Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Fiction and Factional Rage

One thing I often ruefully talk about on this blog is that getting people to cooperate and work well together is - obviously - hard. Yet working out incentives to get people to cooperate and flourish together is perhaps the central question we face as a society. The institutions of trust and cooperation and motivation that underlie the economy are of fundamental importance, and may fray or change as the economy evolves. That is an issue we duck when we talk about the economy just in terms of the latest data.

Adam Gopnik takes issue in an online New Yorker post with claims that an appreciation for fiction make people more likely to behave well:

And if these claims seem almost too large to argue, the more central claim—that stories increase our empathy, and “make societies work better by encouraging us to behave ethically”—seems too absurd even to argue with. Surely if there were any truth in the notion that reading fiction greatly increased our capacity for empathy then college English departments, which have by far the densest concentration of fiction readers in human history, would be legendary for their absence of back-stabbing, competitive ill-will, factional rage, and egocentric self-promoters; they’d be the one place where disputes are most often quickly and amiably resolved by mutual empathetic engagement. It is rare to see a thesis actually falsified as it is being articulated.

(h/t Arts and Letters Daily)


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