The curious persistence of suspension of disbelief

Something I write about a lot in my philosophical work is emotional responses to fictions. Why do I cry at the end of Terms of Endearment? I know it’s not real. Why do I root for Matthew and Lady Mary to get together on Downton Abbey? They don’t exist!

Philosophers have generally set the question up as a paradox (known, rather uncreatively, as the paradox of fiction). There are three statements that each seem plausible but are mutually contradictory. So one must be denied. They are:

  1. One has emotional responses to fictional characters and events.
  2. Emotions presuppose belief in the existence of the object of the emotion. (So, for example, the emotion of ‘fear of a dog’ includes both a bodily response and a judgment that the dog is dangerous to you. So you can’t be genuinely afraid of something if you don’t actually think it exists, because you can’t judge it as posing a danger to you.)
  3. One does not believe in the existence of fictional characters and objects.

I bring this question up with my students before we’ve read anything on it. I ask them why they respond emotionally to fictions. 9 out of 10 of them will say “suspension of disbelief.” In other words, they deny 3. They think that for the duration of engagement with a fiction, one believes the events are occurring.

I think this is actually the least plausible response. Obviously, you don’t believe what’s going on. You don’t even have to pry into anybody’s mental states to see that. You don’t behave remotely like you would if you believed the events were occurring. Why wouldn’t you call 911 when the killer enters the house where the woman lies innocently sleeping? Why don’t you run out of the theater the instant you see a zombie lumbering toward the screen? Why does it make sense to turn to the person next to you and say, “Why is Brad Pitt so angry at that guy?” i.e., using the actor name instead of the character name?

Some people then say you half-believe it. But you don’t even think of reaching for your phone and dialing 911. Not only that, your emotional responses are often not what you would have if you half-believed the situation to be true. I’ve just gotten done plowing through Agatha Christies, and you don’t get particularly sad or scared or unsettled at the appearance of a corpse. In Independence Day┬áthe Empire State Building gets blown up, and it’s fun and exciting. It doesn’t remotely resemble the reaction most of us had when we really did see New York skyscrapers get blown up.

One of my students just asked why so many people believe in the suspension of disbelief. And honestly, I don’t know why this view has become the common sense view. On almost every other issue I write on, I think the common ense view at least has a lot going for it. But I don’t know why people persist in believing in the suspension of disbelief.

(BTW, I deny 2.)


Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. Did you have an emotional reaction to the death of Trayvon Martin? I did, even though I’d never heard of him and couldn’t, if pressed, prove that he ever existed. And I’ll never know him half so well as I “know”, say, Miles Vorkosigan. Emotional reactions to anyone outside ourselves and perhaps those in our immediate circle are based entirely on empathy, and empathizing with a fictional character is not really that different from empathizing with an actual person whom we know only via some narrative.

  2. I know this post included a lot of words. Sadly, I am incapable of responding to any of them because I cannot stop staring at the picture.

  3. I deny two as well. I know someone who created a “too good to be true” haunted house. Ditched it after a few days because there were too many people pissing their pants. The true and honest fear of the unknown…

  4. I think that a better term is “verisimilitude”.

    If I watch Kermit and Fozzie have a conversation about the fear of failure, I am right there and hanging on their every word. If I watch Morgan Freeman say “log onto the mainframe” and Howie Long says “I’m on it!” and we see a Windows screen and bars filling up and then Howie Long yelling “we’ve got a virus!”, my eyes start rolling to the back of my head.

  5. Fiction is like cat’s play. It’s not real, and you know the cat knows it too =– but it’s still fun, and good training (particularly for autistics)

    • The benefits of fiction and pretending is something I write about, too. Good for everyone.

      • Have you read Bettelheim’s “Uses of Enchantment”? While I am generally reluctant to recommend because of the stigma (rightfully) attached to his being a proponent of the “refrigerator mother” theory on autism, that book is a pretty fascinating look at the role of and need for pretend and make-believe for children and, subsequently, adults.

