[ Question ]

I'm looking for research looking at the influence of fiction on changing elite/public behaviors and opinions

by Timothy Underwood1 min read7th Aug 20207 comments


Fiction (Topic)PracticalWorld Optimization

The context of the question is that I'm a self published novelist, and I've decided that I want to focus the half of my time that I'm focusing on less commercial projects on writing books that might be directly useful in EA terms, probably by making certain ideas about AI more widely known. I at some point decided it might be a good idea to learn more about examples of literature actually making an important difference beyond the examples that immediately came to my mind -- which were Uncle Tom's Cabin, Atlas Shrugged, Methods of Rationality and the way the LGBTQ movement probably gained a lot of its present acceptance through fictional representation.

I've found some stuff through academia.edu searches (like this journal article describing the results of a survey of readers of climate change fiction), but it seems like there is a good chance that the community might be able to point me in useful directions that I won't quickly find on my own.

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(Apologies for the short answer; I'll expand it if I find more extensive resources.)

My go-to keyword for this would be storytelling in science communication, through which I found the following:

For more decision-maker-oriented literature:

From a cursory reading, this is focused on short fictional stories that concisely illustrate a point, as a way to drive insight more easily. Something very targeted.

I'll have to dig more into the effects of longer works of fiction; I don't have quick references about this at the moment.

Thanks, that's brilliant, and gave me several new ideas on keywords to look for.

Some examples (I'm considering fiction generally and not just written fiction):

  • The film The Day After was seen by 100 million Americans and was instrumental in changing Reagan’s nuclear policy.
    • «President Ronald Reagan watched the film several days before its screening, on November 5, 1983. He wrote in his diary that the film was "very effective and left me greatly depressed," and that it changed his mind on the prevailing policy on a "nuclear war". The film was also screened for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A government advisor who attended the screening, a friend of Meyer's, told him "If you wanted to draw blood, you did it. Those guys sat there like they were turned to stone." Four years later, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed and in Reagan's memoirs he drew a direct line from the film to the signing.» (Wikipedia)
    • «Director Meyer and writer Hume produced The Day After to support nuclear disarmament with the ‘grandiose notion that this movie would unseat Ronald Reagan’, and the nuclear freeze groups heavily exploited the ABC movie as a propaganda.» (Hänni, A chance for a propaganda coup?)
  • Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon deeply influenced Edward Teller, whose views about the Soviet Union were central in his efforts to persuade the US to develop the hydrogen bomb.
  • The short documentary film If you love this planet influenced Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau.
  • The mini-series Holocaust motivated the abolition of the statute of limitations for war crimes in Germany:
    • «In 1978 the major breakthrough into general consciousness of US citizens came with the showing on prime-time television of a four-part series simply entitled Holocaust, which was watched by nearly 100 million Americans. The fictional drama that followed the lives of a Jewish family, exposed to the full horrors of the Holocaust, and an SS man who rose to a leading position in the implementation of the extermination programme, captured the imagination in ways that scholarly literature could never do. Jewish organizations maximized the subsequent publicity opportunities presented by the success of the series to spread awareness of the Holocaust still further, both in Jewish and non-Jewish communities.
      In West Germany a year later the showing of the series was a sensation. Holocaust was watched by around 20 million viewers (around half of the West German viewing population), who were transfixed by the personalized and highly emotional dramatic depiction of persecution and extermination. People empathized with the victims and recognized the monumentality of the crime as they had never done before. ‘A nation is shocked’ was the verdict of one scholarly analysis of the impact of the film.“ ‘Holocaust has shaken up post-Hitler Germany in a way that German intellectuals have been unable to do,’ commented the widely read weekly Der Spiegel. More than three decades after the end of the war an American film, criticized by some as reducing the destruction of the Jews to the level of a ‘soap opera’, had opened up the sense of national guilt. The following year the Federal Parliament (the Bundestag) abolished the statute of limitations on war crimes, permitting further legal prosecution of perpetrators of the Holocaust. The film was widely seen as playing a significant role in the decision.» (Ian Kershaw, The Global Age, ch. 8)
  • Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What is to be done had a more profound influence on Lenin than even Marx's Kapital, and is plausibly a causal antecedent to the Russian Revolution.

Thanks for those examples. I have been looking for cases of movies also. Also it is good that you had here an example of something that a lot of people would view as a negative case (making the invention of the hydrogen bomb faster).

What surprised me and conflicted with my intuitions is the way that works of art pushing already highly familiar ideas that already had lots of artistic works about them are capable of still having a huge effect if they catch the public imagination in either a way previous works hadn't, or that this particular generation o... (read more)

2Matt Goldenberg9moIt feels like a lot of what made the cases above work is that they influenced specific people. There may be other cases of media being popular and having an impact on the populace, but one way to make your media really effective is to show it to someone influential.
2Pablo9moThere's also the example of a work without which the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent deaths of tens of millions of people in famines and mass killings, may not have occurred. But until you mentioned it, I hadn't realized that fiction appears to be more often credited with having a positive than a negative influence, whereas for philosophy the reverse seems to be the case. Would be interesting to move beyond impressions and come up with a more rigorous way of testing this.
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More of an anecdote than research, but I recently became aware of Dr. A.J Cronin’s novel “The Citadel” published in 1937 and the claim that the book prompted new ideas about medicine and ethics, inspiring to some extent the UK NHS and the ideas behind it. Did not look into this much myself, but certainly a very fascinating story, if true.