Again, a reminder of my story with my main character, Dawn. The empathy my audience should feel for Dawn, and the showing of her character, is something that needs to be remembered.
Further, the fact of the above is something that really is positive. But it makes me wonder whether my subject matter, or if the subject matter across the board would make a difference. If the written fiction shows a dark side of the human psyche, how would it be interpreted by the audience, especially considering the depth that the readers who get that into it can get involved with the characters?
As writers, we’re always going to be in the minds of our culture. And this study certainly seems to make that apparent. But if it really made a better society, or just keeps society decent, is another question. And how, if this study was only designed for compassionate writings, does the whole of fiction affect society?
A relative recent time ago, I saw a documentary called How Evil Are You? (or something along those lines; it was a Curiosity feature by the Discovery Channel). They retested an experiment from the 50s, in which a number of subjects would be sat down at a switchboard which would apply increasing amounts of pain to an individual, and then encouraged to keep going, despite the screams of anguish. If they went past a certain point, they failed the test.
The pain wasn’t really being inflicted on the individual; it was an actor. But in the 50s, and likewise with the retest, it was found that a number of subjects went up to and past the barrier. Occasionally, there would be subjects who refused to participate. This matched closely to the 50s test, with slight differences in the numbers here and there (to the negative on our side of the time gap).
The point is that the same social aspects of the human psyche, i.e empathy, peer pressure, can be swayed so easily by such things as an evocative fiction piece or an insistent instructor, and neither of those things change society; they rather reveal society.
And that, as writers, is our job. Although changing society for the better would be a nice thought (even idealistic), it isn’t likely to be so strong. Unless I simply didn’t understand the article well enough, which is possible.
“Individuals who experienced higher levels of empathy were also nearly twice as likely to engage in pro-social, or helpful, behavior as individuals experiencing low levels of empathy.” How exactly did they come to that conclusion? And what does it mean when they compare the individuals to having higher empathy in the test and lower empathy later?
“200 subjects read a five-page fictional short story written specifically for the experiment, designed to elicit compassionate feelings for the characters and model pro-social behavior. The subjects then participated in exercises to measure the impact of the reading.
Based on the results of the post-reading exercises, Johnson concluded that the more immersed the readers were in the story, the more empathy they felt for the characters. In addition, he found that the heightened empathy led to an enhanced ability to perceive subtle emotional expressions such as fear or happiness. Individuals who experienced higher levels of empathy were also nearly twice as likely to engage in pro-social, or helpful, behavior as individuals experiencing low levels of empathy.
“An interesting component is that it really seemed to be a lot about the imagery and visualizing the face of the main character and the events they experienced,” said Johnson. “Those who experienced more…
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