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Our fondness for narratives is driving us mad

We seem to be in a golden age of storytelling. Is it inhibiting rather than creating empathy?

The human propensity for storytelling makes us particularly receptive to narratives of good vs. evil, as in the "Star Wars" series. LUCASFILM

Stories are celebrated by great artists, thought leaders, and scientists as our best hope for reducing bigotry, building empathy, and ultimately encouraging us to behave more humanely. But how does this match up with the current state of the world?

We are living inside a digitally driven big bang of storytelling — a stunning expansion of the universe of stories across all media and genres. A 2020 Nielsen study reported that average Americans now consume a whopping 12 hours of media per day, much of it in narrative form, including hours upon hours of fiction. Now that we have more storytelling than ever, has empathy increased apace? Are we doing a better job of understanding each other across ancient divides of race, class, gender, religion, and political orientation? If stories have such sunny effects, why has the big bang of storytelling coincided with an explosive growth of hostility and polarization rather than harmony and connection?

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First, the good news. Well-publicized studies have shown that empathy is a bit like a muscle: The more we flex that muscle by consuming fiction, the more it swells. Research conducted around the world has repeatedly found that merely watching television shows or listening to radio dramas featuring diverse protagonists reduces a variety of viewer prejudices with more power and durability than do more conventional approaches to prejudice reduction like diversity training. Moreover, in an age of furious polarization, a 2021 study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that humble personal anecdotes can bridge fraught moral and political divides even when factual information can’t.

But there’s bad news too. Classically told stories tend to divide the world into good people (protagonists) and bad people (antagonists), which means they generate a unit of callousness for every unit of empathy. The act of generating empathy can also produce empathy’s inverse: a kind of moral blindness to the humanity of whoever’s forced into the villain’s role. Fiction, as Fritz Breithaupt explains in his 2019 book “The Dark Sides of Empathy,” conjures not just empathy but “empathetic sadism,” which he defines as “the emotional and intellectual enjoyment that most people feel in situations of altruistic punishment” — for example, when the hero kills, captures, or humiliates the villain.

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Empathetic sadism can spill over tragically from fiction to reality. A classic example is “Birth of a Nation,” the 1915 film that spread the mythology of the KKK. But its effects are most destructive in the narratives we label as nonfiction. Research in the emerging field of narrative psychology shows that people don’t come equipped with two narrative modes — one to cope with the neverlands of fiction and another to cope with the complexity of real life. Regardless of where stories sit on the fact-fiction continuum, they have a tendency to divide people into a moralistic trinary of heroes, villains, and victims. The same narrative psychology that allows us to pleasurably suspend disbelief for “Game of Thrones” or “Star Wars” is precisely what draws people into similarly rousing fantasies of good against evil laid out in the overlapping plots of QAnon, COVID-19 dis/misinformation, and the Big Lie of Donald Trump.

The rampant spread of powerful narratives of dis/misinformation is the most disturbing example of the awesome power of stories to drive a whole civilization mad in both senses of the word — to push us into epidemics of intense irrationality while revving up our rage and hostility. Here’s the question: In a world where new technology is making storytelling ever more powerful and weaponizable, where debunked conspiracies reliably outcompete truth in the marketplace of narratives, and where an American cold war of rival narratives is escalating toward something hot, how can we tell stories that build empathy and connection while weakening their capacity to provoke divisive us-vs.-them thinking?

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We need to move past any simple, naive intuition that storytelling must be a net good in human life. We have to recognize how our political narratives lure us into fantasies where “we” are good guys and “they” aren’t. These stories not only make us angry and judgy; they make us feel triumphantly virtuous for being so angry and judgy. It’s true that the most febrile narratives of wicked conspiracy, invented or elaborated by the most dangerously talented political storyteller in American history, are boiling up on the American right. But narratives on the left, for all the empathy they claim to champion, are also guilty of villainizing and thereby dehumanizing people on the other side.

We are storytelling animals, and we will no more give up our dependence on stories than our dependence on breathing. But that doesn’t mean we are doomed to tell stories only in the “bad” old ways.

When constructing narratives about reality, we should remember that over the last century, in an increasingly determined effort to hold the mirror of truth up to human nature, sophisticated novelists and filmmakers have challenged the cartoonish morality-tale structure of heroes against villains. “Moral ambiguity,” as Jonathan Franzen recently put it, has emerged as “a central artistic principle” in serious fiction. The irony is that by stripping away the caricatured villains from our political narratives and embracing the principle of moral ambiguity, we can make our stories of reality not only as empathetic and socially productive as great fiction but perhaps even as true.

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Jonathan Gottschall, a distinguished fellow in the English department at Washington & Jefferson College, in Pennsylvania, is the author of “The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down.”