        So much of fiction is about symbolism. I didn’t *almost* cry at the end of “The Express” just because it was a sad story (it was, but so are many others) or just because I was drunk (I was, but I never get beer tears) but because those two factors combined with my own fears about unrealized potential and the cruel joke that is human frailty, which was easily the most powerful of the three factors.

        • That’s a not uncommon view among philosophers. You’re denying 1, and saying the emotions are really about the actual world, not the fictional one.

          I didn’t read Bettelheim. Read some Vygotsky and Piaget, but was mostly focused on very recent empirical work.

          • I suppose I am denying #1 then. I am not particularly well-versed in philosophy, but as an early childhood teacher, am very well versed in Piaget and Vygotsky, much less so in Bettelheim. But he is an interesting read if you are studying pretend and make-believe and thankfully some of his more abhorrent ideas do not trickle into his work there.

            What is always a struggle for me when I am “suspending belief” is that I still require/demand an internal consistency. For instance, my issue (or one of my many issues) with the Harry Potter series was not the magic; I got it, they were wizards, we were accepting that they existed within a magical universe. No, what bothered me was WHY THE HELL THEY NEVER USED THE TIME TURNER AGAIN?!?! I mean, if we are going to accept that there exists this magic universe within which exists a time traveling device that essentially allows the user to solve any problem by simply going back in time, why did this device cease to be used after the 3rd book? I could suspend belief enough to accept magic but not enough to accept such silly logic and, really, poor writing. This is my downfall with many works and probably says as much about me as anything else.

          • I thought they were all destroyed in the attack on the Ministry, or some such handwaving,

            Why Dumbledore didn’t use one to ambush Voldemort before he could kill Lily and James Potter, I can’t tell you.

  6. Interesting thoughts. However, I don’t see how 1 and 3 are contradictory.

    Further, is it not possible to hold all 3 contradictory positions? Perhaps your higher functions hold #3 and possibly #2, but your reptilian brain holds #1 and possibly #2.

    The animal brain is much more powerful than our higher functions, and doesn’t require reason or logic. In fact, I might even argue that it cannot require those things.

    And, perhaps “suspension of disbelief” is really just a way of saying “the reptilian brain takes over”.

    • I don’t see 1 and 3 as contradictory either, which is why I deny 2.

      Some people argue that there is a sort of modular belief going on. So part of you believes it. Tht’s what I meant when I addressed half-believing.

      A reptilian response is clearly in action when you jump in surprise when the zombie crashes through the window. It’s harder to explain pity for Anna Karenina on a reptilian brain.

      • Well, the reptilian brain can also contain some basic forms of altruism or empathy, I think.

        In addition, I think of it (the reptilian brain) as more of a filter: the reptilian brain filters the cognitive dissonance out of the situation and then it passes through to the higher functions.

        More analog, less digital.

        The higher functions can have pity for Anna, but the paradox is handled first by the reptilian brain.

        • Certainly, one can have a reptilian response to a visual fiction (startle, sexual attraction). Much less obvious how that info is going to get into your reptilian brain via a novel.

          • Not sure what you’re saying here, but it seems like you are saying that the act of reading bypasses the reptilian brain.

            Since our other brains (higher functions) sit on top of the ancient reptilian brain, I always considered everything as filtering through it. Are you claiming something different here?

          • That’s exactly what’s happening. Reading is parsed through the retina, obviously, but it’s processed in the back of the brain, in the visual cortex. Watch a child learn to read and he’ll first read aloud, he’s learning to connect his visual cortex to the speech processing centers of his brain. There are three distinct areas for speech production in the brain: right in front of the part of the brain which controls the mouth muscles is Broca’s Area in the inferior frontal gyrus. Its opposite, Wernicke’s Area, not far from the visual cortex, in the back, controls our ability to understand both written and spoken speech. But the most important area of the brain which links them together is up front, the angular gyrus. It’s the angular gyrus which gives us metaphors and symbols. Damage the angular gyrus and you can’t do mathematics, either.

