Dystopian fiction makes people more willing to justify political violence. Should you worry?

Jan 12 '19
Pro-abortion activists in favor of decriminalizing abortion wear costumes from “The Handmaid’s Tale” in Buenos Aires last year. (Natacha Pisarenko/AP)

Dystopian stories are becoming increasingly popular. That’s true in entertainment: Think “Walking Dead,” “Mad Max,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the Maze Runner franchise, to name just a few. And it’s also true for how observers and commentators talk about the real world.

That’s a change. In a LexisNexis search of aggregated news sources, we found only five mentions of “dystopia” or “dystopian” in 1985. That number increased dramatically every five years — and by last year, it had shot up to 25,078.

Whether or not these anxieties about impending dystopia are well-grounded, Americans are more interested in dystopian fiction than ever, particularly in totalitarian-dystopian fiction, set in dark and disturbing alternate worlds such as that of “The Hunger Games,” where powerful elites violate ethical values and downtrodden protagonists rebel. Dystopian fiction is especially popular with younger people.

Does increasing consumption of dystopian narratives influence how people actually think about the world?

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That’s not an easy question to answer — in part because political scientists generally haven’t paid much attention to fiction and entertainment media. There are a few recent exceptions. Daniel Furman III and Paul Musgrave found evidence that Tom Clancy’s blockbuster novels shaped key aspects of foreign policymaking during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. But there’s still a lot we don’t know about when and how fiction might affect people’s attitudes and behavior.

So we decided to investigate the effects of dystopian fiction. Here’s what we found.

Here’s how we did our research

We first conducted eight in-person focus groups with high school and college students (two to eight students per group) in 2014 to hear their takes on why young people today are so drawn to the dystopian genre — and what lessons they take away from it.

Over the next couple of years, we ran three computer-based experiments to more rigorously test our hypotheses about the effects of dystopian fiction on people’s attitudes. These three studies involved 272 adults (recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk online workplace) and over 700 college-age people from universities around the country. In each study, subjects were randomly assigned to one of three experimental groups, including at least one group that was exposed to a fictional dystopian narrative.

Dystopian fiction makes people more willing to justify political violence.

In these studies, we found striking evidence that dystopian fiction, despite being “make-believe,” heightened people’s willingness to justify radical — and especially violent — forms of political action against injustice by political elites.

In the first experiment, all it took was reading a short selection from a dystopian novel followed by viewing scenes from the movie based on that novel to make people more likely to say that violent protest and armed rebellion could be justifiable (compared with those who consumed no media). Subjects exposed to a dystopian narrative were also more likely than those in the no-media group to agree that violence was sometimes necessary to obtain justice.

After this first experiment, we weren’t sure what to make of these results. Could dystopian fiction really have a significant effect on what people thought was ethically acceptable?

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In our first experiment, we tested two dystopian stories, the Hunger Games series and the Divergent series, to make sure that it wasn’t just a matter of one particular story being uniquely compelling. And both triggered similar increases — about eight percentage points — in support for violent political action and belief that violence is sometimes necessary to achieve justice.

Media violence alone does not change attitudes toward political violence.

We wondered whether these changes could result just from watching violent imagery. So in our second experiment, we included an alternate treatment group that viewed violent scenes from the Fast and the Furious movie series, which does not portray dystopian politics. Those who watched these movie clips did not show any significant increase in support for violent action compared with the no-media control group. However, those who watched the dystopian movie were again more willing than the controls to say that violent rebellion was a justified response to injustice and that violence is sometimes necessary. The increases were similar to what we found in the first experiment.

Fictional narratives are powerful — sometimes more powerful than real-world news.

In a third experiment, we tested whether young people would have similar responses to news stories about violent collective protest against actual unjust governments, events that encapsulate similar themes as dystopian fictional narratives. This time, we used the real-world example of the Thai anti-government protests in 2013 and 2014. In one group, subjects read real news reports and watched real news footage about the protests. The clips showed government forces using violent tactics such as tear gas and water cannons against masses of citizens protesting injustice. The footage also included bloody injuries, rock-throwing and heavily armed police in riot gear.

Even though these events were real, they had little effect on our subjects’ attitudes. But once again, the fictional dystopian narrative did. We found that subjects exposed to dystopian fiction showed significant increases in their willingness to justify violent rebellion and in their belief that violence may be necessary compared with those exposed to news featuring real citizen grievances. The magnitude of changes in these attitudes was in the same range — seven to eight percentage points — as in the previous experiments.

This convinced us that dystopian narratives themselves matter, beyond just the violence and collective protest portrayed within them. The core narrative lesson of the story appears to make people more open to radicalism and rebellion.

This conclusion is bolstered by comments from our focus groups. Young adults described how the “really rebellious feel” of dystopian fiction made them angry and ready for action and made them feel that even ordinary people “can challenge the status quo” and “rebel against the system.”

As one bookstore owner told a reporter from Entertainment Weekly, “these classic dystopian books are actually leading people to buy books in our activism section. … It’s taken people from going, ‘Okay, we know we’re in this dystopian frightening world,’ to going, ‘Okay, what do we do about it?’ ”

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This doesn’t mean that dark fiction necessarily leads to violent protest.

Reactions to popular entertainment are shaped by many factors. For example, as political scientists Charli Carpenter and Kevin L. Young wrote here at TMC, science fiction about “killer robots” does not affect the general population’s attitudes toward autonomous weapons — though it does appear to influence heavy sci-fi consumers. Many people worry that dark fiction in general increases political mistrust and apathy, but we found no evidence for this.

Moreover, dystopian fiction is highly unlikely by itself to trigger readers and viewers to go out in the street and break things. Mass mobilization and political violence are affected by classic factors such as widespread grievances, resources and opportunity.

Nevertheless, our results do suggest that dystopian narratives can increase people’s openness to using more radical forms of political action. A proliferation of dark, dystopian narratives in society may ready people for more extreme confrontations.

Calvert W. Jones is assistant professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland at College Park and author of “Bedouins into Bourgeois: Remaking Citizens for Globalization” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Celia Paris is the manager of programs and training at the Coro Center for Civic Leadership in Pittsburgh.