Melissa’s list of unfinished pieces sounds so reasonable! Mine include (I kid you not): *A book about a group of teen models who, due to a mystical mishap during a fashion show, end up stranded on an eighteenth century pirate ship. (Seriously. I wrote 25,000 words on this before I realized it was CRAZY). *A book about a girl who gets vision of the future, but only when she’s dancing. (She’s not a dancer! She’s a danseer! As in a seer!) *A book that my good friend Sarah Cross used to refer to as the Magic Swordfish book. (I actually finished this one, but was never quite happy with it and so did nothing with it. It involved immortals and grim reapers. And a swordfish, obviously). *A dystopian about a post-nuclear world in which a puritanical cult of vampires lives in the ruins of what used to be Yale. All of these, I might add, were written well after the publication of my first book… We will not speak of the bits and sundries written PRIOR to that…
After hours of revision, my eyes are fuzzy, so I was poking around my “incomplete_or_old” files. I ended up in one of the usual distractions: a 50,000 word children’s novel that I start revising every so often for fun. I have a version of it re-started as a YA, one where it’s modern, one where…
Anonymous asked: Are you turning The Naturals into a series? I would love to hear about more cases and Cassie's relationships with both Dean and Michael.
Yes! Book 2, KILLER INSTINCT, is due out in November. And the case will bring Cassie face to face with DEAN’S DAD.
an-introduction-to-fandom asked: Hi, I saw your post about parasocial relationships, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about what you do for your day job? All of this new research is fascinating to me, and I would love to know how you got involved!
I’m an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma. There are two basic components to my job—teaching and research. I teach four classes each year: two are psychology classes, one is a professional writing class (Writing Young Adult Fiction), and one is an honors seminar called The Cognitive Science of Fiction, which brings together research and discourse from a variety of different disciplines to ask big questions about the science of fiction and why we like it. We read a lot of philosophy in that class (Aristotle and Hume, they had lots of thoughts on fiction!), plus psychology, media studies, literary criticism, and more. In general, the class challenges students to think about how we can use the scientific method to design studies that ask big questions about why people like fiction, how we interact with it, and what kinds of effects engaging with fiction might subsequently have on the way we view the world and our real-world biases, beliefs, and cognitive abilities.
The reason I chose to teach a class on the Cognitive Science of Fiction, when the university told me that I could teach any class I wanted for my honors seminar, is that it is my area of research (and also a huge passion!). As a psychology professor, in addition to teaching, I actually conduct research experiments. The way this usually works is that I will develop a question—based on prior research, or my own observations, or questions people are raising in the publishing industry—and then I brainstorm different answers to that question and design a method that will allow me to distinguish between those different answers. And then once I get the answers, I often discover that my gut instinct was wrong, and I revise my theory, and use the new theory to generate a question, and test it all over again!
So, for example, in my lab currently we’re doing a ton of different experiments. Some of them are online (some of you may have even participated in them, if you follow me on twitter), while others take place in my lab. One of the lab studies we’re doing right now is on what they call the “paradox of tragedy,” which is basically says (1) people avoid negative emotions like sadness, (2) tragic fictional stories make people feel sad, and (3) people seek out tragic fictional stories. To get out of the paradox, you presumably have to deny one of the three premises. But which one do you deny?
Philosophers have argued about this for a very long time (hello, Aristotle! Hello, Hume!), but in my lab, we’re exploring one class of answers to this question, which depends on meta-emotions, or how you feel about how you feel. Basically, we’re looking at whether people feel good about themselves for feeling sad, and whether you can push around liking for tragedy by making people feel guilty beforehand.
My lab also does a variety of other research on topics like: what is the cognitive profile of the professional fiction writer and how do they differ from non-writers and from voracious readers; how do we become attached to fictional characters and how intense are these attachments; what can fanfiction tell us about the cognitive science of fiction and why people like stories; how does fictional morality differ from real-world morality; how does reading fiction versus nonfiction differentially affect our abilities to read social and nonsocial situations? And MORE.
Basically, I have the freedom to research whatever I find interesting, and I find the way we interact with fictional worlds to be fascinating. The awesome thing about being involved in psychological research is that there is a psychology of EVERYTHING. If there are people involved, there is psychology involved. So I have been able to combine my passion for fiction and my experiences as a YA writer with my academic research.
As for how I got started, I first got into psychology research as an undergraduate. Freshman year, a friend talked me into going to work in the “monkey lab,” which studied how monkey cognition was similar to and different from human cognition. Mostly, I wanted to play with monkeys. And spend summers on Monkey Island, off the coast of puerto rico. But I got addicted to what I consider the very core of scientific research to be: asking questions and systematically testing answers. I am constantly surprised by the way research turns out, but that is why research is so important! Because some of the things we assume are true are not true, and research helps us find answers and—above all—use those answers to create even MORE QUESTIONS.
