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Why We Mistakenly Believe True Stories Will Make Us More Emotional

Looking for some feels? Don't avoid imagination.

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Ever sobbed uncontrollably during a movie?

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You might think something based on a recent true story might make you trapped in a glass case of emotion, but new research suggests it might not matter whether a tear-jerker is true or took place a long time ago.

We tend to mistakenly believe that immediate true events will make us sadder.

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Tragedies stir up deep emotions in us, so it's only natural to believe that tales rooted in reality will have the same effect. And something made up in someone's brain will surely be less potent, right?

Turns out the distance you think will exist between you and fiction or an event removed in time doesn't factor into how affected you'll feel. As the researchers noted, "people’s emotional reactions were surprisingly insensitive to this distancing information."

And that might be because we become so absorbed in the story that we tend to momentarily forget it's not real or distant to us.

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When researchers paused fictional movies to let viewers process that what they were seeing wasn't true, however, participants did feel less sad.


The results suggest that while emphasizing a true story might entice those seeking deep feelings...

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...the research, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, suggests that it might lead you to pick a book or movie that will be less emotionally rewarding — and ultimately fall short of being satisfying.

The researchers write:

[Consumers] may choose to see a play about their hometown, watch a live basketball game on television, or read a novel based on a true story, but miss out on seeing a more enjoyable play about a distant city, watching a more exciting basketball game recorded earlier, or reading a more entertaining fictional novel.