The Impact of Fiction on Evaluative Attitudes

Philosophy Department of the University of Geneva
Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences


Project leaders: Julien Deonna, Patrizia Lombardo, Sophie Schwartz, Fabrice Teroni

Project members: Florian Cova, Amanda Garcia

1. Overview

The relation between fiction and imagination has been a rich topic of philosophical research ever since the publication of Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe (1990), where he argues that what is fictional is what the audience has to imagine or make-believe. This philosophical claim raises a number of questions, among which those regarding the nature of our evaluative, and more specifically affective, attitudes to fiction are prominent: for instance, given that these attitudes are apparently based on imaginings rather than beliefs, are they genuine emotions (Davies 2009)?

These philosophical debates involve some empirical claims that can be tested. The goal of this interdisciplinary project is to test and discuss some of these claims. On the theoretical plan, we will work on showing the importance and consequences of these empirical claims for the philosophical debates mentioned above.

We expect to publish theoretical papers on the issues mentioned, as well as interdisciplinary papers related to the experiments that will be carried out.

2. Research Plan

We shall approach the issue of the relations between fiction and (emotional and non-emotional) evaluative attitudes from two different perspectives: 1. Our attitudes towards fiction; and 2. The way fiction shapes our attitudes towards the real world.

2.1. Evaluative attitudes directed towards the fictional world


When we engage with fiction, our imaginings typically trigger evaluative (e.g., ‘Edmond Dantès was unjustly imprisoned’) and affective attitudes (e.g., apparent pity for Edmond Dantès). We know, however, that evaluations are susceptible to imaginative resistance. Some philosophers even hypothesize that evaluative judgements made in imagination must be consistent with those we make in the actual world (Reboul 2011). In addition, there also exists a sort of emotional resistance, which manifests itself when we seem unwilling or unable to undergo the affective attitude the author intends (e.g., failing to be amused by a joke). Investigation of this sort of resistance is also important, since it may teach us important lessons regarding the way fiction elicits (affective and non-affective) evaluative attitudes. To tackle the issues raised by these intriguing phenomena, we need a deeper understanding of the factors that shape emotional reactions to fiction.

Affective reactions to fictions also raise interesting issues regarding their appropriateness. Because they are based on imaginings rather than beliefs, some philosophers have wondered whether they really are emotions (Radford 1975). Yet, whether or not they qualify, these affective reactions clearly have appropriateness conditions. What are these conditions? Do they differ from those of affective reactions to acquaintances and to nonfictional works (Livingston & Mele 1997)? Which consequences does the perspective on events promoted by the author have in these respects (Goldie 2003)? Note in addition that investigating these issues is also important from a methodological perspective. Indeed, most of the stimuli used by psychologists in order to reach verdicts about real-life emotions resemble those characteristic of fiction insofar as they are disconnected from the relevant beliefs. One recurring methodological concern is then that psychologists’ data may tell us nothing about real-life emotions because of the nature of the stimuli they use. This criticism is premised on the idea that attitudes towards fictional events differ from attitudes towards real-life events, which is precisely the idea we want to investigate here.

Plan for empirical research

One line of empirical enquiry we plan to pursue on these questions concerns the different emotional attitudes that are respectively elicited by reports about the real world and by fictional texts. Indeed, a striking feature of emotional response to fiction is that the same event seems apt at triggering different reactions according to the genre to which the text that reports it belongs. Thus, the death of a character crushed by a falling piano can elicit mirth in the context of a comedy but sadness in the context of a drama, which illustrates the fact that a humorous setting seems able to change our attitudes towards death of a (fictional) human being (see Valdesolo & De Steno 2006).

Is this peculiar to fictional text or can evaluative attitudes towards the real world be sensitive to the same factors? To find out, we plan to measure participants’ attitudes towards text describing particular events and to vary the two following factors: the genre to which the text belongs (neutral, humorous or dramatic) and the reality of what is described (one group of participants will be told that the text is fictional, the other that it is a newspaper article describing a real event). We plan to pursue this study with another one in which a second pool of participants will be asked to assess the appropriateness of first participants’ emotional responses.

2.2. Impact of fiction on evaluative attitudes directed towards the real world


Despite the fact that fiction is often associated with unreality, our engagement with fiction appears to have important effects on our cognitive (Green & Brock 2000) and affective (Friend 2010) relations to the real world. A better understanding of this impact is necessary to understand the role that fictions and the affective reactions they elicit play in our daily lives. Why, for example, do we tend to lock our door after having watched a horror movie, or to be more charitable after seeing a moving film sequence (Schnall et al. 2012)?

Plan for empirical research

Previous studies have shown that the content of fictional texts may have an impact on our reported beliefs about the real world: for example, people reading a fictional text about an aggression were more likely to perceive the real world as dangerous (Green & Brock 2000). One hypothesis is that this impact of fiction on real-world beliefs is mediated by emotional attitudes: maybe the fictional induction of fear leads people to pay more attention to dangerous features of the world when assessing the real world. To test for this hypothesis, we will give people fictional texts, measure their emotional reactions, and ask them to make judgments about the real world. Participants will then complete a number of psychological tasks (word detection task, recall task, word completion task) aimed at measuring the saliency of emotion-related words. We expect emotion-related words to be more salient and this saliency to be correlated with the intensity of the emotional response, showing that fiction-induced emotions lead us to pay more attention to a certain range of values (e.g. danger).

If our hypothesis proves right, it would mean that emotions induced by fictional texts can have cognitive effects even once the make-believe game of fiction is over. To pursue in this direction, we also aim to test a potential effect of fictional texts on real-world decision making, by coupling reading of fictional texts with economic games. For example, it would be interesting to know if reading a fictional text eliciting fear and anxiety make people more risk-averse when facing lotteries. This being said, our central question will be whether this link between fiction and real-world decision is mediated by affective attitudes.

3. Links with other research projects

At the organisational level, we expect our results to bear on the central questions around which the inter-project “The Empirical Study of Make-believe Emotions” (Sander & Schwartz) revolves and collaboration with this project, in particular regarding the empirical part of it, will be very close. Additionally, it is to be emphasised that these topic-focused interdisciplinary questions are tightly linked with emergent research interests within the NCCR in affective sciences and connects with some research interests expressed in different projects submitted for the third phase of the NCCR. For example, our focus on attention in explaining the impact of fiction on real world appraisal shares concerns with Project 307 (Deonna & Teroni). Also, the possibility that emotions induced by fiction can transform the way we perceive the real world is one of the main research directions of Project 308 on contempt in literature (Lombardo). Finally, studying the role of emotions in decision making is an issue that will be investigated jointly with Project 305 (Van der Linden)’s interest in the role of emotions in mental projections such as simulating and planning. More generally, collaboration between philosophy, psychology and literary studies on issues regarding fiction will prove highly beneficial in the study of emotional responses to fiction.


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