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How dystopian narratives can incite real-world radicalism

The lens of dystopian fiction

Research shows that people are more willing to draw 'political life lessons' from a narrative about an imaginary political world than from fact-based reporting about the real world.

These narratives may have a positive effect on nourishing society's 'watchdog' role in a variety of contexts, ranging from climate change and artificial intelligence to authoritarian resurgences worldwide. However, the narratives may also encourage radical perspectives that oversimplify complex sources of political disagreement.


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How dystopian narratives can incite real-world radicalism

How dystopian narratives can incite real-world radicalism


Key Ideas

The increase of dystopian fiction

Dystopian fiction keeps growing in popularity. According to, the share of dystopian books in 2012 was the highest for more than 50 years.

The boom seems to have begun after the terrorist attacks on the US on 22 September 2001. After the Hunger Games novels (2008-10) about a totalitarian society, the share of dystopian stories skyrocketed.

Influenced by fiction

It seems unlikely that fiction can be capable of influencing people's real-world outlooks. However, a growing body of research shows people subconsciously incorporate lessons from fictional stories into their beliefs, attitudes, and value judgments.

Dystopian fiction is likely to be very powerful because it is inherently political.

Changing the moral compass

The totalitarian-dystopian genre portrays a disturbing alternative world where powerful entities act to oppress and control citizens, violating fundamental values as part of the rule.

The dystopian narratives affect those who watch it in a profound way by changing their moral values. Studies show that those who watch dystopian stories are more likely to say that radical acts such as violent protests and armed rebellion could be justifiable. They agree that violence is sometimes necessary to achieve justice.

The lens of dystopian fiction

Research shows that people are more willing to draw 'political life lessons' from a narrative about an imaginary political world than from fact-based reporting about the real world.

These narratives may have a positive effect on nourishing society's 'watchdog' role in a variety of contexts, ranging from climate change and artificial intelligence to authoritarian resurgences worldwide. However, the narratives may also encourage radical perspectives that oversimplify complex sources of political disagreement.


Insight from literature

Over the history of Western literature about pandemics, much has been said in the way of catharsis, ways of dealing with intense emotion, and political commentary on how people respond to public he...

Stories help us to think

Homer's Iliad opens with a plague visited upon the Greek camp at Troy. The Decameron (1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio is set during the Black Death.

The stories offer the listeners ways to consider how similar crises have been managed previously, and how to reorganize their daily lives, which have been suspended due to the epidemic.

Authority's failure to respond
  • Mary Shelley's apocalypse novel The Last Man (1826), depicts the life of Lionel Verney, who becomes the last man after a devastating global plague. The book criticizes the institutional responses to the plague, showing the revolutionary utopianism and the in-fighting that breaks out among surviving groups before they also die.
  • The short story, The Masque of the Red Death (1842), also shows the failures o authority figures to respond to a disaster appropriately.

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Joker’s commentary on society
Joker’s commentary on society

Joker is a psychological movie, showing the dangers of group action and the power of group narratives.

It is a very interesting commentary on society as it mirrors the phenomenon of dei...

A dangerous movie

Many reviewers see the Joker as a dangerous film because it might inspire incels to identify with the character as a hero and copy him.

The real evil to be feared is a broken, frustrated society that is willing to participate in almost purposeless acts of violence, then put deeper meaning into it, and ultimately use it as a springboard for mass violence and brutality.

Society and Mass Violence

Gotham City in Joker is a fundamentally broken city.

  • Arthur Fleck (the Joker) is failed by every level of society.
  • However, every class in Joker wants to shift the blame.
  • When Arthur commits murder, society turns this purposeless act of violence into an act of social rebellion.
  • Despite knowing nothing about the reason for the murder, Gotham's people imbue it with shared meaning, forcing this event into their narrative, and held Joker as a hero.
  • When Arthur commits another purposeless murder, it sparks riots.
  • The real villain of the movie is the broader society that latches onto actions and imbues them with nonexistent meaning to justify their own crimes.

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The illusory truth effect
The illusory truth effect

It's our tendency to believe false information to be correct after repeated exposure to it.

The illusory truth effect is the reason why advertising and propaganda works.

Why repetition reinforces a belief

The typical explanation is that our brains take shortcuts to save energy:

  • Statements presented in as easy-to-read color are judged as more likely to be true.
  • Aphorisms that rhyme (like “what sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals") seem more accurate than non-rhyming versions.

    Carl Sagan
    Carl Sagan

    “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. ”

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    Babylon 5

    It's a cold-war set in space, with politics aligning towards left of center. It showcases the dangers of nationalism, with great leaders ending up causing enormous damage and harm because of th...

    Battlestar Galactica

    It's focuses on the survivors of humans in devastated colony worlds. The politics of this series reflect the left-wing reaction to the war on terror, stressing on the significance of democracy and civilian leadership.

    The old ‘70s series, and it’s newer remake have, surprisingly different political ideologies, with the same basic story line.

