 4:778. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00778 www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00778/full

Kirkwood, P. M. (2012). The Impact of Fiction on Public Debate in Late Victorian Britain: The Battle of Dorking and the "Lost Career" of Sir George Tomkyns Chesney (Fall 2012). Graduate History Review.

https://www.vox.com/2014/9/1/5998571/why-anti-drug-campaigns-like-dare-fail

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/designated-driver-campaig_b_405249\

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