Many movies feature characters with dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder. But when researchers combed through all the psychiatric records from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for a report published in 1944, they only turned up a total of 76 cases. Then, between 1985 and 1995, the number spiked to almost 40,000. Something similar happened around the same time with the still more dubious phenomenon of demonic possession. Exorcisms almost never occurred in the United States prior to 1973, when demand suddenly skyrocketed. What could have caused these sudden epidemics of severe mental distress? It’s probably no accident that the movie Sybil, featuring Sally Field in the role of a patient with sixteen different personalities, hit the theatres in 1976, three years after the premiere of The Exorcist.Somehow, it seems, watching a movie about a protagonist with several personalities, or occupied by a demon, can make some audience members believe that they are suffering from an identical condition. It’s almost as if such viewers are not content to merely watch the movies, as horrific as they are: they want to live them. Or maybe they can’t help living them.
Literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall describes a horrifying case of a man mistaking fiction for reality in his 2021 book The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down. A few days before Halloween in 2018, a man drove to the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where he burst through the doors shouting, “All Jews must die!” before unloading his AR-15 and three Glock pistols. It was a Saturday morning, so the synagogue was full. Eleven people were killed, and several others wounded. Gottschall explains:
The Tree of Life killer was no mere fanboy of ancient fictions about Jewish evil; at some point he entered the fiction as a character. He made himself the punishing hero of history’s greatest epic. The killer had enmeshed himself in a nightmarish LARP (live-action role-playing) fantasy, like those grown adults who rush happily through the woods playing out Dungeons and Dragons fantasies.
But his victims were real.
This man, who murdered almost a dozen people, believes himself to be a hero. The people he attacked were the real monsters. Much like the patients contending with past trauma so severe that it fractured their personalities and the devout sufferers from demonic possession, the Tree of Life killer had taken on a sacred mission—or rather, believed that he had that mission thrust upon him.
The Story Paradox explores the myriad ways in which the seemingly giant leap from fiction to reality has been, for some, more of a mincing step. Psychologists relate that there is a phenomenon called parasocial interaction, in which audiences respond to fictional characters much as they would to real people. We can easily forget that actors are only playing roles. When we witness young Jack Gleeson in the role of the cruel and remorseless King Joffrey Baratheon in HBO’s Game of Thrones, for instance, some of us can’t help assuming that Gleeson himself must resemble his character, and can barely help hating him for it. To make sense of what is going on in such cases, Gottschall borrows a concept known as the “media equation,” from researchers Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves. Gottschall writes:
Our brains completed most of their evolution back in the Stone Age, when there was no photography, film, or Dolby Surround Sound. So when we see convincing images of humans or convincing simulations of human life in stories, our brains reflexively process them just like the real thing. But there’s more to it than that because, according to Nass and Reeves’s data, people are nearly as bamboozled by purely text-based and oral forms of storytelling.
Our tendency to mistake fiction for reality cannot be attributed to the mismatch between our evolutionary environments and the modern world. Rather, our responses to characters in stories reflect something about the ways our minds function.
This concept of “narrative transportation”—which Gottschall defines as “that delicious sensation of opening a book, or turning on the television, and mentally teleporting out of our own mundane realities and into alternative story worlds”— explains how events and characters that are wholly made up can exert such a powerful influence over us. One thing that distinguishes our response to fictional characters from our response to real people is that, when we consume fiction, we suppress any inclination to act out our own parts in the social situations we witness. “When transported,” Gottschall notes, “we partially decouple not only from the real world but also from ourselves.”
This is the crux of the issue that troubles Gottschall throughout The Story Paradox. We treat story time as merely fun and games, but even fictional stories can have serious real-life consequences. Citing the work of psychologists Melanie Green and Timothy Brock, among others, Gottschall warns that, by succumbing to narrative transportation, we open ourselves to a powerful form of influence:
We consume fact-based arguments with our defenses on high alert. We’re critical and suspicious—especially when those arguments run counter to our existing convictions. But when we’re absorbed in a story, we relax our intellectual defenses. As the narratology researcher Tom van Laer and his colleagues put it, after analyzing every relevant study in the science of stories, “narrative transportation is a mental state that produces enduring persuasive effects without careful evaluation and arguments. In other words, good storytellers bypass the brain’s processes for sifting and evaluating claims. They can implant information and beliefs—often quite strong ones—without any rational vetting.
We unconsciously take on the attitudes and beliefs of protagonists when we’re absorbed in their stories. We can’t help empathizing with their plights—and with the plights of others like them, both in the story world and the real world. While this may sound like a promising way to boost empathy more generally, by expanding our circle of concern to include ever more people unlike us, it also provides a recipe for manipulation by demagogues and propagandists.
