Get smarter, faster. Subscribe to our daily newsletter.
How dystopian narratives can incite real-world radicalism
People often incorporate lessons from fictional stories into their beliefs, attitudes and value judgments, sometimes without even being aware that they are doing so.
According to Goodreads.com, an online community that has grown to 90 million readers, the share of books categorised as 'dystopian' in 2012 was the highest for more than 50 years. The boom appears to have begun after the terrorist attacks on the United States of 11 September 2001. The share of dystopian stories skyrocketed in 2010 as publishers flocked to capitalise on the success of the Hunger Games novels (2008-10), Suzanne Collins's gripping trilogy about a totalitarian society 'in the ruins of a place once known as North America'. What should we make of the fact that dystopian fiction is so popular?
A great deal of ink has been spilled exploring why these narratives are so appealing. But another important question is: So what? Is dystopian fiction likely to affect anyone's real-world political attitudes? If so, then how? And how much should we care about its impact? In our research, we set out to answer these questions using a series of experiments.
Before we began, we knew many political scientists would likely be skeptical. After all, it seems unlikely that fiction – something known to be 'made up' – could be capable of influencing people's real-world outlooks. Yet a growing body of research shows that there is no 'strong toggle' in the brain between fiction and nonfiction. People often incorporate lessons from fictional stories into their beliefs, attitudes and value judgments, sometimes without even being aware that they are doing so.
Dystopian fiction, moreover, is likely to be especially powerful because it is inherently political. We focus here on the totalitarian-dystopian genre, which portrays a dark and disturbing alternative world where powerful entities act to oppress and control citizens, violating fundamental values as a matter of course. (While post-apocalyptic narratives, including those about zombies, can also be considered 'dystopian', the standard setting is politically very different, emphasising chaos and the collapse of social order, and thus is likely to affect people in different ways.)
Certainly, individual totalitarian-dystopian storylines vary. To give a few popular examples, torture and surveillance feature in George Orwell's 1984 (1949); organ harvesting in the Unwind series (2007-) by Neal Shusterman; mandatory plastic surgery in the Uglies series (2005-7) by Scott Westerfeld; mind control in Lois Lowry's The Giver (1993); gender inequality in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985); government-arranged marriage in the Matched trilogy (2010-12) by Ally Condie; and environmental disaster in the Maze Runner series (2009-16) by James Dashner. But all such narratives conform to genre conventions of character, setting and plot. As observed by Carrie Hintz and Elaine Ostry, the editors of Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Young Children and Adults (2003), in these societies 'the ideals for improvement have gone tragically amok'. While there are occasional exceptions, dystopian fiction typically valorises dramatic and often violent rebellion by a courageous few.
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).
Why might dystopian fiction have these startling effects? Perhaps a simple priming mechanism was at work. The violent action scenes could easily have triggered excitement in a way that made our subjects more willing to justify political violence. Violent video games, for instance, can heighten aggressive cognitions, and dystopian fiction often contains violent imagery with rebels fighting against the powers that be.
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.
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.
Does this mean that dystopian fiction is a threat to democracy and political stability? Not necessarily, although the fact that it is sometimes censored suggests that some leaders do think along these lines. For example, Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) is still banned in North Korea, and even in the US, the top 10 books most frequently targeted for removal from school libraries in the past decade include The Hunger Games and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1931). Dystopian narratives offer the lesson that radical political action can be a legitimate response to perceived injustice. However, the lessons people take away from media, be it fiction or nonfiction, might not always stick and, even when they do stick, people don't necessarily act on them.
Dystopian fiction continues to offer a powerful lens through which people view the ethics of politics and power. Such narratives might have a positive effect in keeping citizens alert to the possibility of injustice in a variety of contexts, ranging from climate change and artificial intelligence to authoritarian resurgences worldwide. But a proliferation of dystopian narratives might also encourage radical, Manichaean perspectives that oversimplify real and complex sources of political disagreement. So while the totalitarian-dystopian craze might nourish society's 'watchdog' role in holding power to account, it can also fasttrack some to violent political rhetoric – and even action – as opposed to the civil and fact-based debate and compromise necessary for democracy to thrive.
- The information arms race can't be won, but we have to keep fighting ... ›
- Why your favourite film baddies all have a truly evil laugh | Aeon Ideas ›
An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.
- A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
- A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
- Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.
The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.
Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .
The Barry Arm Fjord
Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach
Image source: Matt Zimmerman
The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.
Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest
Image source: whrc.org
There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.
The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.
"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."
Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.
What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord
Moving slowly at first...
Image source: whrc.org
"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."
The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.
Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.
Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.
While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.
Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."
How do you prepare for something like this?
Image source: whrc.org
The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:
"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."
In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.
What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?
Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.
- A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
- The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
- Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.