So, long story short, I got involved with designing experiments and also started volunteering in other research labs, too. I took a class on the Cognitive Science of Fiction, taught by Paul Bloom, who later became my PhD advisor, and got super interested in the topic. Then after I graduated (with a degree in cognitive science), I went and did a one-year research-based masters at Cambridge, where I did autism research. My advisor there was super supportive and suggested I do something on fiction and autism. So I did. And then I did some more research on that topic. And then I came back to the states and did a Ph.D. in developmental psychology. My dissertation was on how kids’ story preferences and adults’ story preferences are affected by the social content in the stories, among other things.
So basically, I lucked into finding a field I love because I was blessed to work with some very passionate professors when I was an undergraduate. And now I am a very passionate professor who works with undergraduate and graduate students to do research on fiction and stories and storytelling.
thunderchikin asked: Jen--Can you post the references to the studies you mentioned? I would like to read them in comparison to the work JL Derrick has done on low self-esteem and addiction.DG
Several of the studies mentioned are in fact by JL Derrick!
References (if you follow the links in the prior entry, they will take you to either abstracts or pdfs of the articles):
Gardner, W. L., & Knowles, M. L. (2008). Love makes you real: Favorite television characters are perceived as “real” in a social facilitation paradigm. Social Cognition, 26(2), 156-168.
Derrick, J. L., Gabriel, S., & Tippin, B. (2008). Parasocial relationships and self‐discrepancies: Faux relationships have benefits for low self‐esteem individuals. Personal relationships, 15(2), 261-280.
Derrick, J. L., Gabriel, S., & Hugenberg, K. (2009). Social surrogacy: How favored television programs provide the experience of belonging. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(2), 352-362.
Eyal, K., & Cohen, J. (2006). When good friends say goodbye: A parasocial breakup study. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 50(3), 502-523.
Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342(6156), 377-380.
Fong, K., Mullin, J. B., & Mar, R. A. (2013). What you read matters: The role of fiction genre in predicting interpersonal sensitivity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7(4), 370.
Gabriel, S., & Young, A. F. (2011). Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten The Narrative Collective-Assimilation Hypothesis. Psychological science,22(8), 990-994.
Derrick, J. L. (2013). Energized by Television Familiar Fictional Worlds Restore Self-Control. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(3), 299-307.
Zunshine, L. (2006). Why we read fiction: Theory of mind and the novel. Ohio State University Press.
Zunshine, L. (2008). Theory of mind and fictions of embodied transparency.Narrative, 16(1), 65-92.
Mar, R. A., & Oatley, K. (2008). The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience. Perspectives on psychological science, 3(3), 173-192.
Johnson, D. R. (2012). Transportation into a story increases empathy, prosocial behavior, and perceptual bias toward fearful expressions. Personality and Individual Differences, 52(2), 150-155.
Sestir, M., & Green, M. C. (2010). You are who you watch: Identification and transportation effects on temporary self-concept. Social Influence, 5(4), 272-288.
De Backer, C. J. (2012). Blinded by the starlight: An evolutionary framework for studying celebrity culture and fandom. Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 144.
Young, A. F., Gabriel, S., & Hollar, J. L. (2013). Batman to the rescue! The protective effects of parasocial relationships with muscular superheroes on men’s body image. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(1), 173-177.
Sarah Rees Brennan has a new post up about her experiences (some of them heart-breaking) as a now-published author who used to write fanfiction. It’s well worth a read, especially for the way it highlights the role that gender may play in these issues.
What this post made me think about is the parallel between the way we view and understand fictional characters and the way we view and understand real people that we do not actually know. There’s a long tradition of research in media studies on what they call “parasocial relationships,” which are one-sided relationships formed with (for example) TV personalities, fictional characters, or celebrities. The basic idea is that it’s easy to fool our brains into thinking we know someone. If you see someone a lot—on television, in magazines, or even just on your twitter feed—of course you start to feel like you know that person. In the course of our evolutionary history, if you saw or heard someone that often, you almost certainly did know them.
But that’s not the case in the modern world. And that’s where you get parasocial relationships, which are, by definition, one-sided. Spend enough time reading interviews with Jennifer Lawrence or read enough celebrity gossip about Taylor Swift, and you start to feel like you really know them. It’s one-sided because they do not know you.
Interestingly, social scientists have long-argued that the parasocial relationships we have with real people we do not actually know operate very similarly to the relationships we have with fictional characters. And both of the above parallel our actual two-sided, real-world relationships in a variety of interesting ways. For example, seeing a picture of a favorite fictional character can have what they call “social facilitation effects,” which we would normally see if you were in the presence of a friend. Being primed with your favorite celebrity (and/or character) increase self esteem and can make you feel a sense of belonging. When a favorite show is cancelled, the resulting emotional distress can look a lot like a break-up.