Every propagandist knows that you can make large masses of people suspicious of anyone who holds different political beliefs from them by simply casting them as antagonists in an engrossing story (though it is not so easy to make the story engrossing). If, say, you want to weaken the social fabric of an entire nation, you can target people on both sides of major political fault lines, delivering stories to each side that highlight and magnify the evils of people on the other. This is precisely what the Internet Research Agency in Saint Petersburg, Russia did in 2016 to hobble American democracy. One of its campaigns involved setting up one Facebook group for Texans wary of the growing number of Muslims in their community and another for those same Muslims. Gottschall reports:
Both Facebook groups were highly successful propaganda efforts. The Heart of Texas accumulated 250,000 members, and United Muslims boasted 300,000. In total, posts to these two sock puppet groups were liked more than eight million times and shared more than ten million times.
The groups’ activities were not restricted to Facebook. On 21 May 2016, they both responded to calls to protest at the Islamic Da’wah Center in Houston. “Feel free to bring along your firearms, concealed or not!” members of the Heart of Texas were told. Luckily, both the protest and the counter-protest remained peaceful (this time).
There is an underlying sense of dread pervading The Story Paradox, as though Gottschall were desperately sounding the alarm about a runaway plague that it may already be too late to contain. As someone who has been studying the power of stories his entire career, he cannot conceal his horror at their proliferation in all the realms in which their impact will be the most detrimental to the healthy functioning of our society. His description of “universal story grammar” focuses on characters embroiled in conflicts—usually, but not always, with other characters. The troubles protagonists face are what make stories compelling. But stories often go beyond representing conflict: they can intensify, or even cause, real-life battles. And it seems that all the wrong people, with all the wrong incentives, are proving themselves savviest when it comes to exploiting stories’ hidden potential to divide us. “The most urgent question we can ask ourselves now isn’t the hackneyed one: ‘How can we change the world through stories?’” Gottschall argues. “It’s ‘How can we save the world from stories?’”
Of course, many stories—however fantastical some of their elements may be—are billed as non-fiction. The paradox of the book’s title arises from the theory that our storytelling psychology evolved to unite groups of disparate individuals and families into cohesive societies, but that cohesion inevitably entailed some degree of antagonism towards outside groups. “Human groups with strong fantasies that bound them together into well-functioning collectives would have outcompeted human groups that lacked them,” Gottschall explains. “But in multicultural and multi-ethnic societies, the tendency for story to serve as a tool not only of tribal formation but also of tribal division remains undiminished.”
What becomes clear over the course of the book is that stories of us-versus-them form the foundation of the most infectious ideologies, while these ideologies in turn undergird our tribal identities. Every tribe has its own story, in which members of other tribes are cast as villains. So, we can think of the balkanization of our present-day politics as fuelled by what Gottschall refers to in one of his chapter titles as “The Great War for Storyland.”
This insight lays the groundwork for one of the most startling elements of Gottschall’s analysis of the current condition of our democracy. Illustrating Plato’s concept of the noble lie, he describes the story of America as beginning with a bunch of fearless, freedom-loving pioneers who braved the Atlantic crossing, faced off against hostile natives, and heroically fought to establish a nation that afforded all its citizens the rights with which they had originally been endowed by their creator. Gottschall labels this story of American exceptionalism “Myth I.” As he points out, “Myth I was, like Plato’s noble lie, power politics disguised as history.” Elites rely on this narrative to justify their ever-increasing share of the nation’s wealth, their hold on legislative power and their efforts to expand American influence abroad.
But in the 1960s, scholars and activists turned this story inside-out, creating Gottschall’s “Myth II.” Suddenly, America’s story was no longer one of greatness and freedom or of people finding a foothold in a new land before marching outwards to spread those things to all corners of the globe. Now the story was of the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans and the colonialist exploitation of black and brown people in far-flung regions:
The transition from “noble lies” to “ignoble truths” was a process of simple inversion: the white man went from bearing the world’s burdens to being the world’s burden. It took the rose-colored glasses previously used to observe America and simply deepened the color of the lenses until all that could be seen was blood. The white man switched from hero to villain, but never stopped being a caricature. Myth II is still a story of American exceptionalism—but with America being exceptional only for its brilliance at self-delusion, oppression, and greed-fueled destruction.
As Gottschall stresses, this story misses several crucial points, just as the first one does. Indeed, while both versions of the American story contain elements of truth, neither can be said to be entirely true. “A story,” Gottschall writes, “is always an artificial, post-hoc fabrication with dubious correspondence to the past.”
