A Compelling Story

“A year after that very popular novel came out I read an article summarizing a study about that novel conducted by scholars at a well-known university. The study documented that the vast majority of people who bought and read this popular book believed it was not a novel, but an absolutely true story, though the book was marketed as a work of fiction, and nowhere on or in the book did the publisher or author claim the story was true. The study further reported that when people who loved this book were informed that the story was not true, they reacted with either tremendous anger or enormous disappointment, or both.”

This is Todd Walton discussing an interesting phenomenon, from Know Your Audience. And it is something he has personally experienced with his own fiction writing:

“I became aware of this phenomenon—people believing fiction is true—some years before this mass delusion about a popular novel swept the nation. In those long ago days, I frequently gave public readings of my fiction; and it was during the mid-1980s that more and more people began to experience my stories as true rather than as fiction. In response to this phenomenon, I would preface my reading of each story by declaring that the tale was not autobiographical, not inspired by supposedly true events, and was most definitely a work of fiction.

“Even with this disclaimer, many people in my audiences continued to assume my stories were recollections of things that had really happened to me, regardless of how preposterous that possibility.”

It’s not only that people were adamant about believing his fiction was real. They would get quite upset when told once again that it was fiction, even though they already had this explained to them before the reading. Some of them accused the author of lying to them. And a few left the room in protest.

From a slightly different perspective, here is an anecdote shared by Harlan Ellison:

“He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, “Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

“So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting.”

“And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said…”

“For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same.”

I quoted that in a post I wrote about a similarly strange phenomenon. It’s how people are able to know and not know simultaneously (a sub-category of cognitive blindness; related to inattentional blindnesscontextual ignorancehypocognition, and conceptual blindness). With that in mind, maybe some of those people in Walton’s various audiences did know it was fiction, even while another part of them took it as real.

This kind of dissociation is probably more common than we might suspect. The sometimes antagonsitic responses he got could have been more than mere anger at having their perception denied. He was going beyond that in challenging their dissociation, which cuts even deeper into the human psyche. People hold onto their dissociations more powerfully than maybe anything else.

There is another factor as well. We live in a literal-minded age. Truth has become conflated with literalism. When something feels true, many people automatically take it as literal. This is the power of religion and its stories, along with politics and its rhetoric. But some argue that literal-mindedness has increased over time, starting with the Axial Age and becoming a force to be reckoned with in this post-Enlightenment age of scientism and fundamentalism. That is what leads to the black-and-white thinking of something either being literally true or absolutely false (a blatant lie, a frivolous fantasy, etc). Iain McGilchrist describes this as the brain dominance of the left hempisphere’s experience and the suppression of right hemisphere’s emotional nuance and grounded context.

This mindset isn’t just a source of amusing anecdotes. It has real world consequences. The most powerful stories aren’t told by fiction writers or at least not by those openly identifying as such. Rather, the greatest compelling storytellers of our age work in news media and politics. The gatekeepers have immense influence in determining what is real or not in the public mind. This is why there is a battle right now over fake news. It’s a battle among the gatekeepers.

This connects to the smart idiot effect. It’s interesting to note that, according to studies, the least educated are the most aware of the limits of their knowledge and expertise. It requires being well educated to fall into the trap of the smart idiot effect (hence why it is called that). This is the reason media personalities and politicians can be so dangerous, as they are people who talk a bit about everything while often being an expert in nothing or, at best, their expertise being narrowly constrained. This is fertile ground for storytelling. And this is why attention-grabbing politicians like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump first became famous as media personalities — their being experts only in entertainment and egotism. Those like Reagan and Trump are storytellers who embody the stories they tell. They pretend to be something they are not and their audience-supporters take the pretense for reality.

This is seen in many areas of society but particularly on right-wing media. Interestingly, according to research, it is most clearly evidenced among the most well informed audience members of right-wing media who simultaneously are the most misinformed. The average Fox News viewer does know more factoids than the average American (maybe no great accomplishment), but they also know more falsehoods than the average American. What they don’t know very well is how to differentiate between what is true and not true. To be able to make this differentiation would require they not only be able to memorize factoids but to understand the larger context of knowledge and the deeper understanding of truth — the subltety and nuance provided primarily by the right hemisphere, according to Iain McGilchrist. Otherwise, factoids are simply fodder for talking points. And it leads to much confusion, such as a surprising percentage of conservatives taking seriously Stephen Colbert’s caricature of conservatism. Isn’t that interesting, that many conservatives can’t tell the difference between supposedly authentic conservatism and a caricature of it? The election of Donald Trump, an apolitical demagogue posing as a conservative, emphasizes this point.