            The “reptilian brain” is kinda old hat in neurology. The amygdala is important enough, but it deals with your emotions and how you process them. I’ve put a few words about FACS downstream, the amygdala is where you process other people’s emotions and reactions.

  7. If you asked psychologists, they would all deny 2. In fact, denying 2 is fairly obvious, from a psychological point of view. Otherwise, fantasies that are the products of our own imaginations would have no appeal to us. More generally, though, emotions just don’t work like that. They’re not dependent on belief. Sometimes, often in fact, it’s the other way around.

    • I know they would, and I agree. Obviously, no one is denying that you feel things when you day dream etc. To defend the line I don’t actually agree with, the most common philosophical response to the psychologists is that a feeling in response to a fiction is not a case of bona fide emotion. (It’s a make-believe emotion). Why? Because while emotions have a sensation (or body-monitoring, or whatever) component, they also have a cognitive component. They are evaluations about the object and its relationship to us. (I have the emotion “anger at my friend” both because of bodily changes and because I have judged my friend to have done me an injustice. You can give reasons for real emotions.

      • This objection seems odd because it does away with the paradox. It denies 1 in order to avoid denying 2, which seems back assward. Of course my relationship to fictiononal objects is different from my relationship to real objects, and I never stop recognizing on some level, at least, when I’m responding to fictional objects. This is why sane people, that is, people who are able to recognize this difference, don’t become despondent at the death of a fictional character to whom they’ve become attached (though I readily admit that I’ve become quite sad at the death of characters in some books, I haven’t really mourned their loss, because they weren’t lost in the usual sense). However, because I represent fiction very similarly, from a cognitive perspective (whether we’re talking simulation theory and mirror neurons or just straightforward computationalism), to the actual world, the emotions it triggers are the same, with differences primarily in how long they last and their intensity in some cases (not all: I have gotten much more emotional about things happening in books than I have about similar things I heard about on the news, on occasion, and I’ve thought about the books much longer too).

        • > Yes, those are my thoughts. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck it probably is a duck. And which seems more counterintuitive. That we have wo natural kinds, which are 1) emotions and 2) make-believe emotions? Or that we also evaluate events and characters we believe non-existent?

          >the emotions it triggers are the same, with differences primarily in how long they last and their intensity in some cases
          As I said in other comments, I disagree with this. But part of how we emotionally respond to anything depends upon our beliefs about it – including the belief that it isn’t true.

        • To be fair again, the reason they defined emotions that way is partly to consider emotions as mental events that can appropriate or inappropriate.

          • I’m fine with emotions being appropriate or inappropriate, but I’m not sure we need to drag fiction into it. We might say that sadness, anger, and other emotions are appropriate at the death of a child. There’s no reason, as I see it, to think they’re not appropriate at the death of a fictional child, so long as one cognitive recognizes that the child who died is fictional.

            I do think that there tends to be a quantitative difference between emotional responses to fiction, both in strength and in duration. This is quite simply because of the impact on my life. If someone dies in a book, it affects my relationship to the book and its world. If someone dies in my real life, it affects much of my life, and can do so long after the book has left my mind. It is not a qualitative difference, though: merely a matter of my relationship to the emotion-eliciting entities. I just don’t think this relationship determines, necessarily, either the nature of the emotion (as you put it, I think there is one natural kind), or its appropriateness. Which is not to say that emotions can’t be appropriate or inappropriate. If I were despondent at the death of a fictional character, on the level of the despair I might feel at the death of someone to whom I was very close in real life, I think this would be inappropriate, but it seems almost silly (in that it is completely arbitrary) to suggest that emotional responses to fiction are, by their nature, inappropriate.

          • Only a few think it is inappropriate to respond with feelings to fiction (although that view is out there). They want to talk about appropriateness/inappropriateness in general (it is appropriate to be afraid of a snarling pit bull, it is inappropriate to be afraid of a quivering guinea pig.) So in fiction, you’re just having make-believe emotions – which is all well and good, but not real emotions.

