Saturday, 27 September 2008

Research Bulletin: Fiction and Belief in a Just World

In a recent study Markus Appel (2008) found that, as compared with people who watched television generally, people who watched a lot of fiction on television were more likely to believe in a just world.

In social psychology, the just-world theory (or the just-world fallacy) is the belief that the world is just and that, when it seems not to be so, people who hold this theory search for explanations that would make it so. Alternatively, one can believe that the world is frightening (known technically in this field as the "scary world" theory).

Appel studied 515 television viewers who reported how many hours of television they watched per day during the week and at the weekend, in 19 different genres each exemplified by names of two well-known programs. The genres included non-fiction programs such as evening news, news magazines, political talk, art documentary, science documentary, etc., as well as four kinds of fictional programs: feature films, detective shows/crime dramas, soap operas, other series and serials. The strength of participants' beliefs in a just world, and in a fightening world, were measured as individual differences.

Appel found that the general amount of people's television watching predicted the strength of their beliefs that the world is frightening. This is understandable since much television, particularly the news, shows victims of violence or disease, scenes of natural disaster, and so on: examples of a world that is arbitrary and often cruel. Thus, in the language of communication research, television is a cultivation device: it tends to cultivate beliefs of this kind.

But Appel also found that people who spent more time watching television of the four fictional genres had significantly stronger beliefs in the idea of a just world.

Here, then, is evidence both that television does have an effect on what we believe, and that televised fiction has a rather specific kind of effect.

As Frank Kermode (1966) has argued in his book The sense of an ending, fiction is one of the ways in which we strive to make meaningful sense of the world, and the idea of justice, as depicted for instance in many television stories of detection, legal argument, and judgment, offers this kind of meaning-making specifically in the domain of justice (see our list of books on the psychology of fiction by clicking here).

Does this indicate that televised fiction gives a falsely optimistic view of the world, of the kind advocated by Dr Pangloss in Voltaire's Candide? It may sometimes do so. But if we consider two kinds of television—news reporting and fiction—perhaps the one serves to elicit our empathy for those afflicted by severe and cruel events in a way that is far more vivid and widely publicized now than a hundred years ago, while the other offers us models of what we might do about arbitrariness and injustice.

Markus Appel (2008). Fictional narratives cultivate just-world beliefs. Journal of Communication, 58, 62-83.
Kirsten Valentine Cadieux comments:

This is fascinating. If the general amount of people's television watching predicted the strength of scary world beliefs, I'd like to know how no television watching relates to just world beliefs (or just world aspirations -- there must be ways to tease out the self-deceptive aspects of this belief from the aspirational aspects).

I cannot find the study, but I remember a study in the mid-90s noting a strikingly high correlation between attending a top tier college and watching no television -- although the report I read did not posit a causal mechanism. More interesting, perhaps, is the increasingly common phenomenon of watching news television via the interpretive lens of comic genre shows, such as The Daily Show.

Jon Stewart, I think, may provide an interesting case for exploring some of the qualities perhaps shared by fiction and creative non-fiction that might contribute to Appel's findings: Stewart's show runs a simulation not only of the news, but also of the genre of the news itself, making much more evident the creative act of interpreting something like the news.

In addition to the critical distance and positive affective tone provided by the humor, the kind of creative engagement with what might otherwise remain scary facts that Steward offers his viewers may have an important function in enabling audiences to simulate their own agency. This flexing of agency - or transformational potential - may help to transform scariness into aspiration for justice.

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