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greg dahlen

Alumnus, academy of achievement

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Why do we like watching TV and movies when we know it's all fake?

I'm a huge fan of movies that are fictional stories, and TV shows. I often enjoy the adventure movies where things happen that really don't and probably couldn't happen in real life, and I guess other people do, too. I wonder why we enjoy them when we know they're all fake?

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Closing Statement from greg dahlen

Well, I really need to differentiate two kinds of "fake." For one, there's the fact that everything is fake in a fictional story in the sense that it has all been written by someone and is being put on by actors pretending to be someone. Then there's the sense of "fake" of things happening that are impossible, like Superman flying.

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    Mar 22 2013: My own feeling is that we are narrative animals. Our stories are a key part of our identity, and watching them can form part of our programming. Assuming of course a computer is a good analogy for the way our brains work.

    Though, I suspect, the connection is a complex one. For example we do not just take in everything we see. We filter out a lot of information, we have to have a level of agreement with the way the message is transmitted, and a level of trust for the sender of the message.

    There seems to me plenty of folklore evidence that our stories shape the way we think. The question then is how might watching a type of scene repeatedly normalize some behaviors. It might be that the behavior that is normalized is the passive watching of violent events, as that is after all what we are doing in a movie theater.

    Or, as seems a bit more likely to me, we learn how a hero is supposed to behave, as we are adding a tiny bit more detail to the model hero in our memories every time we watch a hero in action.

    Even though we know what we are watching is not real, the screen can still fool us. If you ever meet a familiar face from TV in real life, our first reaction is to think we know them. But maybe that is a different conversation.
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      Mar 22 2013: I LIKE using a computer as an analogy for the way our brain works Seamus! I also agree that we have filters, which we, as individuals are more or less aware of, agreement and trust are factors regarding whether or not we will accept or reject information. It's like turning on and off certain programs on a computer. We can allow information to come into our computer/brain by "opening" it.....or not.

      You say..."If you ever meet a familiar face from TV in real life, our first reaction is to think we know them". That happened to me locally, because I did quite a lot of TV commercial work, and I wasn't really well known or anything, so people would stop me on the street and think I was an old friend. I was apparently very familier to them, so they wanted to connect, and they could not usually "place" me. Now, 20 years after the fact, I look at films or photos of characters I played, and although logically I KNOW it is me, it almost feels like observing someone else!
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      Mar 30 2013: Seamus, I'm having a bit of trouble gaining the gold from your comment because I'm getting confused as to when you say stories, you mean when we tell each other real stories about things that happened to us, or when we tell madeup stories, or both?
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        Mar 31 2013: I mean both Greg, my suspicion is that we give little extra weight to the spoken stories people tell us about things that really happened to them or, more often, people they know.

        Like many people I have a folklore theory that stories are important for human society in that they capture knowledge about how the society and the world work and in a sense program people with that knowledge.

        Let us assume that, for humans, stories are a form of evidence in our decision making using Bayesian logic.

        There are a few reasons for giving more or less equal weight to 'true' and 'made up' stories. First of all, other evidence aside, there is equal probability that a story will be true or not. Secondly our experience tells us that in a certain percentage of cases people have told us as true stories that turned out to be false. Third we know that 'false' or made up stories are used to teach people truths about the world. For example think of the truths in fables and fairy tales.

        Oral story telling, to my mind, must have formed a key function in how we develop the second evolutionary channel; the development of all those things that make us different from other species of animal.

        So my short answer to the original question is we like watching things that are fake in TV and movie shows because we are programmed or hard-wired to collect information on experiences beyond our own immediate experiences. We do not care if the second hand experience is true or false because we should treat them all with an amount of skepticism.

        P.S.
        By the way there is another theory that we enjoy stories because they allow our brains to rehearse, and so give us the chemical rush, of dangerous experiences without actually being in danger. I saw a report of that theory being presented by a man, with a caption telling me he was a scientist who studied thrill emotions. - You could probably look that up.

        So you should give more weight to that than what your told by an eejit from the country
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          Apr 5 2013: Many good ideas in both your comments, Seamus. But what do you mean by "the second evolutionary channel," in order to understand your comments I believe I have to understand each detail.

          I am a bit surprised that you don't more strongly differentiate stories people we know tell us about things that happened to them versus stories on TV and movies. My thinking in this question is that in the stories people we know tell us about real-life things that happened to them, we can enjoy because we can empathize with the feeling they had as they experienced the events, and also learn what happened to the other person and what we might do in the same situation. Watching a movie, on the other hand, we know it's very unlikely we will ever fight anyone on top of a boxcar of a rolling train, a la James Bond, so why do we enjoy watching that? Maybe because it's something we hadn't even thought of it as a possibility before, the movies show us things that conceivably could happen and we've never thought of in our little life?

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