Those who study fiction often make certain claims, such as fiction allowing us to "gain depth into the human experience" and such. Psychology is the academic field which studies human behavior, and by proxy, the human mind and experience.

My question is, has a fictional work or the study fiction (literary analysis) ever made a meaningful contribution to the field of psychology? Like, has a literary analyzer written a paper on friendship of fictional characters, which ended up making a contribution to some psychological theory of friendship. Or are the claims that fiction gives insight into human experience empty?

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    $\begingroup$ Fiction does not have to contribute to the field of psychology in order to give insight into the human experience. They are completely separate in that fiction is not rigorously scientific the way that psychology (tries) to be. Often, the behavioral response to certain fictions is more relevant to psychology than the actual content, as seen here, for example. I would argue that fiction is applied phenomenology -- rarely scientifically useful, yet necessary. $\endgroup$ Sep 1, 2015 at 1:19

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Psychological scientists often cite works of fiction as sources of inspiration. In some cases, literary examples are used as illustrations of the phenomenon of interest. In others, researchers set out to test the hypotheses that are proposed or implied in fictional works.

Golding's Lord of the Flies and Zimbardo's research on deindividuation

For example, Zimbardo notes that his research on the effects of deindividuation in the late 1960s (Zimbardo, 1969) was inspired by literature:

"Ideas for my first experiments in human aggression came from discussions we had in a research seminar about Golding's Lord of the Flies."

The Macbeth effect

Shakespeare is frequently cited as a source of inspiration. As one example, Zhong and Lilienquist (2006) have investigated whether sinful behavior prompts the need for physical cleansing - the "Macbeth effect", named after Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth who is compelled to wash her hands because of the crimes she and her husband have committed.

The Proust phenomenon

In the famous Madeleine Episode of Marcel Proust's "À la recherche du temps perdu", the narrator describes that the sensory perception of a tea-soaked madeleine has the power to elicit detailed and affectively-laden memories of a distant past. This hypothesis, which some call "the Proust phenomenon" has prompted a variety of empirical investigations. For example, in two experiments conducted by Chu and Downs (2002) "odor-cued autobiographical memories were reliably different in terms of qualitative ratings and reliably superior in the amount of detail yielded". (Also see this earlier question.)


Chu, S., & Downes, J. J. (2002). Proust nose best: Odors are better cues of autobiographical memory. Memory & Cognition, 30, 511–518. doi:10.3758/BF03194952

Zhong, C.-B., & Liljenquist, K. (2006). Washing away your sins: Threatened morality and physical cleansing. Science, 313, 1451–1452. doi:10.1126/science.1130726

Zimbardo, P. (1969). The human choice: Individuation, reason, and order vs. deindividuation, impulse, and chaos. In: Arnold, W.J. and Levine, D. (eds). Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, Lincoln:University of Nebraska Press, 237-307.

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    $\begingroup$ Good answer. I like to think fiction's contribution to science is exploring the set of possibilities. Science's job is assigning likelihoods and probabilities. $\endgroup$ Sep 1, 2015 at 10:15
  • $\begingroup$ This makes me feel at least a little bit better about my English text books claims. Slightly. $\endgroup$ Sep 1, 2015 at 23:01
  • $\begingroup$ Zimbardo's work is itself often regarded as fiction, Lord of the Flies also turned out not to be true to life, and the Macbeth Effect failed to replicate in meta-analysis. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Jul 19, 2021 at 20:49

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