This month Kathryn Schulz writes a lovely little essay in the New Yorker about “Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank Them” . As a member of the original International Society of Cryptozoology, as well as life long fan of fictional worlds of all kinds, I enjoyed her summary of recent psychological research on how people think about “impossible” things.
As the title implies, some of this research examines how people reason about imaginary entities and situations. Is a Yeti more or less “impossible” than a vampire? Is levitation more or less impossible than becoming invisible? And so on.
The interesting thing for psychologists is that even though people may agree that something is imaginary and pretty much impossible in the real world, we can not only imagine it, but imagine the world that it exists in.
Of course, imagining the not (yet) real is the heart of creativity of all kinds, so no one should be surprised that people do it. And imagining how a not-yet-real think would really work is the crux of both invention and story telling.
The recent psychological work has worked to tie this imagination with intuitive physics, the unscientific scientific rules that people learn about how the world works. AKA, “commonsense”. For example, objects do not change into other objects. Big objects are generally heavier than little objects. Stuff like this.
Schulz discusses recent experiments that sort through different sets of these rules as they apply to imaginary animals and situations. Essentially, the concept of “impossible” can be broken down into a range of ways that things are impossible. Some things are “impossible” in many, many ways (such as Hollywood vampires or time travel). Others are actually possible, but just not actually factual (such as Yetis or visitors from outer space).
As she notes, at least from what people say in psychology experiments, there is often strong agreement on such decisions. This is very interesting because it offers a glimpse into what and how people learn about the world. These imaginary cases shed light on everyday reasoning about the real and the possible.
As is often the case, psychologists would benefit from walking across the quad to talk with some Anthropologists about this topic.
Schultz hints as some of the cultural variation that can be found in the world. Almost everyone has grown up with tales of ghosts, but the details are different in different traditions. Hollywood has blurred folk cultures with its own super-cultural mish-mash, but Chinese ghosts and vampires are still quite different from English and Transylvanian entities.
These differences are due to the critical role of story telling. Humans like to tell stories,which tie up events, causes, and effects into a coherent narrative. Stories give explanations for random and inexplicable events, and describe the world at a human level.
(Perhaps the key innovation in all of “science” is that it uses a different kind of story, one that isn’t human centered, includes randomness, and is not judged by whether people like the story or not. Stories, yes. But not just any story.)
Many “impossible” animals and situations are known to us through stories, not through experience. When people are judging Yeti vs.. Dracula they are working from folk tales, not from scientific journals or personal experience. These stories may be based in cognitive illusions (e.g., ideas about disembodied souls) and intuitive physics, but mostly they reflect the motives and anxieties of the society they come from.
Hollywood vampires are scientifically improbable for sure, but some of their features are obviously ideological. Setting aside the evident deep, deep anxieties about the seduction of young women, Hollywood vampires are associated with demonic forces, and are supposed to be allergic to crucifixes and holy water as much as sunlight and silver. These traits is obviously Christian propaganda, painted onto folk tales about revenents. And, by the way, the supposed effects of a cross on a Vampire is just as plausible or implausible as your beliefs in holy water, crucifixes, and exorcism—which is a whole different psychological question.
Taking verbal reports as indications of folk-science also misses the key point that many such tales have become symbols of specific cultural identity. Endorsing Bigfoot, Biblical literalism, and the everyday influence of demons and angels may be as much about asserting cultural solidarity (or resistance), as a literal claim of truth. This has nothing to do with reason and evidence, and everything to do with personal identity.
I may say that Bigfoot is more likely than Zombies, but maybe that’s reflecting my preference in popular TV shows, and the sub-cultures they reflect. This belief is social signalling, not pseudo-scientific reasoning about the world.
Finally, I’ll suggest that the psychologists and new anthropologist friends toodle across the quad again, over to the business and law school. Over in that part of campus, the boffins operate in the most dangerous fantasy world of all, one that believes that humans are rational creatures with common sense.
We aren’t. We are fabulists, who believe absurd stories about the world all the time. Any theory that doesn’t take that as an axiom is just plain broken.
- Kathryn Schulz, “Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank Them”. The New Yorker.November 6 2017, Conde Nast.