We think of there being a thick and deep line between fantasy and reality. But while it is obvious that fact and fiction aren’t the same thing, several new studies and activists groups don't see why the fiction they read can't inspire real-world altruism and goodwill.
Recently, a 7-year-old saved her mother from choking by employing the techniques she had learned from "Mrs. Doubtfire." Hearing strange noises from the kitchen, Amira Thronton, 7, rushed in to discover her mother choking on a piece of sausage. Remembering a scene from "Mrs. Doubtfire," when Robin Williams' character administers the Heimlich maneuver, Amira picked up her mother three times, saving her life by unclogging her blocked airway.
More theatrically, costume-clad vigilantes have taken to the streets of San Francisco and Seattle in Make-a-Wish Foundation reenactments, in which costumed children prevent harm from befalling the citizens they protect, just like their heroes in their comic books.
New research is proving that fantasy can be far more than just entertainment.
Inspired by magic
When Andrew Slack was a senior in high school, his English teacher posed a question that would carry him through the rest of his life and career.
“ ‘Does the actor's job end with the four walls in the theater? And that's it?’ ” Slack recounted. “ ‘Or is the actor, in the act of taking on another person's role, in that act of compassion, are they elevating their condition? Is there an obligation to take the magic of that and elevate it beyond the theater, across the world? Can story, in effect, change the world?’ ”
Although his teacher asked the question of the entire class, Slack felt it was intended especially for him. He had always been drawn to storytelling being more than just a way to entertain. In college, he learned about how the civil rights movement used powerful storytelling to achieve its goals.
As an actor and comedian, Slack was often discouraged by how many people would attend his shows, and how few would come to a human rights group meeting.
"Here we have people being drawn to and being entertained by stories — could we take that to human rights?" Slack said. "That became a burning passion. I had a day job working with kids, and they pushed me to love Harry Potter. I didn't want to read Harry Potter. I read the first book and I felt completely transformed by it."
Slack recognized that the entire world had been captivated by the story of the boy wizard, that children and teens who had given up on reading were drawn back by Hogwarts and its magical residents.
"But if Harry Potter were in our world, wouldn't he do more than simply celebrate how awesome it is to be Harry Potter?" Slack asked. "Wouldn't he fight for justice in our world the way he fought for justice in his? In fact, in the books he started a student activist group Dumbledore's Army. Couldn't we be a Dumbledore's Army for our world?"
Slack actually started such a group: the Harry Potter Alliance. It was born from the idea that Harry could inspire thousands to change. Slack tested his theory on MySpace, reaching out to Harry Potter fans through bulletins about social issues.
Comparing many people’s skepticism of the issue of global warming to the Ministry of Magic's attitude toward to the return of the villain Voldemort, Slack spoke to an “audience” in a new way.
"We've got people involved in issues that really matter in ways that they never would have before and we've always done it by translating it back to parallels to the books," Slack said.
The group has campaigned for human and civil rights around the world, most recently employing passion for a different young adult series, in their poverty awareness campaign based on "The Hunger Games."
"We stand in the way of every adult who has ever told a child to get their head out of fantasy and into the so-called real world," Slack said. "We are a proof of concept that fantasy is not an escape from our world, but an invitation to go deeper into it. The problem is not that we have too much fantasy in our world: the problem is that we haven't created a sophisticated apparatus to expand that invitation. And now with Harry Potter Alliance, we're taking that model and we're expanding on it."
How characters inspire
Psychologists and sociologists have noticed the positive impact of pop culture, turning their attention to the how and why.
Tom Farsides of the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom led a team in researching the impact that media with positive messages has in the people watching it. The study, called "Inspiring altruism: reflecting on the personal relevance of emotionally evocative prosocial media characters," said that characters who invoke admiration in audiences are likely to be emulated.
"Broadly, characters have to be attractive as possible role models," Farsides said. "Heroic. Desirable. Not suckers, wimps, or dull. Beyond that, something like their characteristics or achievements have to seem attainable."
Farsides discovered that children who watched a movie ("The Dead Poets' Society") that featured a caring and inspiring character were more likely to respond positively to questions about their own altruistic goals, provided they were given a chance to reflect on the actions of the character first.
They also took the concept from "The Don Quixote Effect," a theory developed by Johanna Shapiro and Lloyd Rucker that medical students are emotionally moved while watching movies about the medical profession. The "Don Quixote Effect" theorizes that a trip to the movies can heighten the idealism of future physicians, inspiring them to have attitudes of empathy and altruism.
Farsides was intrigued by the idea of media creating compassion.
"Personally, I want to find out how to encourage people to be nicer to each other, in ways that are not nasty to them," Farsides said.
Using something people already love, like movies and TV and books, seemed to be the solution.
Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano discovered that reading what they termed "literary fiction" (rather than pulp fiction) can also inspire readers to relate to and love their fellow man.
Inspired by simple kindness
Blake Beattie was a part of a leadership group in Australia that was hoping to change the country and change the world.
"Lots of talk, not much really happening," Beattie said. "So I thought about what I could do. That evening I was at the local video store and saw the movie “Pay It Forward” on the shelf and I thought, I loved that movie."
The idea, inspired by the book and movie of the same name, is that people will do a good deed without asking or expecting anything in return.
He realized that the simplicity of the concept of giving kindness and "paying forward" random good deeds was the perfect solution to his problem. His organization, Pay it Forward Day, born in 2007, has grown to participants residing in more than 50 countries.
Although media is typically used for enjoyment, Beattie said, there are so many lessons to be learned from the page and screen.
"I think inspiring movies, books and TV shows enable us to change the way we think about things and see things in new ways," Beattie said. "There are some powerful messages that can come through which connect with us, both at a head and heart level. We then have an opportunity to become better people by what we have learned."