            I think another factor that has been inadequately addressed in the literature is that a fiction is a form of communication and communications have a tone. So a work being satirical or light-hearted will prompt very different emotions (hence our cheering the demolition of the Empire State Building in Independence Day – the tone of the movie prevents us from focusing on all who died and their loved ones and the lives cut short, etc.

            Actually, a paper I want to write in the near future is extending the appropriateness discussion to fictions. Since it seems inappropriate to giggle through Schindlers List.

          • And similarly your example of deep and lasting despondency when a fictional character dies.

  8. People generally have emotional responses to characters with whom they identify. Not ones that they believe are believable or not. Your emotional response is thus largely hinged on the emotional trauma and how you imprint that backwards upon yourself.

    People don’t cry when Darth Vader throws the Emperor off the ledge… unless they were crappy fathers and had their own choice moment and chose the Emperor over their child and have regretted it ever since. Then they might.

    People don’t cry when Travis shoots Old Yeller because the dog needs to be put down. People cry because the moment represents a loss of innocence in childhood, the acceptance of adult responsibility, and they recognize that within themselves.

    It’s not that you believe the fictional event is real. It’s that the fictional event ties back into something that *was* real, for you, and tugs on the heartstrings by reminding you of it.

  9. Maybe I’m just dumb, but I never understood the phrase “suspension of disbelief” to mean that a moviegoer or bookreader actually believes what’s going on in the fiction, but that they enter into a kind of contract with the movie or book: “I will suspend my instinct to identify what is true and what is false and keep reading/watching you as long as what I read/see does not jar my disbelief too strongly to enjoy whatever else is going on in the story.”

    As for the emotions we experience when consuming fiction, I think the truthfinding subfunctions of the brain are not shielding the emoting and empathizing subroutimes from the effects of feeling (but not thinking) that the fiction is real. This model explains why we can have these emotional reactions to Muppets as well as actors; in fact, Muppets are designed to cause stronger emotional responses by triggering patterns that our emoting brainfunctions associate with, for example, cute babies or gruff old men, enhancing the emotional response.

    As a matter of logic, I’m agreeing with your statement that number (2) in your list is the false statement, but that wording suggests emotions are never particularly connected to things and people being real. When we’re not consuming fiction, an act that it makes sense for us to have a special subroutine for, the truthfinding function is expected to be rooting out falsehoods and so emotional responses are allowed to plug directly into response circuits more completely.

    • >As for the emotions we experience when consuming fiction, I think the truthfinding subfunctions of the brain are not shielding the emoting and empathizing subroutimes from the effects of feeling (but not thinking) that the fiction is real.

      Then what explains the difference (often) in kind and even valence of emotion experienced when consuming fiction and real events (buildings blowing up in fiction is fun, not so fun in real life)?

      And per your last paragraph, denying that emotions presuppose beliefs does not amount to denying that beliefs cannot be the source of emotions.

      • It’s a good point. Perhaps our fiction-consumption script includes an ability to buffer our emotions relative to how real something seems to us. When I saw the movie Rangoon, I went in knowing something about what had happened over there, and the realism* of the film sort of turned off my buffer. I ended up bawling my eyes out after the film was over as though I’d just watched all those murders and suffering, and got kind of stuck in a loop because I knew that the events depicted actually did happen to a large extent.

        You know, that story, now that I type it out in this context, leads me to double-down on my earlier comment. I think we really do, at some level, believe that what we’re reading or watching is really happening, or really did happen, and normally our self-control circuit can jump in when the emotions are getting too strong and say “Whoa now, this is just a story.” In fact, as young children are learning to absorb fiction, some of them actually need this kind of help from their parents.

        And it’s quite possible that the model I’m describing accurately shows what my experience of fiction is like, but that your experience of fiction is different.

        * I know everyone else detested the movie Rangoon. I can’t account for my difference here, but it was a profound experience for me.