Today, Myth I is favoured by the right, while Myth II is insisted on by the left. Which side is Gottschall on? “If you shuffle the two stories into each other like two incomplete stacks of playing cards,” he writes, “you get something like a complete history.” He includes a long section on Trump, whom he calls “the Big Blare,” in which he can’t hide either his disgust at the man’s antics or his admiration for his successes. But Gottschall is just as worried about academia and journalism falling under the sway of an all-encompassing counternarrative:
The ideological homogeneity of academia is compounded by an increasingly ruthless authoritarian streak with sacrosanct, unchallengeable dogmas especially surrounding identity issues like gender, race, sexuality, and so on. An intellectual atmosphere of terrorized conformity—with all the mobbing, deplatforming, canceling, and proscription of forbidden questions—contributes to a post-truth world as much as Big Blarism does.
For Gottschall, Trump’s wild electoral success is part and parcel of the colossal failure of the institutions whose mission is to help us discern fact from fiction. “If journalism and academia are operating as they should, they can act as arbiters in a democracy’s story wars,” he writes, adding that, if our commitment to truth-seeking had been strong enough, “our steep descent into a post-truth condition couldn’t have happened.”
The staggering political imbalances in the American professoriate are familiar to most of us by now. While about 25% of Americans identify as liberal and 36% as conservative, college faculties average 8.5 Democrats for every Republican. The numbers for many departments are even more skewed: the ratios of Democrats to Republicans are 33.5:1 for historians, 20:1 for journalists and 17.4:1 for psychologists. How can an institution accurately assess the validity of competing narratives when all its members share a commitment to the same narrative? And, as Gottschall explains, the dynamics of group psychology adds to the problem:
When homogeneous groups are insulated from skepticism and counterarguing, they stampede toward the most extreme position in the room. When you have a room full of partisans, the question asked is seldom “Are we going too far?” It’s usually “Are we going far enough?” This tendency is so strong and predictable that [Cass] Sunstein calls it “the law of group polarization.”
Of course, groups of likeminded people are also finding and radicalizing each other on social media platforms. So, however heartfelt Gottschall’s calls for greater viewpoint diversity on campuses may be, he has to acknowledge that the prevailing winds are steering us all towards more polarization and greater extremism.
In addition to his calls for more openness to dissenting ideas in academia, Gottschall envisions an intensified research programme exploring his own academic niche, which bridges the divide between a humanities approach to literature and a scientific approach to the psychology of storytelling. He writes:
If we hope to address civilization’s largest problems, we need a much better sense for the sneaky ways that stories work on our minds and societies. This means encouraging scholars across the humanities and human sciences to embark on a massively interdisciplinary effort in the new field of narrative psychology, combining the thick, granular knowledge of the humanities with the special tools of the sciences.
For many, this idea of a Third Culture, in which science and the humanities peacefully and productively coexist is an obvious next stage in the evolution of scholarship. Could such a “massively interdisciplinary effort” bring the story wars to a peaceful end? It seems unlikely. Gottschall ignores another problem here: many scholars in the humanities tell a story that casts scientists as villains.
In The Story Paradox, as in his previous two books, Gottschall produces real gems. The book is meticulously researched and engagingly written, with a style that is both witty and profound. The only real issue is that the book’s ideas may have a hard time finding a receptive audience. They will naturally appeal to people who loved Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy. But for people in the humanities—the traditional home for students of story—Gottschall’s proposed collaboration between science and literature will probably be treated as a Trojan horse: the first stage in a takeover that will leave no prisoners. Historian Timothy Snyder, for example, argues that Gottschall is quixotically “leading a charge against an enemy tribe of terrifying left-wing academics.” (I examine Snyder’s review in more detail here.) In reality, though, much of The Story Paradox—maybe too much—bolsters the left’s suspicion of narratives and their authors. While Gottschall’s theory is, for the most part, functional as opposed to aesthetic, by claiming that the true purpose of stories is “sway”—i.e., influence—he risks encouraging readers to be on the lookout for hidden messages in films or texts.
While we do need to reflect on the stories we tell ourselves and how they may cast others as villains, my hope is that we can leave room for the aesthetic experience of being absorbed in a well-constructed narrative. Sway may be storytelling’s ultimate purpose, but the proximate motivation for most authors is providing audiences with the delicious experience of momentarily absenting oneself from a life that is a bit too familiar or a bit too frightening. Though it is not a story, Gottschall’s book provides a similarly pleasant sense of being transported—even if its most frightening parts turn out to be real.