It is maybe no accident that this phenomenon manifests the strongest on the political right, at least in the United States. It could be caused by how, in the US, authoritarianism is correlated to the political right — not so in former Soviet countries, though. So the main causal factor is probably authoritarianism in general (and, yes, authoritarianism does exist within the Democratic Party, if not to the extreme seen within the GOP; but I would note that, even though Democratic leaders are to the left of the far right, they are in many ways to the right of the majority of Americans… as observed in decades of diverse public polling). Research does show that authoritarians don’t mind being hypocritical, assuming they even comprehend what hypocrisy means. Authoritarians are good at groupthink and believing what they are told. They are literal-minded, as for them the group’s ideology and the leader’s words are identical to reality itself, literally. One could interpret authoritarianism as an extreme variety of dissociation.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Todd Walton’s most offended audience members would test as higher on authoritarianism. Such people have a strong desire to believe in something absolutely. Self-aware use of imagination and the imaginal is not an area of talent for them nor the trait of openness upon which it depends. This is because they lack the tolerance for cognitive dissonance, a necessary component of suspension of disbelief in the enjoyment of fiction. It makes no sense to them that a story could be subjectively true while being factually false (or factually partial). Hence, the sense of being deceived and betrayed. The fiction writer is an unworthy authority figure to the authoritarian mind. A proper authoritarian demagogue would tell his followers what they wanted to hear and would never then tell them that it was just fiction. The point of storytelling, for the authoritarian, is that it is told with utter conviction — it being irrelevant whether or not the authoritarian leader himself believes what he says, just that he pretends to believe.

Authoritarians aside, it should be noted that most people appear to be able to distinguish between truth and falsehood, between non-fiction and fiction. People will say they believe all kinds of things to be true. But if you give them enough of an incentive, they will admit to what they actually believe is true (priming them for rational/analytical thought would probably also help, as various studies indicate). And it turns out most people agree about a lot of things, even in politics. Dissociation has its limits, when real costs and consequences are on the line. But most storytelling, whether fictional or political, won’t effect the concrete daily life of the average person. People want to believe stories and so will take them literally, especially when a story has no real impact. For example, believing in the literal reality that bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ is an attractive story for it being largely irrelevant, just a pleasant fiction to create a social bonding experience through ritual (and evidence indicates that many ancient people perceived such things metaphorically or imaginally, instead of literally; the mythical being a far different experience from the literal). Literal-minded people forget that something can have truth value without being literally true. That is what stories are about.

So, it’s possible that if there had been some concrete and personal incentive for self-aware honesty (at least some of) those seemingly naive audience members would have admitted that they really did know that Todd Walton’s readings were fictional. It’s just that, under the actual circumstances with little at stake, their only incentive was their own emotional commitment in being drawn into the story. To be told it is fiction is like being told their experience is false, which would be taken as a personal attack. What they are missing, in that situation, is the willingness to separate their experience of the story from the story itself. It feels so real that they it would ruin their experience of it to imagine it not being real. That is a successful story.

(By the way, this helps explain why Plato so feared the poets, the storytellers of that era. See some context for this in an earlier post of mine, On Truth and Bullshit: “Frankfurt talks about the ‘bullshit artist’. Bullshitters are always artists. And maybe artists are always bullshitters. This is because the imagination, moral or otherwise, is the playground of the bullshitter. This is because the artist, the master of imagination, is different than a craftsmen. The artist always has a bit of the trickster about him, as he plays at the boundaries of the mind.”)

* * *

For some further thoughts from Iain McGilchrist:

The Master and His Emissary
pp. 49-50

“Anything that requires indirect interpretation, which is not explicit or literal, that in other words requires contextual understanding, depends on the right frontal lobe for its meaning to be conveyed or received. 132 The right hemisphere understands from indirect contextual clues, not only from explicit statement, whereas the left hemisphere will identify by labels rather than context (e.g. identifies that it must be winter because it is ‘January’, not by looking at the trees). 133

