Story-tellers, social theorists, and theologians all create virtual worlds — narratives — that we inhabit through our imagination.
Such imaginary worlds interact with the physical world. They give you fantasies and phantoms that affect you physiologically, causing your hair to stand on end, or your tears to flow, or your cuddle hormones to mellow you up. There are ideological and ethical consequences as well. The characters in a story show you how to live, or sometimes how not to live, though you may not necessarily draw the message that the creator intended.
Real and imaginary worlds affect each other. To get into a story we have to “suspend disbelief” by going along with some plots that may violate common sense. Thus for the moment we may accept the premise that Peter Pan can fly and that Dracula sucks human blood and is terrified of garlic.
We may also accept implausible narratives in a deeper sense, developing the conviction for example that water has been turned into wine or that workers can seize control of factories and transform them into idyllic regimes of efficiency and freedom. The relaxing of everyday standards of reality-testing may allow us to revise our lives and surmount hardship with perfect faith. We carry selected stories around with us, drawing upon them to restore our flagging spirits as each new need arises. Hope is the enduring suspension of disbelief.
Yet there are limits. No psychologist has, to my knowledge, studied the principles by which we decide whether to go along with a story or slam the book shut in disgust. Certainly, however, our decision must depend on whether the plot jibes with our deeper values, at least when we are uncertain whether to suspend disbelief in a serious way. To accept stories about the tooth fairy or leprechauns is only playful and need not be integrated with our everyday working theories. But if a serious story’s protagonist behaves immorally, we experience an inner conflict: Shall I go along with the character and give him a chance to straighten out, or shall I reject the whole plot as indecent? Our empathy for a character somehow depends on our approval of him. But the relationship between morality and empathy is reciprocal. It is through empathizing that our own views of reality and our own ethical standards undergo change.
Stories do influence us, for good or ill, when the author wins us over, persuading us to empathize with his character and suspend disbelief. If the disbelief remains suspended permanently our world view is changed. The transformation reveals the power, both magical and the insidious, of virtual worlds to alter real ones.