Fictional Characters Can Change the World!

A Conversation Between Joan Montgomerie and Metta Spencer about Metta's New Book, Two Aspirins and a Comedy: How Television Can Enhance Health and Society

By Joan Montgomerie (interviewer); Metta Spencer (interviewee)

JOAN MONTGOMERIE:You're a sociologist. In your new book, Two Aspirins and a Comedy, you present evidence on a wide diversity of topics, not just sociology. Has anyone expressed skepticism about that?

METTA SPENCER: Not that I know of. Why? Was there something in it that you doubted?

JOAN: Just the parts about the interaction of mind, emotion, and body. It was so scientific, and you're not a scientist.

METTA: I had two research assistants, both medical students, who fact-checked those sections for me. Emotions really do affect human health. Laughter, joy, love, and sex improve a person's life expectancy, whereas stress, anger, fear, and grief shorten it. For at least fifty years, scientists have been using film clips to stimulate subjects' emotions in the laboratory and measuring physiological responses. I just pointed out that we perform similar experiments on ourselves in front of TV and movie screens several hours a day, with effects that may be significant for public health. This isn't a controversial notion. People just haven't paid attention to it until now.

JOAN:The next thing I noticed was your use of the word "moral." Most people don't use that word much anymore. It is associated with "moralizing."

METTA: Really? But people talk all the time about the right thing to do, and about how to live one's life well. Can anyone not be aware of those concerns?

JOAN:But I'm not sure they frame it as you do. You have a light concept of the philosophical, moral life. I think it's wonderful that you use it as part of normal speech.

METTA: I do like literary and dramatic criticism that analyzes ethical and emotional dimensions -- such critics as Martha Nussbaum and Wayne Booth. Nussbaum teaches literature at the University of Chicago Law School, helping students understand human predicaments that they might never encounter in their own lives. For example, she assigns Dickens's Hard Times for those affluent law students to read.

JOAN: So they can become compassionate. I can see that. As for your own book, how do you expect it to influence people?

METTA: Probably mostly in academic courses. I tried to write it as a popular book but some people tell me it's too scholarly for that. It explores the power of fiction, which, because it involves the emotions, can be even more influential than facts and arguments. Readers sometimes even fall in love with characters in novels or movies, and the experience sometimes changes their lives.

JOAN: How so? By affecting their health and emotional wellbeing, or by influencing their values?

METTA: Both. Whenever you empathize with someone, you replicate his emotions in your own body. Whether it's with a real person or only an imaginary character in a movie or novel, the physiological effects are consequential. If you have heart disease, for example, you should exercise physically, but avoid vicarious emotional stress, which constricts the endothelium of your blood vessels. You should watch a funny or lovable film instead of a war movie, for laughter will improve your circulation and your immune system.

Nevertheless, there are times when we all choose serious, scary, or tragic stories. There can be good reasons for doing so. Individuals differ in our need for excitement. We don't all enjoy the same stories. Some individuals have a hereditary need for thrills and action, whereas I, for one, almost never want much adrenaline or cortisol. Still, I sometimes do put myself through distressing movies, such as Schindler's List, as a moral challenge to confront horrors that would otherwise be inconceivable.

JOAN: How much do you think films and television influence the public?

METTA: We're responding all the time to the human beings around us. Even in ads. Why would advertisers pay millions of dollars for skits on TV if they didn't influence us? But we don't copy just everything that others do. We're selective. The more we empathize with a person, the more likely we are to emulate his responses to problems. Every story contains moral messages -- some inspiring, some demoralizing -- but their impacts on audiences aren't all equal. The stories that move us emotionally are the ones with most power. We need lovable characters who demonstrate smart answers to global problems.

JOAN: You seem so sure that fiction can change the world!

METTA: Absolutely. Take Uncle Tom's Cabin, for example. When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he said, "So you're the little lady who started this big war!" Well, if she caused the Civil War, she also ended slavery in America. Not bad, huh?

Or take the film Gandhi. When it came out in 1983, democratic opposition movements around the world studied its nonviolence. Over the next few years they applied these methods, overthrowing communist and other dictators almost without bloodshed. In their book, A Force More Powerful, Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall quote leaders who had studied the film for that purpose -- the union leader in Chile, for example. I heard the same remarks in Poland from organizers of the conscientious objection campaign who emulated the movie.

JOAN: Ah, but how can we get people to write the kind of scripts that will change the world?

METTA: First, writers need to realize how much impact they have. That's one purpose of my book. Their scripts are influencing audiences anyway, for good or ill, whether they realize it or not. For example, all around the world, IQ levels are increasing by three points per decade -- especially visual analysis skills. Psychologists keep re-standardizing the tests to keep the mean at100 points. TV-watching seems to be one of the causes. Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad is Good for You argues that current TV dramas make viewers work harder to follow plots, and this effort exercises the brain. It's true that learning a new skill changes the brain's structure, so Johnson may be right. That doesn't mean, of course, that the TV dramas teach wisdom but only that they boost certain skills.

JOAN: Hmmm!

METTA: Or take the effects on population. Birth rates are dropping in poor countries where they were not predicted to decline yet. One theory explains it in terms of television. People see small, happy families on TV and decide to limit the size of their own families. As a result, demographers now expect one billion fewer human beings to inhabit the planet than they predicted ten years ago.

