Monday 11 February 2013

Research Bulletin: Fact, Fiction, or Fake?

Much of what we read can be broadly categorized as fact or fiction. Newspaper articles are seen as true accounts of real-world events, whereas novels and short stories draw us into compelling narrative worlds that result from creative craft. There are, however, texts that seem to readily fall between these two categories, such as historical fiction and perhaps self-serving autobiographies. One other form of text that escapes easy categorization are those that are first presented as factual but later found to be the product of fiction. James Frey’s novel, A Million Little Pieces, is one good example of such a narrative. Now that it is known that this work was intended to deceive readers into thinking that a fictional account was factual, how does this affect the way we read and process it? Dr. Markus Appel and his graduate student Barbara Maleckar investigated this very question, by presenting readers with an identical text introduced as either fact (i.e., nonfiction), fiction, or fake (fictional stories initially presented as factual but found to be untrue), along with a control story on an entirely different topic. What they found was that readers were less engaged or transported into the fake story relative to the fiction and nonfiction stories. Moreover, although reading the story tended to alter reader attitudes to be more in line with the themes of the story, when the story was introduced as fake and readers had a higher tendency to enjoy critical thinking (i.e., were high in what is known as “need for cognition”) there was less persuasion observed. Overall, the results of this study illustrate how fictional texts are not viewed the same as fake texts, or fictional texts that were first passed off as nonfiction. Which means that the additional contextual information that we have about a text can affect the way that we process it and how it influences us; knowing that an author had tried to deceive readers can make a story less engaging and also less influential. Honesty, therefore, would seem to remain the best policy, even for writers of fiction.  

Appel, M. & Maleckar, B. (2012). The influence of paratext on narrative persuasion: Fact, fiction, or fake? Human Communication Research, 38, 459–484.

(A copy of this article is available here.)

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