Long story short, there is a ton of super interesting research that documents a tendency to view fictional characters and real people we don’t know (like celebrities) much like we view real people who we actually know. This can be wonderful! Oh, the fictional friends I have made! But this tendency also has the potential to come with a variety of side-effects, because while fiction is often purposefully written to make certain we know tons of stuff about the personalities, backgrounds, inner workings, flaws, strengths, moral status, and emotional cores of the characters on the page, this is not true of parasocial interactions with real people. When your brain tricks you into thinking that you really know a fictional character, there are many ways in which that is true. But when real people are involved?
It’s not true. It’s not true at all.
In my day job, I study the science of fiction and why we like stories and what the cognitive effects of engaging with fictional characters and fictional worlds might be. In this field, we’re starting to see evidence that reading fiction might improve (or otherwise be related to) the ability to get inside other people’s heads: to read their emotions, and understand what they think and believe so forth. People like Lisa Zunshine and Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley have all kinds of wonderful papers (and books!) on this relationship between spending time with fictional characters and being able to read real people.
How does this work? It’s early days, still, so we don’t really know. But what does seem to be true is that fiction often gives us a front row seat to people’s emotions and relationships and thoughts and beliefs and desires in a way that reality usually does not. In the real world, you might infer, based on the fact that someone bolts in the middle of their father’s funeral, that they are upset or overwhelmed. You might even feel like you know that. But in fiction, you often do know it—you see the before and the after and the moment when the character lets him/herself break down because there is no one there to see it.
But in reality? We don’t have this kind of access. In life, there is no author or director making sure we have the information we need to have in order to understand the “characters.” As a result, in the real world, we only perceive ourselves as knowing what other people are thinking and feeling. We make inferences based on behavioral cues, but we have no direct access to their minds. Oftentimes, we can guess and guess well, but it’s always that… a guess.
What does all of this have to do with Sarah’s post?
I think that a lot of the negative experiences that Sarah talks about female authors (specifically those who used to write fanfic) having are the result of people feeling like they know things that they could not possibly know. Like what an author was thinking when they wrote XYZ character, or what the author’s intention was when they did/said that one thing, or why Author X is friends with Author Y.
In fiction, you frequently (though not always) have the access you need to make conclusions about characters’ mental states and motivations with a high level of certainty. Most of the time in reality, you do not—especially if the people you’re attributing mental states and intentions and dispositions to are people you do not actually know, people you are watching from afar.
Reading Sarah’s post made me wonder if those of us who engage with fiction frequently and passionately and, yes, through fandom, writing stories and daydreaming about characters and diagnosing their motivations—I wonder if that level of engagement could potentially have very real cognitive effects on us, beyond what has already been studied. On the one hand, that kind of engagement might actually make us better at understanding people. But at the same time, I think it quite possibly increases our perceptions of how good we are at doing that, beyond what is actually possible. Regular engagement with fiction—particularly active engagement through fandom—might fool us into thinking, even more than people who are less engaged with fiction, that we really, truly know what other people are thinking or intending and who they are deep down.
Might we get into the habit of telling ourselves stories about real people’s motivations, the same way that fandom thinks about and expands on the inner lives of the characters in the books and television shows we love? And might this trick us, in real-world settings, into forgetting that these stories, in our minds, about these people who are REAL—are not real themselves?
The stories we tell ourselves are just that—stories. They are, at best, guesses, and often, they’re not very good ones. We do not have special access to another person’s thoughts or emotions, no matter how much we’ve read about them. We do not “really know” them better than the people they are close to in real life. It is not in any way rational to think that, based on your familiarity with someone’s writing or twitter feed or something you were peripherally involved with ten years ago, you have superior knowledge of that person’s current mental states, emotions, personality, and moral proclivities than do people who currently hang out with that person on a daily basis.
And yet, this happens. It happens all the time. We judge people not just on their actions, but on the stories we tell ourselves about those actions, not just on their work, but on the stories we tell ourselves about how we think that work came to be. And there are very real reasons to think that the people who might be most prone to this feeling—that we really know someone, that we understand their intentions and emotions and motivations and inspirations—are those of us who spend the most time in fictional worlds, with fictional characters, telling ourselves stories about them.
This is what I was thinking when I read Sarah’s blog entry. I was thinking about parasocial relationships and the way we perceive mental states and how fiction can fool you into thinking those perceptions are more than guesses. I was thinking about the way that gender almost certainly plays a role in what those guesses end up being. And I was thinking that it would probably do a world of good if we made more of an active effort to remind ourselves of all the things we don’t know.