“This difference is particularly important when it comes to what the two hemispheres contribute to language. The right hemisphere takes whatever is said within its entire context. 134 It is specialised in pragmatics, the art of contextual understanding of meaning, and in using metaphor. 135 It is the right hemisphere which processes the non-literal aspects of language, 136 of which more later. This is why the left hemisphere is not good at understanding the higher level meaning of utterances such as ‘it’s a bit hot in here today’ (while the right hemisphere understands ‘please open a window’, the left hemisphere assumes this is just helpful supply of meteorological data). It is also why the right hemisphere underpins the appreciation of humour, since humour depends vitally on being able to understand the context of what is said and done, and how context changes it. Subjects with right brain damage, like subjects with schizophrenia, who in many respects resemble them, cannot understand implied meaning, and tend to take conversational remarks literally.”

pp. 125-126

“Metaphor is the crucial aspect of language whereby it retains its connectedness to the world, and by which the ‘parts’ of the world which language appears to identify retain their connectedness one to another. Literal language, by contrast, is the means whereby the mind loosens its contact with reality and becomes a self-consistent system of tokens.”

p. 332

“Metaphorical understanding has a close relationship with reason, which seems paradoxical only because we have inherited an Enlightenment view of metaphor: namely, that it is either indirectly literal, and can be reduced to ‘proper’ literal language, or a purely fanciful ornament, and therefore irrelevant to meaning and rational thought, which it indeed threatens to disrupt. It is seen as a linguistic device, not as a vehicle of thought. What the literalist view and the anti-literalist view share is that, ultimately, metaphor can have nothing directly to do with truth. Either it is simply another way of stating literal truth or else it undermines any claim to truth. But as Lakoff and Johnson have shown, ‘metaphor is centrally a matter of thought, not just words’. 2 The loss of metaphor is a loss of cognitive content.”

39 thoughts on “A Compelling Story

  1. If you think about it, the left has a very compelling story why Hillary CLinton lost to Trump.

    Another important point.

    Among the less educated whites that helped Trump win, Sanders did even better. He ran thirteen points ahead of Clinton among whites without a high school diploma, eight points better among those with a high school diploma or some college, and three points better among college graduates. Sanders also outpolled Clinton among whites in all income groups except those making over $250,000. In both low-education and low-income groups, the biggest disparity in Sanders’s performance and Clinton’s in a hypothetical showdown with Trump came from voters who said they’d stay home or opt for a third-party candidate if the contest was Clinton versus Trump rather than Sanders versus Trump.

    Looking at the Rust Belt states Clinton lost by small margins, the contrast is even more striking. For example, in the March to June polls, Clinton trailed Trump 39.5 to 32.6 among whites with some college or less in Michigan; Sanders won those voters 44 to 34. Clinton’s percentage among those same voters stayed virtually the same through Election Day, whereas Trump picked up nearly all of the undecided or uncommitted voters in that category.

    In other words, Sanders could very well have won the Midwest and made history. Sadly the Democrats sabotaged him.

    • I’ve been agreeing with that viewpoint long before Clinton was nominated. Even early on in the campaigning, she came off as weak. She just doesn’t have much substance, much less a commanding presence. She is not capable of inspiring rhetoric, not that many would believe bullshit even if she were capable.

      Many of us on the left were early on predicting that Clinton was likely to lose against Trump and that Sanders would have won. There is no way to deny that this turned out to be true and for the very reasons that explained why it would play out this way.

    • I have no doubt that many of them do believe it. My dad is upper middle class who, working in the business world, has at times associated with the capitalist class. He is kind of person that right-wing think tanks target with propaganda. And he does believe much of it.

      You might recall my sharing a quote about this in an earlier post. It was from a link you posted in a comment. Whether or not a particular person believes the propaganda is largely irrelevant. What matters is that it sets the agenda, frames the narrative, and spells out the talking points to be repeated ad infinitum.


      “Chief among the common misconceptions about the way official propaganda works is the notion that its goal is to deceive the public into believing things that are not “the truth” (that Trump is a Russian agent, for example, or that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, or that the terrorists hate us for our freedom, et cetera). However, while official propagandists are definitely pleased if anyone actually believes whatever lies they are selling, deception is not their primary aim.

      “The primary aim of official propaganda is to generate an “official narrative” that can be mindlessly repeated by the ruling classes and those who support and identify with them. This official narrative does not have to make sense, or to stand up to any sort of serious scrutiny. Its factualness is not the point. The point is to draw a Maginot line, a defensive ideological boundary, between “the truth” as defined by the ruling classes and any other “truth” that contradicts their narrative.”

