Consume fiction wisely

Summary

The post can be summarized as follows:

A rational agent who has the goal of understanding the world—avoids consuming fiction, unless it’s the kind of fiction that benefits this goal more than it harms it.

Of course, if you have a different goal (e.g. to maximize your happiness), there is nothing wrong with consuming whichever fiction you like.

The Top Gun Effect

In the comments to this post, Bezzi provides a strong and concise argument worth copying here. If you have no time to read the whole post, just read this:

[A]fter reading about the Top Gun Effect, I strongly updated towards “Hollywood movies can seriously mess up your mind”. Also this:

According to the US Navy, the box office success of Top Gun saw their recruitment rates balloon by a massive 500% in the year following the original movie’s release. <...> The U.S. Navy set up recruiting stations outside of movie theaters when Top Gun was released, catching potential recruits as they were left the cinema hyped up by the movie’s dramatic climax.

If a single movie can make people do very serious life choices like signing up for the Navy, then we should probably be less confident in our ability to separate fiction from real-life.

Intro

As the majority of people, you’re likely consuming a lot of fiction (science fiction books, Hollywood movies, anime, video games, Twitter etc).

One can classify the content of fiction into two classes:

  • events that have never happened (e.g. fantasy)

  • real events, but so distorted, they don’t help you better understand the real world (e.g. TV news)

Both classes are often harmful, as they cloud your mind with falsehoods and wrong associations.

Learning falsehoods

Your mind is learning from what it consumes. If you give it the training data full of falsehoods, it will learn falsehoods.

And mass media is full of falsehoods.

Some of them are harmless (Audible Sharpness). Some could kill you (Hollywood Heart Attack).

Some of them are easy to overcome (Space Is Cold). Some could stick in your mind forever (The Good Guys Always Win).

And some are very hard to detect. For example, you’re likely assigning unreasonably high likelihoods to dramatic and interesting events—because you’ve seen way too many fictional events (which are, by design, dramatic and interesting).

Such distortions could negatively affect the quality of your judgements in real life.

For example, imagine that we’ve detected a massive alien spaceship approaching our Solar System, with the intent of exterminating humans. Which of these two events is more likely?

  1. Humans will fiercely resist the invaders, with many losses on both sides. You know, like in the Independence Day.

  2. The aliens will effortlessly wipe out humans, e.g. by throwing a rock accelerated to 0.01c.

For many people, the scenario #1 would look much more likely, unless they put some effort into analyzing the situation.

It is hard to think clearly about potentially dramatic events (e.g. the AI takeover) with your brain trained on fiction.

See also: Memetic Hazards in Videogames.

Learning wrong associations

This is not a snake. It’s an image of a snake.

The human brain is very good at detecting snakes. If you see a snake, you likely will feel at least some uneasiness, even if it’s a fictional snake in a Hollywood movie.

Similarly, if you see some emotionally charged situation in a movie, you likely will feel some of the emotion yourself. (remember Bambi’s mother?)

In a sense, fiction authors have a root access to your brain. By depicting some carefully designed fictional events, they can manipulate your emotions, and they can force you to associate certain emotions with certain entities of the real world.

For example, as a consumer of Hollywood movies, you see an aged businessman in a slick suit and automatically associate him with “evil capitalists”, even if the man is Chuck Feeney or Elon Musk.

The reason is simple: you have learned to have such associations, by consuming the fiction written by people of certain political views, from Simpsons to Star Trek to pretty much every movie that depicts businessmen.

Professional writers tend to think of themselves as the shepherds of mankind who are guiding the public opinion into the most ethical direction. As Maya Angelou said, “I’m not a writer who teaches. I’m a teacher who writes”.

The question is, do you trust those self-appointed “teachers” enough to give them the root access to your brain? In particular, do you trust the people who write screenplays for Netflix /​ Disney /​ PRC?

See also:

Learning to prefer fiction to reality

Fiction makes it harder to enjoy reality, as it is purposefully designed to be more enjoyable than reality.

The fiction you consume is entertaining, interesting, emotional, dramatic, exciting, captivating.

On the other hand, reality is often disappointing. Repetitive. Boring. Banal. Blank.

You might enjoy a well written scientific paper (if your contaminated brain is still capable of maintaining focus for more than 15 sec). But you know there is a thing that will give you more joy. The new episode of your favorite series. Or Reddit. Or League of Legends. Or Tictok. Or some other kind of digital cocaine.

And so, gradually, one dose a time, you lose the ability to enjoy reading scientific works. To enjoy a quiet evening with a friend. To enjoy a night with a telescope. To enjoy reality.

See also: Deep Work

Social networks

Social networks (e.g. Twitter) are harming you in several ways (especially the reward system). They are also the worst kind of fiction: purposefully designed to be memorable, flashy, impressive, noisy, and lowbrow entertaining. They are the digital equivalent of BigMac—addictive and unhealthy, by design.

And, of course, social networks are full of falsehoods, often created on purpose, often by hostile entities.

Avoid social networks like the plague, even if you actually need them for work.

See also:

Some fiction is helpful

Some exceptional authors have managed to create fiction that actually helps you better understand the world (e.g. Heinlein, Banks, Strugatsky, Vinge, Yudkowsky, Taylor).

The genre of “rational fiction” contains a disproportionately large number of helpful works, and could even fix some of the damage caused by the traditional fiction. HP:MoR is an excellent start.

There are also excellent video games that are both highly educational and entertaining (e.g. Factorio, Capitalism Lab). Some anime (e.g. Dr Stone) could also be described as such.

Alternatives to fiction

Many people use fiction to relax, to escape the stressful day, etc. There are healthier alternatives.

Intense sport is often much more efficient against stress.

Listening to an excellent non-fiction audiobook will give you both the escape and a better relaxation (including a good rest for your back and eyes).

In general, if you want to better understand the world, it makes sense to prefer:

  • science fiction to fantasy

  • rational fiction to pre-rational fiction

  • non-fiction to fiction

  • written to cinematic

For example, you can spend a day re-watching The Lord of the Rings. Or you can invest the same time into improving your understanding of physics by reading The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman.

The choice is yours.

See also: Amusing Ourselves to Death.


The goal is, to perceive reality without contaminating your view with falsehoods.

A healthy media diet is instrumental in achieving the goal.