    Game Of Thrones

    ... which is based on George R.R. Martin’s book series "A Song Of Ice And Fire", addresses a range of diverse political issues.

    Most of the people hungry for power are showcased as maniacs and reflect on the wrongdoings of global political elites and career politicians.

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    Primary factors that make horror films alluring
    • Tension - Generated by suspense, mystery, terror, shock and gore.
    • Relevance - The horror film may relate to personal relevance, cultural meaningfulness, the fea...
    Viewing motivators for horror movies
    • Gore watchers typically have low empathy, high sensation seeking, and a strong identification with the killer.
    • Thrill watchers typically have both high empathy and sensation seeking;they identify themselves more with the victims and like the suspense of the film.
    • Independent watchers typically have a high empathy for the victim along with a high positive effect for overcoming fear.
    • Problem watchers typically have high empathy for the victim but are characterized by negative effect (particularly a sense of helplessness).
    Theories on why we love to watch horror films
    • Dr. Carl Jung believed horror films “tapped into primordial archetypes buried deep in our collective subconscious – images like shadow and mother play important role in the horror genre”.
    • Horror films are watched as a way of purging negative emotions and/or as a way to relieve pent-up aggression.
    • Horror movies are enjoyed because the people on screen getting killed deserve it.
    • Cultural historian David Skal has argued that horror films simply reflect our societal fears.
    Ancient stories that shaped history
    Ancient stories that shaped history

    Alexander the Great learned to read and write by studying Homer's Iliad. Thanks to his teacher, the philosopher Aristotle, he had done so with unusual intensity. When Alexander embarked on his ...

    The importance of poetry

    Chinese literature is based on the Book of Songs, a collection of simple poems that have accrued much interpretation and commentary.

    The Book of Songs enshrined poetry as the most important form of literature across East Asia.

    Stories shape language

    As more and more parts of the world became literate, new technologies such as paper and print increased the reach and influence of written stories. More readers meant new stories started to appear.

    When Dante Alighieri wrote his Comedy in the spoken dialect of Tuscany, it helped to turn the dialect into a legitimate language we now call Italian.

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    Sports Fans
    Sports Fans

    Sports is a big deal across the world, with die-hard fans who are extremely emotional towards their home teams. It is hard to pinpoint the motivations of a sports fan, and why a win or a loss of a ...

    Why We Love Sports

    Sports psychologists have a list of why people love sports:

    • Sports carry self-esteem benefits.
    • Commercial reasons (money bets etc.).
    • Peer pressure of being part of their group.
    • Sports are exciting.
    • Sports is an aesthetically pleasing activity.
    • A venue for emotional expression.
    • Sports is an escape from real-world problems.
    • Sports provide a sense of connectedness and belonging.
    Explaining Sports Appeal

    • Talent-Luck Theory: Sports appeals to a lot of people due to its ability to balance skill with randomness.
    • Mirror Neurons: Many fans are able to feel what the player is feeling, and experience the excitement first-hand in his mind, with no barrier between the self and the outside world.

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    The meaning of bridging differences
    The meaning of bridging differences

    Bridging differences means finding ways to create positive dialogue and understanding across race, religion, political ideology, etc.

    The recognition of common humanity

    Bridge-building does not mean that you always agree with the other person or find common ground with them.

    • Bridging starts by recognizing that the other person or group has their own needs, tastes, values, goals, and worldview. Bridging happens because someone feels they have been heard and understood.
    • The key to bridging is that you don't dehumanize a member of another group. You don't see them as less worthy of health and happiness when you disagree with them.
    Bridging differences is not about persuasion

    Bridging differences is not to convert people to your ideological position.

    Bridging is trying to understand someone else's perspective. It requires asking them questions and seeing the world through their eyes.

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    It’s hard not to like K-Pop(Pop music from South Korea), with its infectious tunes, doll-like stars, high-production values and great dance moves. In the last few decades, South Korean culture has ...


    The Original K-Pop Stars, The Kim Sisters, were a hit in the U.S. back in 1959.

    In the mid-90s, Seo Taiji & Boys became the first ‘modern K-Pop’ stars. K-Dramas or Korean soaps also started gaining traction in Asia and beyond. The South Korean government started exporting popular media culture as an economic initiative, making it a major source of foreign revenue.

    EXO BTS and Psy
    • K-pop has slowly taken over the globe with slick production, military-level discipline and years of training for the promoted pop stars. Boy bands like EXO, which debuted in 2011, were dizzyingly successful due to state-level backing and control.

    • Psy’s record ‘Gangnam Style’ became an international craze, garnering 3.5 billion Youtube views and praise from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

    • Boy-band BTS became best-selling artists worldwide, earning USD 4.65 billion in 2019 for their country.

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    Deep Play

    The End of Work in the coming decades may give way to the rise of 'Deep Play', elaborate virtual reality games mixed with religion, consumerism and other ideologies.