There are surely many other ways in which readers try to protect themselves from the images, emotions, and beliefs that they experience while reading fiction, short of simply closing the book and not picking it up again. But why should this be? Much of the work done by members of this blog team underscores the authenticity of the emotions experienced while reading fiction. So, I don’t doubt that a good part of these self-protective strategies buy time, until the reader can sort out what is happening to her emotionally, at which point she will pick the book up off the floor, perhaps putting the torn dust jacket back on, and opening it up again.
It could be that these readers know, perhaps not consciously but subconsciously, that the book could change their beliefs, and not always in a predictable way. The implication of two lines of psychological research is that proceeding with caution in this way may be a wise response. Richard Gerrig, Deborah Prentice, and David Rapp have described the typical process of reading fiction to be “the willing construction of disbelief” (Prentice and Gerrig, 1999; Prentice, Gerrig, & Bailis, 1997; Gerrig & Rapp, 2004). Readers “must engage in effortful processing to disbelieve the information they encounter in literary narratives (as well as other types of narratives); otherwise, that information will have an impact in the real world” (Gerrig & Rapp, 2004, p. 268).
Perhaps strong feelings of rejection toward a story and the resulting strategies for distancing oneself arise because readers somehow know that continuing to read may leave them walking around holding beliefs that they do not want to hold, having thoughts that they do not want to have, and re-experiencing images that they do not want to re-experience. The social psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert, in a much-quoted and very rewarding article, juxtaposes the epistemological views of Spinoza and Descartes, concluding that Spinoza’s view corresponds better to the psychological reality of belief acquisition. Thus, simply comprehending an idea is equivalent to accepting the idea, and rejecting an idea takes additional effort. We do not first comprehend an idea, then make a conscious judgment concerning its validity, as proposed by Descartes. Gilbert (1991) and Gilbert, Tafarodi, & Malone (1993) cite much evidence from the empirical literature suggesting that comprehending and tagging as valid a newly perceived bit of information happen at the same moment, especially when the perceiver is experiencing other sources of stress concomitantly. The Spinozan system would predict that readers of fiction would accept and incorporate into other cognitive operations information that they know to be invalid. Gerrig & Rapp (2004) cite empirical evidence that fiction readers do in fact proceed in this way. Perhaps instead of consciously deciding not to acquire a belief discordant with one’s sense of oneself, or to experience an image or an emotion one cannot bear, one hurls the book against the wall, and asks questions later -- or doesn't.
Gerrig, R. J., & Rapp, D. N. (2004). Psychological processes underlying literary impact. Poetics Today, 25, 265- 281.
Gilbert, D. T. (1991). How mental systems believe. American Psychologist, 46, 107-119.
Gilbert, D. T., Tafarodi, R. W., & Malone, P. S. (1993). You can’t not believe everything you read. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 221-233.
Prentice, D. A., & Gerrig, R. J. (1999). Exploring the boundary between fiction and reality. In. S. Chaiken & Y. Trope (Eds.), Dual-process theories in social psychology (pp. 529-546). New York: Guilford.
Prentice, D. A., Gerrig, R. J., & Bailis, D. S. (1997). What readers bring to the processing of fictional texts. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 4, 416-420.