JOAN: Can you prove that it's television that's behind these changes?

METTA: As for the IQ and birth rate effects, there are probably several causes. But there's other evidence of the power of television -- especially its influence on health issues. For example, a public health professor at Harvard got 250 writers together and asked them to write a new expression -- "designated driver" -- into their scripts to discourage drunk driving. Over ten years, as a result of this and other measures, 50,000 fewer alcohol-related traffic fatalities occurred. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration attributed this improvement to the designated driver campaign.

Development experts are using radio and television dramas in Third World countries, especially with soap operas, which are broadcast in the evening to reach men too. The technique for writing socially influential soap operas was worked out by a Mexican, Miguel Sabido, who originally used it to promote family planning. His method has been adopted all around the world for adult literacy campaigns, family planning, HIV-AIDS prevention, and gender equality. Every day a television soap opera in India is now reaching about 150 million viewers, addressing a variety of social problems. Another one in China is reaching audiences of comparable size. Compare that to the most popular TV shows in North America, each of which reaches fewer than 20 million viewers per week.

There was one scientific comparison in Tanzania proving the power of soap operas to curb the spread of HIV. It was a radio drama about a truck driver with a girlfriend in every stop. His wife made him start using condoms with her and, though he died of AIDS, she was okay. About sixty percent of the population listened regularly, and of those listeners, over 80 percent changed their behavior to avoid HIV. One region of Tanzania was the control group that did not receive the broadcasts. Very little behavioral change took place there. It cost only eighty cents per person to persuade listeners to adopt precautions against HIV infection -- the most cost-effective approach known. We should use the same approach to teach peace.

JOAN: You call television serial dramas the most powerful tool in the world for influencing social change. Why not movies?

METTA: Because it takes several episodes for viewers to form intense emotional bonds with the characters. Thereafter, we really care about them and we pay attention to their opinions. No two-hour movie, and certainly no news anchor or public service announcement, can have that effect. You can "educate" people with factual information, but unless you touch them emotionally, you don't motivate them to change. Look, I was a peace studies professor for many years, but my lectures didn't change my students' lives. That's why I believe that the peace movement needs a different approach.

JOAN: So you're trying to influence the people who write for TV? Or are you also trying to educate audiences?

METTA: Both consumers and producers. I'm trying to suggest how to use the resources in our culture more effectively than we do today. We're swimming in an ocean of culture that we don't have any control over. Culture is the source of our ideas. It shapes us, but we cannot influence it. Well, we absolutely must improve the quality of our culture if we're going to improve real society. We need stories that illustrate ways of solving conflicts. Too many plots today offer violent answers -- simple-minded, unimaginative plots. We need cultural products that explore genuine social issues and suggest innovative responses. I like such programs as The West Wing. It didn't always give the answer that I preferred, but it did deal with issues. Other shows can explore other peace and justice issues, yet still be entertaining. That's how to get a culture of peace.

JOAN: Do you think your readers can actually help bring that about?

METTA: Only if we take it as an urgent social challenge. People are queasy about it, since they suppose that improving the quality of TV would require censoring everything and keeping people from watching what they want. That would be totalitarian. But the present situation is far from democratic. Who decides today which shows to create and broadcast? The advertisers and the executives in five big entertainment corporations, plus a handful of independent or government-funded producers and broadcasters . The ratings don't reflect society's real preferences. We need to recapture some of this control for ordinary citizens. But as citizens, we need to change our approach too.

We're wasting the most powerful tool for creating a peaceful, sustainable world: television. It reaches almost everyone. An estimated 4.5 billion viewers, out of 6.5 billion on the planet, watched the World Cup. Yet TV's abysmally bad. We need to stop regarding cultural products just as items for personal consumption. Culture is an environment that we must all share, just as we share air and water. We have to take care of it. We have to invest in protecting its quality. We already subsidize it. Practically every cultural production -- including Peace Magazine -- receives some kind of subsidy through tax breaks, say, or grants or special postal rates. Why not let citizens allocate their taxes to subsidize productions that they believe in -- including items that are for others? For example, I rarely go to the ballet or to a national park, but I want ballet companies and parks to exist in my society, so I'm glad to support them.

JOAN: Then you're not talking about censorship?

METTA: No. Instead of worrying about the junk -- which people have a right to see if they want to -- let's concentrate on fostering excellent shows that can't get produced under the present market system. Media critic Robert McChesney has a great idea. Allow all taxpayers to allocate $200 or $300 per year to a fund supporting the productions that they believe will enhance social life.

And there's hope from other quarters too. I just love what Jeff Skoll is doing, producing Hollywood movies about social issues. I hope he'll start making TV series that address peace and environmental problems. I'd especially love to see a series about a Green Cross team in the Middle East after a war, addressing the environmental and political effects of the conflict. The article about Participant Productions in this issue of the magazine points out the most promising way of enlisting people in the job of saving our world. A real culture of peace shows solutions to problems through entertainment.

Metta Spencer is editor of Peace and Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Toronto. Joan Montgomerie is a psychotherapist and a member of Peace's editorial board.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2006

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2006, page 24. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Joan Montgomerie here

Peace Magazine homepage