  10. Emotions aren’t rational. Cognitive explanations for emotions always end up in the ditch. Does anyone still believe in a cognitive theory of emotion?

    Back in the day, Ekman and Friesen worked on FACS and lots of AI is now using it for creating emotion simulacra. But FACS has been extremely well understood by cartoonists long before Ekman and Friesen went to work codifying it. Look at the faces of Michelangelo in the Last Judgement.

    Humans come equipped with emotions long before they learn to reason. Emotions don’t presuppose any belief, reason is doing all the presupposing here. Just because there are no bogeymen under the bed doesn’t mean the child isn’t scared. Only an idiot of a parent would yell out from the well-lit living room “Quit bein’ stupid, ain’t so such thing as bogeymen’s. Shut up and go to sleep!”

    The wise parent goes in the room, turns on the light, gets the kid out of bed, looks under the bed and declares the room bogey-free. If the parent has a little wisdom, he’ll teach the kid not to be afraid of the dark by having the kid close his eyes and walk around in a well lit room, feeling for things with his hands and says “Blind people don’t need the light to get around and most of them do just fine. Remember that when you into a dark place. The bogeymen you need to fear walk around by the light of day.”

    Fiction works exactly like any other art form. We don’t really process raw information, even when we’re operating in the real world. By the time we’ve sorted out our retinal and auditory input, we’ve already reduced all of it to symbols. We operate on symbols because we don’t have time to reason, we need to act quickly or the sabertooth tiger will run us down and eat us. Fiction and art of all sorts, but especially fiction, since it’s read, getting through to the symbol tables even faster, is “realer” than reality, because we’re at liberty to revel in all those symbols, liberated from the need to parse it all into truth statements.

    • Thanks for the further explanation, BlaiseP.

      It seems to me that if it’s all reduced to symbols anyway, that there must be some influence in all this by the reptilian brain. Perhaps the reptilian brain is out of fashion, but something gnaws at me that we are still animals and act like animals more often then we want to admit. To me, that screams of reptilian brain.

      I thought Dragons of Eden was insightful on this subject when I read it, but it seems it didn’t take. There’s still some truth in it, I think. But, that might just be my interest in Mr. Sagan.

      I’ll have to cogitate on this. Thanks for the food, BlaiseP and Rose.

      • I kinda sort it out along these lines: the brain is many specialized tools for processing information, optimized for certain tasks, with equally specialized inputs and outputs. The big trick is dealing with latency in the system: the quick and clever survive where the slow and stupid get eaten.

        So how do you write a low-latency system in software? First rule, never copy data which you can access with a reference. Second rule, delegate as much as possible to other processors. The brain is not one thing but many. They just happen to be in the same place. And it doesn’t end in your head, your spine and its connections are involved. For example, if you burn your finger and pull it away, that happens in your spine. You pulled away before that was even processed in your brain. And don’t touch a live electrical wire with the inside of your finger or that same circuit will force your finger to close. You have three entire nervous systems, may I add.

        There is no “reptilian brain”. The reptiles have been evolving, too. Form follows function. Just don’t try to isolate those forms with reasoning: your brain has already done a fine job of just such a reduction. You don’t have a Jacobsen’s Organ. You might put on a set of night vision goggles to get some idea of what a snake perceives with them, translating the infrared into visible light, but your brain isn’t wired up for it because you’re a highly evolved predator which got up on his hind legs to run down his prey in visible light. Bushmen still do run down their prey.

        Of course we act like “animals” insofar as we’re a distinct species, we’re animals. All this nonsense about the rational mind is an artifact of bad thinking, commencing with Plato and marching along through Hume and Kant. You are not a rational being, your brain is not a computer. You are a signal processor. You read these words, process them as symbols, derive some meaning from them. Just don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re just one thing. Your consciousness is only an illusion created by large scale feedback and integration loops. The Self is the greatest piece of fiction you’ll ever write.

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