Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

"Imagination, Transportation, and Moral Persuasion" by M.B. Willard


M. B. Willard is a metaphysician with an aesthetics problem.  She is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Weber State University.
Imagine becoming adrift in a novel in the way often described by avid readers:  you’ve become lost in the book.  Perhaps you’ve become so engrossed that your coffee grows cold, neglected on the table beside you.  Perhaps you’ve lost track of time, to be startled when the clock chimes.  Perhaps the story is deeply sad, and you spend the rest of the day in a mild malaise.  Perhaps the story’s protagonist struggled in abject poverty, and you come away believing that while of course the story is made up, people really do live like that, and you resolve to increase your annual contributions to charity.
(Or perhaps you watched Star Trek; you spend the rest of the day mildly keyed up against injustice, and rebuke the man in front of you at Starbucks when he is rude to the barista.  No judgment, Walter Mitty.)
You’ve been transported  (cf. Gerrig 1993); through fiction, you’ve visited a new world, and you’ve returned somewhat changed.  

Question #1: in what sense, if any, is the work responsible for the changes in you?  Question #2:  what features of the work enable these changes?

In this post, I want to introduce transportation, a possible psychological mechanism by which works are persuasive, and sketch some reasons to think that transportation has to figure in our account of fiction and its capacity for moral persuasion.

Philosophers since Plato have recognized that narrative fictions have the power to persuade us morally.  Contemporary philosophers have developed accounts of the effects of narrative fiction on our real-world attitudes, emotions, and actions, or fiction’s capacity for moral persuasion (cf. Liao 2013.)  Much of recent philosophical discussion focuses on delineating the capacity for moral persuasion by focusing on what the work licenses for import and export based on its similarity to the actual world, and genre and other artistic conventions that function like conversational constraints.  (Lewis 1983; Gendler 2000; Gendler 2006; Hazlett and Mag Uidhir 2011; Liao and Gendler 2011.)   Roughly, all else being equal, a realistic work has a greater capacity for moral persuasion than a work of fantasy, because a realistic work invites the import of real-world attitudes and beliefs and so sanctions the export of fictional attitudes and beliefs.  
We philosophers haven’t focused as much on what makes a work persuasive; such concerns tend to wind up tucked snugly in the ceteris paribus clauses.   I think we should, for there is reason to think that a work’s capacity for moral persuasion tracks not just its similarity to the actual world, but to its propensity to transport its consumers.  The intuition is this: works that grip us (or the ideal or normal consumer) are more responsible for their effects on us than works that leave us cold.
So… how do works grip us?
The term “transportation” comes to us from psychology.  I’ll look at a couple of studies here. Psychologists Green and Brock define transportation into a narrative world “as a distinct mental process, an integrative melding of attention, imagery and feelings.”  (Green and Brock 2000)   In their experiments, subjects were asked to read a realistic narrative, answer questions that gauged the extent to which they had been transported by the work, and then answer a series of questions about the work and their attitudes.    
For my purposes here, a few of their results are especially noteworthy.  Green and Brock used realistic fictions in their studies. They found that the more a subject was transported by the story, the more she was likely to have her attitudes changed after reading it.  Interestingly, subjects were no more likely to be persuaded by the stories if they were told that the stories were true than if they were told that they were fictional.  Because of this, Green and Brock concluded that transportation is the primary mechanism by which narratives persuade their consumers.   
They also noted that attitudes and beliefs only loosely related to the fiction were affected by the extent of the subjects’ transportation.  Subjects who were transported by the story of the violent murder of a young girl at a shopping mall were more likely to assent to the proposition “crime doesn’t pay.”  Being transported, in other words, made them more likely to revise beliefs that were not directly addressed by the fiction.
In a further study, subject was more likely to be transported by a work if it resonated with her own experiences.  One of the stories in study concerned a gay man who attended to his college fraternity reunion ; subjects were more likely to be transported if they had experiences with fraternities, or if they had a gay friend. (Green 2004.)
What are we to make of this?  Some quick thoughts; I’d appreciate yours in comments:
If transportation is the mechanism according to which consumers of fictions are persuaded about moral matters, then it seems reasonable to tie fictions’ capacity for moral persuasion not to the similarity of the fiction to the actual world, but to the fictions’ capacity for transportation.  In some cases, that will track the similarity of the work to the actual world.  After all, a realistic work will likely feature many episodes that will resonate with its consumers, and some will find themselves to be transported.   
But a work need not be realistic to have a great capacity for moral persuasion, for transportation could conceivably be achieved by other means than similarity to the actual world.  The film The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) seems to invite the consumer to believe moral propositions about the value of bravery in the face of long odds and friendship; but it is transportive not due to its realism, but because of vast CGI hordes of orcs and a Balrog!   Were the action sequences dull and clumsy (and if you found them so, you’re already there), the film would not be as transportive, and its moral message, to the extent that it has one, would be weaker. A full treatment of transportation will have to address aliefs, I suspect, and their relationship to belief.
Some of the features which lend themselves to transportation may be external (in some sense) to the narrative, especially if we consider visual media and live performance.   Here’s a case in point.  Storyteller Mike Daisey’s monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs interspersed Daisey’s imaginative accounts of Steve Jobs’ career at Apple with his own seemingly journalistic account of traveling to Shenzen, China to visit a factory where iPads and iPods are made.  Daisey never claimed that his performance was factual, but the exuberance of his presentation, the sparsity of his set, and his masterful voice transported the audience, so much so that they were willing to take his performance as literally true. (Those of you who are fans of This American Life will remember the subsequent fallout after excerpts were presented as amateur journalism on the radio program; Daisey surely bears responsibility for misleading them, but it’s curious that the producers were so ready to believe him.)

I have suggested that a work’s capacity for moral persuasion depends on whether the work successfully transports its consumers.  Much more, of course, remains to be said.

3 thoughts on “"Imagination, Transportation, and Moral Persuasion" by M.B. Willard

  1. Sorry that my only comment is about the way in which the author was introduced: “M. B. Willard is a metaphysician with an aesthetics problem.” That sounds like a euphemistic way of saying that she has no taste.


  2. Hey MB. Thanks for the plugs. I think the Lord of the Rings / honor case is really nice, and potentially making trouble for some things I say in my 2013. And I'm generally persuaded by the thesis that moral persuasion is not tied to realism, but transportation. (Green, Brock, and Gerrig all emphasize this connection quite explicitly, in my view — even if they don't use the same philosophical vocabs.)

    One thing I was worrying about is the notion of “realism” here. You seem to be thinking of realism as a unitary scale measuring similarity between a fictional world and the actual world. But I wonder if it'd be more productive to think of realism-in-various-dimensions instead. LOTR might be highly unrealistic in a sentient-entities dimension but highly realistic in moral-virtues-and-vices dimension. Of course, it's difficult to delineate different dimensions, but we might let context do the hard work here. It seems to me, at least, that there is no more trouble in spelling out the relevant realism dimension in a given context than spelling out the relevant counterpart relation in a given context (for whatever that's worth).

    I look forward to reading your to-be-published works on this topic.


  3. “But a work need not be realistic to have a great capacity for moral persuasion.”–Doesn't the end result of the transportation lead to schizophrenic/fragmented soul that takes on two realities?


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