Academic journal article Style

The Bushwhacked Piano and the Bushwhacked Reader: The Willing Construction of Disbelief

Academic journal article Style

The Bushwhacked Piano and the Bushwhacked Reader: The Willing Construction of Disbelief

Article excerpt

The opening paragraphs of Thomas McGuane's novel, The Bushwhacked Piano, seem destined to transport readers to an engaging narrative world:

      Years ago, a child in a tree with a small caliber rifle
   bushwhacked a piano through the open summer window of a neighbor's
   living room. The child's name was Nicholas Payne.

      Dragged from the tree by the piano's owner, his rifle smashed up
   on a rock and flung, he was held by the neck in the living room and
   obliged to view the piano point blank, to dig into its interior and
   see the cut strings, the splintered holes that let slender shafts
   of light ignite small circles of dark inside the piano.

      "You have spoiled my piano." (11)

How do readers respond to these paragraphs? Researchers in cognitive psychology have most often focused on what readers are compelled to do: Theories have centered on the automatic processes that provide the backbone of readers' experiences of texts (for reviews, see Gueraud and O'Brien). Such processes are called automatic because their high degree of practice makes it possible for them to occur in almost all circumstances and without explicit planning. Those theories might specify, for example, how readers' inferential processes enable them to understand the "splintered holes" as the products of bullets that are never mentioned.

In this article, we embrace the traditional cognitive psychological imperative to specify what texts compel readers to do. However, we develop a somewhat untraditional perspective by outlining the types of processes that become relevant rather than attending to specific representations or inferences. In particular, we argue that people have two classes of processes that guide their life experiences: judgments based on intuition and judgments based on reflection (Kahneman and Frederick; Sloman, "Two Systems," "Empirical Case"; Stanovich and West).

We begin by exemplifying process differences between these two types of judgments. We then provide three case studies of how readers' narrative experiences are constrained by the operation of these two types of processes. The first case study examines how readers make sense of characters' actions with respect to the latters' goals. The second case study concerns readers' moral engagement with characters. The final case study delineates circumstances in which readers' experiences of narratives have an impact on their real-world judgments. We anchor each case study with excerpts from The Bushwhacked Piano. We chose McGuane's novel because it provides pervasive evidence for the tension between the products of the two types of processes. In the article's final section, we draw upon literary analyses to discuss how individuals may become more reflective in their reading.

Intuitive and Reflective Processes

Consider the following story which was written by Tversky and Kahneman to study processes of everyday judgment:

   John P. is a meek man, 42 years old, married with two children. His
   neighbors describe him as mild-mannered, but somewhat secretive. He
   owns an import-export company based in New York City, and he
   travels frequently to Europe and the Far East. Mr. P. was convicted
   once for smuggling precious stones and metals (including uranium)
   and received a suspended sentence of 6 months in jail and a large
   line.

   Mr. P is currently under police investigation. (307)

After experimental participants read this text, Tversky and Kahneman asked them to rank order a set of statements "by the probability that they will be among the conclusions of the investigation." Roughly half of the participants ranked these four statements:

1. Mr. P. is a childmolester.

2. Mr. P. is involved in espionage and the sale of secret documents.

3. Mr. P. is a drug addict.

4. Mr. P. killed one of his employees.

For the second half of the participants, the list had a different final statement: "4A. …

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