The world of publishing has been rocked by numerous examples of writers passing off fictional accounts as fact. Perhaps the most memorable transgression of recent memory is when James Frey’s autobiography, A Million Little Pieces, was found to contain a number of elements that were completely fabricated. Another recent example is Greg Mortensen’s autobiography Three Cups of Tea, the details of which have come under serious question. In both cases, this deception on the part of the author has greatly upset readers and often evoked profound anger. Oprah Winfrey, for example, angrily confronted Frey on her show and accused him of betraying his readers. Jon Krakauer, a renowned author himself, went so far as to write a short book describing in detail the falsehoods put forth by Mortensen (all proceeds of which went to charity). Although authors have clearly been subject to derogation and mistrust following these incidents of deception, what isn’t clear is how this new information affects readers who have already read these books. That is, if someone changes their attitudes or opinions toward drug addiction after reading A Million Little Pieces, do they then correct this attitude after learning that the events described were fabricated? Dr. Melanie Green (UNC—Chapel Hill) and John Donahue examined this precise question, by presenting readers with an article labeled as either fact or fiction (Green & Donahue, in press). (As it turns out, the text used was a Pulitzer-prize winning Washington Post article by Janet Cooke that was later found to be a fabrication.) For some of the people who read the article labeled as fact, they were later told that the article contained inaccuracies: it was actually a piece of fiction. All of the articles resulted in changes in belief, in that regardless of whether something was labeled as fact or fiction, readers changed their opinions based upon what they read. Fascinatingly, although readers who were informed that the previously factual piece was actually fictional developed a negative opinion of the author, they did not change their opinions regarding the content of the story. That is, attitudes and opinions that were changed as a result of reading a supposedly factual piece were not altered when that piece was revealed to be fictional. This article demonstrates the power of fiction, in that understanding a story often entails incorporating that information into our own beliefs and this process can be difficult to reverse. More broadly, this study is a great example of how interesting real-world phenomena with respect to media consumption can be put to empirical test.
(As always, for a copy of the original article, please contact me.)
Green, M. C., & Donahue, J. K. (in press). Persistence of belief change in the face of deception: The effect of factual stories revealed to be false. Media Psychology.