  2. I think the internet ate my previous comment.

    Anyways, previously I linked a Jacobin article. Will check later for it.

    Now though the Liberals are doing it:

    I think the sad part is that Clinton has more in common with George W Bush than Bernie Sanders.

  3. A response to a comment over at the post that inspired this post:


    @Kaycee –

    “I agree with you in timely expect in the part where you called the history of Jesus a story. I so disagree with you. If u call me a religious freak then so be it.. The Bible isn’t a story. It’s real. The history of Jesus isn’t a figment of someone imagination. It’s so real. Whether you believe it or not, God do exist…”

    We might disagree, but not about what you think. Story is inseparable from reality. We tell stories about ourselves, about our experience and perception, our ideologies and worldviews. We do this all the time. Acknowledging the power and centrality of story within the human psyche/soul doesn’t in any way threaten reality or challenge any particular truth claim.

    Many early Christians inherited Greek ideas from Stoics and Neo-Platonists (logos, natural law, trinity, etc) along with influences from the Mystery Religions and much else, partly from the Hellenized Alexandrian Jews but also from other sources such as the large number of Pagan converts. For example, Philo and Ammonius Saccas influenced those like Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Justin Martyr. Early Christianity was highly syncretistic and amorphous because its membership came from diverse backgrounds.

    The point being was that literalism and inerrancy wasn’t automatically assumed when Christian theology was forming. A fair number of early Christians considered stories to be speaking of a higher spiritual reality or deeper spiritual truth. As Jesus supposedly said, the Kingdom of God is within you and among you.

    Interestingly, Justin Martyr, having had been a student of Greek philosophy before converting, at times had a broadly encompassing view of Christianity:

    “We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that he is the Logos of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived with the Logos are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them…”
    First Apology, Chap. XLVI (see Nicene Fathers, Vol I)

    In the comments section of this post, someone going by the name Gaul makes a strong case:

    The Gnostics were also influenced by Neo-Platonism and took seriously the divine being within and around, for otherwise one couldn’t have knowledge of God. Some see Paul as part of this Gnostic tradition, early on popularized by two early church fathers who were in the Pauline lineage: Marcion (the originator of the New Testament canon) and Valentinus (who brought the trinity into Christianity).

    This ancient philosophical tradition would later shape some areas of Islamic thought. It was out of Sufism that came the idea of the imaginal. This refers to a profound way of experiencing the self and the world, the mind and the divine.

    Understanding the compelling nature of stories maybe requires taking such an imaginal perspective. The imaginal is far different from mere imagination. It cuts to the heart of our being in the world. This isn’t a conflict between belief and non-belief, theism and atheism, literalism and mythicism. Rather, it is a struggle to understand religion from within the religious worldview itself.

    To understand this other perspective and what has shaped it, here are some helpful links:



    Click to access mundus_imaginalis.pdf



  4. Apparently Obama doesn’t want his story told.

    Without archives, the whole Obama Presidential Library becomes a vanity project. The whole purpose of presidential libraries is to allow such documents to be examined and shared for the future.

    Oh and the locals will get screwed:

    The questions they asked – they knew what was coming and what will happen.

    • That is really strange. Something about it doesn’t add up. Why are these public documents of a president being privately stored? And how do we know that incriminating evidence and inconvenient info isn’t being destroyed or won’t get digitized? Without the physical copies at the location, will they ever be fully released as the law requires after a certain time period?

    • Here is what pisses me off. It’s not just that the government gives away our wealth and natural resources to corporations, many of them transnational corporations.

      Worse still, the government forces the US citizenry to pay for a military that ensures the theft of wealth and natural resources of other countries, which are given away to those same corporations. Any government that won’t allow itself to be exploited will become a target of the US military and CIA, and that will lead to elimination of their government to be replaced with a more compliant puppet regime.

      While all this wealth and natural resources are flowing into the pockets of plutocrats, millions of Americans and billions of non-Americans live in desperate poverty. Average people struggle with costs of basic needs: food, housing, electricity, healthcare, etc. All of the wealth and natural resources given away would easily pay for all these basic needs for every US citizen and have plenty leftover to entirely pay for all education and rebuild the infrastructure.

      We don’t lack what we need to accomplish any of this. Yet the US government acts like we are a third world country that can’t afford to maintain even the most basic of services.

