Learning Errors from Fiction: Difficulties in Reducing Reliance on Fictional Stories

By Marsh, Elizabeth J.; Fazio, Lisa K. | Memory & Cognition, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Learning Errors from Fiction: Difficulties in Reducing Reliance on Fictional Stories


Marsh, Elizabeth J., Fazio, Lisa K., Memory & Cognition


Readers rely on fiction as a source of information, even when fiction contradicts relatively wellknown facts about the world (Marsh, Meade, & Roediger, 2003). Of interest was whether readers could monitor fiction for errors, in order to reduce suggestibility. In Experiment 1, warnings about errors in fiction did not reduce students' reliance on stories. In Experiment 2, all subjects were warned before reading stories written at 6th- or 12th-grade reading levels. Even though 6th-grade stories freed resources for monitoring, suggestibility was not reduced. In Experiment 3, suggestibility was reduced but not eliminated when subjects pressed a key each time they detected an error during story reading. Readers do not appear to spontaneously monitor fiction for its veracity, but can do so if reminded on a trial-by-trial basis.

Fictional narratives often refer to people, places, and concepts that exist (or have existed) in the real world. The movie The Patriot (Emmerich, 2000) is set during the American Revolution, the actor John Malkovich plays himself in the surreal film Being John Malkovich (Jonze, 1999), and Tyrannosaurus rex rules in Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993). In the classroom, fiction can be a powerful tool to engage student interest (see, e.g., Dubeck, Moshier, & Boss, 1988). However, by definition, fiction is not always true to life. Many British objected to the portrayal of the war in The Patriot, in real life there is no portal to John Malkovich's brain, and it is impossible to clone dinosaurs. Fiction can be a source of false beliefs about the world.

Research supports the intuition that readers associate fiction's errors with their related world knowledge. Studying false facts slows (interferes with) later retrieval of related knowledge (Lewis & Anderson, 1976; Peterson & Potts, 1985). In some circumstances, prior reading of false facts shifts beliefs as reported on Likert scales (Prentice, Gerrig, & Bailis, 1997; Strange & Leung, 1999; Wheeler, Green, & Brock, 1999). Story reading increases production of false facts on a test of general knowledge, even when guessing is discouraged (Marsh, Meade, & Roediger, 2003). That is, subjects who read stories containing factual errors such as Wilmington is the capital of Delaware (see the Appendix; Marsh, 2004) later answered the factual question What is the capital of Delaware? with Wilmington at higher rates than did subjects who had not read the story. Perhaps even more surprising is that prior reading of misinformation reduced subjects' ability to correctly answer questions below baseline; having read the misinformation about Wllmington decreased correct responses (Dover) to a level below those of subjects who never read the story.

Given the importance of source memory problems in other memory errors, one might expect suggestibility to occur only after subjects have forgotten the fictional source of their knowledge (similarly to how low-credibility sources exert their influence on attitudes after a delay; Hovland, Lumsdaine, & Sheffield, 1949). Failure to monitor source is an important component of memory errors such as illusory truth (see, e.g., Begg, Anas, & Farinacci, 1992) and eyewitness susceptibility to postevent misinformation (Lindsay & Johnson, 1989). Similarly, in the domain of narrative persuasiveness, many readers could not recall whether passages had been labeled as fact (a newspaper article) or fiction (from a fiction magazine) (Green & Brock, 2000). However, source amnesia is not a necessary component of using false facts from fiction. That is, subjects rely on fictional stories even when they remember having read the facts in the stories (Marsh et al., 2003).

If not because of amnesia for the story source, why do readers rely on fictional sources? It is a puzzling result, since readers are at least somewhat aware of the problems with fiction. For example, a survey of Yale undergraduates revealed that many agreed that authors of fiction sometimes invent facts for storyline purposes (Prentice & Gerrig, 1999), and yet in other studies, story reading affected the beliefs of subjects from the same population. …

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Learning Errors from Fiction: Difficulties in Reducing Reliance on Fictional Stories
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