The Cognitive Complexity of Miss Piggy and Osama Bin Laden: Examining Linguistic Differences Between Fiction and Reality

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Abstract

Is fiction a reflection of reality? Previous psychological research presents a contradicting picture. While Tetlock’s value pluralism model (Tetlock, 1986) and research focused on the complexity of lying (Repke, Conway, & Houck, in press; Newman, Pennebaker, Berry, & Richards, 2003) would argue against fiction being a reflection, the concept of prototypes (Rosch, 1978) argues for it. The subsequent paper presents 2 studies that hopefully provide a clearer picture and an answer to the aforementioned question by comparing the integrative complexity of fictional characters to their real-life counterparts. Study 1 utilized a deep-but-narrow approach, comparing a single salient, prototypical category, while Study 2 utilized the opposite approach, comparing 10 varied, prototypical categories. Overall, both Study 1’s and Study 2’s result upheld a clear, overwhelming divergence between fiction and reality (the fictional characters were consistently simpler than the nonfictional characters); however, an intraclass correlation in Study 2 revealed surprising and significant levels of overlap between fiction and reality that differed depending on the unique category. While this research is still too raw and novel to do more than speculate on the exact reasoning behind the differing levels of overlap, the mere existence of the levels of overlap themselves indicate a nuanced answer to the research question. Fiction is both psychologically a representation of reality and a divergence from it.

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