    • Oops just realized that the address is:


      Remember that the US is going to have much higher living costs than the Third World. It is sort of in a grey zone. Third world wages and conditions for many, while for others it is a declining place. Only a few are wealthy.

      The government is going to give to whoever the politicians get bribed by.

    • That is what many have feared. What is done in foreign countries will be done in the poor areas of our own country. And what is done in the poor areas of our own country will eventually be done to us all. When the inevitable results come home to roost, the American public will act shocked like they couldn’t see it coming. It’s so sad and tiresome. Most people seem incapable of learning.

  5. Meanwhile the Democrats are getting deeper in the mud …

    They want Trump to win. Well they prefer that to winning with the left because that would affect their relationships with the donors.

    • Despite the American public continuously moving left, the DNC leadership has decided to continue moving to the right. The Democratic Party has gone from conservative to right-wing. They know this will lose them elections. And they don’t care. It’s what the corporate and donor class demands of them. Besides, their maintaining power within the duopoly has little to do with which party wins any given election. Trump went from supporting and funding Democrats like Clinton to running against her as a Republican. It’s the same difference. Either way, the establishment always wins which is to say concentrated wealth and power always maintains control.

      Nothing will change, until they fear for their lives. That is what brought on changes during the Populist and Progressive eras. The ruling elite were literally afraid of what might happen. And the threat went far beyond the rise of third parties and populist outrage. The the late 19th century and early 20th century involved major figures assassinated, international terrorism, mass labor organizing that turned into violent battles, mobs marching on state capitals, angry veterans camped out on the White House lawn, the rise of unemployment and organized crime, revolutions in multiple countries, a world war, and much else.

      They had good reason to be afraid. And any elite alive right now with any common sense should be peeing their pants in utter terror about what is coming next. With climate change crises and far worse forms of warfare looming, this century will be far worse than the last. Nick Hanauer has spent years warning the plutocrats about their coming downfall. The only thing I wish is that Hanauer would equally target his warnings at the Democrats like Clinton. The Republicans wouldn’t have gone so far right without the help of the Democrats helping to push them right by becoming Republican Lite.

    • I still have my doubts about Hanauer, though. He is for raising minimum wage a bit, not a basic income. He for charter schools, not free education as a public good. And I seriously doubt he would be on board for universal healthcare. He is one of the most progressive plutocrats around and even he is pretty pathetic as progressivism goes.

  6. Sigh, within the Democratic Party, this is what their pollsters are saying:

    Interestingly, responses have already come out:

    And of course Jimmy Dore on the Democrats:

    They are doubling down on this mess. I suppose from the Establishment Democratic point of view, Bernie is the enemy and Trump is just a good cover for what they are doing. They are the “not Trump” party and that is it.

    I wonder if it is plain arrogance, or a cynical political strategy to make money.

    • The Clinton Democrats, as one person put it, are like a professional fighter who is paid to take a dive and lose the fight. It’s about the money. And the money is about power.

      It’s a game that is played behind the scenes, as they put on a good show for the public. It may hurt Hillary’s pride a bit to be paid to lose a fight, but she consoles her hurt feelings with immense power and privilege.

    • This style of capitalism actually began with the corporatism of early colonial imperialism, the post-feudal era during which capitalism as we know it began. It just required a post-colonial country like the US to create a new form of neo-imperial plutocracy, a mutated super-virus infecting the body politic. But the basic elements of it have existed for centuries.

      It was just sometimes easier to ignore during earlier eras, when public attention was focused elsewhere (revolutions, world wars, cold wars, etc) and various national economies were booming or restructuring. It’s only now that we can finally see clearly what is the final result of this centuries-long project of capitalist ideology, such that it can no longer be ignored.

      Some liked to think that it was only the United States. But since colonial times, it was always a global phenomenon. This past half century of semi-peaceful social democracy in the West was a momentary calm following one storm and preceding another. It’s inevitable that global society will enter another period of civil wars, revolutions, and world wars. It seems part of the destructive cycle of modernity.

      Spain’s imperialism ruled the world for a while. Then Britain gained dominance. After that, the US came onto the scene. Next there will be some other superpower to take on the role of superpower bully. That is until some new paradigm ends this cycle of rising and falling empires. I do think that eventually a new paradigm will come along. Global society and the biosphere can’t take much more of the present system, no matter who is temporarily in control.

      Meanwhile, the oppressed masses will suffer.

Please read Comment Policy before commenting.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s