How dystopian narratives can incite real-world radicalism | Calvert Jones, Celia Paris

A really interesting read on how dystopian narratives can incite real-world radicalism. By dystopian narratives, think something like the Hunger Games novels.

Link: How dystopian narratives can incite real-world radicalism

To test the impact of dystopian fiction on political attitudes, we randomly assigned subjects from a sample of American adults to one of three groups. The first group read an excerpt from The Hunger Games and then watched scenes from the 2012 movie adaptation. The second group did the same, except with a different dystopian series – Veronica Roth’s Divergent (2011-18). It features a futuristic US in which society has split into factions dedicated to distinct values; those whose capabilities cross faction lines are viewed as a threat. In the third group – the no-media control group – subjects were not exposed to any dystopian fiction prior to answering questions about their social and political attitudes.

What we found was striking. Even though they were fictional, the dystopian narratives affected subjects in a profound way, recalibrating their moral compasses. Compared with the no-media control group, subjects exposed to the fiction were 8 percentage points more likely to say that radical acts such as violent protest and armed rebellion could be justifiable. They also agreed more readily that violence is sometimes necessary to achieve justice (a similar increase of about 8 percentage points).

That sounds... concerning.

To test this hypothesis, we conducted a second experiment, again with three groups, and this time with a sample of college students around the US. The first group was exposed to The Hunger Games and, as before, we included a second, no-media control group. The third group, however, was exposed to violent scenes from the Fast and Furious movie franchise (2001-), similar in length and type to the violence in the Hunger Games excerpts.

Once again, dystopian fiction shaped people’s ethical judgments. It heightened their willingness to justify radical political action compared with the no-media controls, and the increases were similar in magnitude to what we found in the first experiment. But the equally violent and high-adrenaline action scenes from Fast and Furious had no such effect. So violent imagery alone could not explain our findings.

Interesting... though I wonder, what violent scenes from Fast and Furious were they shown? Violent scenes involving people driving cars? There are a lot of high-adrenaline action scenes, yes, but most of the those scenes involve cars doing crazy stunts. There are some fight scenes, but those are par for the course for a typical Hollywood action movie. What violent scenes does Fast and Furious have that equal scenes from the Hunger Games movies?

Our third experiment explored whether a key ingredient was the narrative itself – that is, a story about brave citizens contending with an unjust government, whether fictional or nonfictional. So this time, our third group read and watched media segments about a real-world protest against corrupt Thai government practices. Clips from CNN, BBC and other news sources showed government forces in riot gear using violent tactics such as tear gas and water cannons to suppress masses of citizens protesting injustice.

Despite being real, these images had little effect on subjects. Those in the third group were no more willing to justify political violence than the no-media controls. But those exposed to the Hunger Games dystopian-fiction narrative were significantly more willing to see radical and violent political acts as legitimate, compared with those exposed to the real-world news story. (The difference was about 7-8 percentage points, comparable with the two previous experiments.) Overall, then, it appears that people might be more inclined to draw ‘political life lessons’ from a narrative about an imaginary political world than from fact-based reporting about the real world.

Wow, I was sure those news videos would at least have a similar effect; they did not. What is it with the Hunger Games fictional novels then? Again, that sounds... concerning. Especially since a whole generation of kids grew up reading those books, or are currently growing up reading said books. Heck, even I read the Hunger Games and Divergent novels. Coney made me read them; they are good fiction novels.

That said, I don't feel like those novels influenced me to support real-world radicalism though. They were just, stories, novels to me. I discussed this with Coney and she said it probably didn't affect us, because when we read them, we were already older and more mature. I think that's a good point. Which is why, I think it would be really interesting if the researchers did the same experiments on adults, like those 30 years old and above. Would be curious to see what the results would be.


In any case, this seems to be something to keep in my mind once Davin and Caleb starts asking for books to read in the future. As I am finishing up this post, Davin is currently asking me, “Now which book do you want?” I repeat the question back to him, which is what he wanted me to do in the first place. But at the back of my mind I was answering, “Anything but fictional dystopian novels. At least not until you're older buddy...”

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