Why fiction influences you, even when you know its fake

Suppose you are watching a cop movie. Sure, you realize that the movie is fiction and that it is not a real cop that you are watching, and yet, unconsciously the movie influences you. In this article, I am going to argue that, even though you realize that you are watching fiction, you will still be influenced in the way that you look at police officers in every day life. 

When you watch a cop movie, your brain needs to understand the plot in order to be able to follow it. The plot of a cop movie will only make sense if you realize that the main character is a police officer. The movie shows you that the main character is a police officer by showing them doing police-officer-things. They might arrest someone at the start of the movie, or they show their badge to some other character in the movie. By recognizing these patterns, your brain triggers the “police officer” memory object (MO).

Memory objects

In my series, the intricate pattern of the brain, I speculate about the existence of so-called memory objects, that, alone or together, can form an understanding of a certain pattern that can be recognized in certain external stimuli. I also speculate that these memory objects are interconnected, and are connected to a certain emotion that is the average of the emotions that have been felt during earlier recognition of the pattern.

Unconscious influence

When you are watching a cop movie, and you access the police officer MO, you feel the emotion that is connected to it, and you trigger the MO’s that are attached to the police officer MO, thereby making certain predictions about the movie. When you then see the main character in the movie do things that feel pleasing, the connection between the police officer MO and pleasure is increased. This will happen, even when you realize that you are watching fiction. This has to happen, or so I think, because you need to understand that the main character is a police officer, and therefore you need to access that MO, and therefore you will change the emotion coupled to this MO, whether you like it or not.

On top of that, the other patterns that are perceived in the movie will also connect to the police officer MO in your brain, even when you realize that it is fiction. Because you need to access the police officer MO, and you need to access the subsequent MO’s of the patterns in the behavior of the cop, or the results of his actions,  your brain will connect all of these MO’s together. The chance that you will think of one when you think of the other will increase. The chance that you will predict an outcome that is congruent with the outcome of the movie will therefore also increase. 

You can mitigate the influence with some conscious thought, but ultimately there is no way around it. Because you access these MO’s at the same time, they will get connected. And after watching the movie, when you see a real-life police officer somewhere, you will be more pleased to see them than before, and you will start to predict more behavior and results that are congruent with what you saw in the movie. There is no stopping it.

What if you don’t like police officers?

If you don’t like police officers and watch a cop movie, your experience will be different from someone who has no such bias when watching such a movie. If you hate the police, then you will be watching such a movie more critically. This way, you can make sure that the police officer MO and the MO’s of the other patterns of the movie will only connect via a third MO. For instance, a conscience realization that a certain movie is so-called “copaganda” might make you dislike the main character, which will lead to a more negative (anxiety) emotional connection. However, if you continue to watch the movie, the subsequently observed patterns will connect to the police officer MO to the MO’s of these patterns. And if you still find it satisfying to see the main character catch the “bad guy”, this will still lead to a more positive connection between MO’s and emotion. 

This result can only be achieved through conscious thought, using the realization that you might otherwise be influenced unconsciously. If you just go-with-the-flow while watching the cop movie, you will be influenced significantly more. But, either way, you will be influenced.

Parasocial entanglement

What should also not be forgotten is the parasocial entanglement that you as the viewer of the movie will have with the main character.

In your head, the main character is a police officer, even though you know that it is fiction. Therefore, when you access the police officer MO, you will also (unconsciously) access at least part of this parasocial relationship, and the emotional connections that it has. If you really like the fictional character, then this will also lead to a more positive assessment of police officers in general. And the nasty thing is, since most of this is unconscious, you do not even realize that you have been influenced.

Movies create many expectations

One of my favorite movies of all times is The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. The movie’s theme seems to be the same as the theme of this article.

As anyone who has seen the movie will have realized, the movie centers around sudden death. For those who have not seen the movie, it is an anthology of six stories, the first five featuring a story where an unexpected death suddenly ends the story and makes the movie move on to the next story.

Now, as I see it, the Coen brothers seem to want to say something by showing us five stories that feature such a sudden end. The message seems to be: viewer, why do you expect something else?

The movie seems to be a pretty scathing critique of (modern) fiction, and the influence it has on its audience. I do not want to do an entire exegesis on The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs in this article, so I will cut to the chase. If the audience is constantly exposed to stories where the main character always wins, and never dies, than the audience will start to build expectations in their pattern of the self that will no longer be realistic. When they are then confronted by sudden death in their every day life, they are surprised, even though sudden death happens all the time in the real world. People seem to be more calibrated by fiction than by reality!


To be able to understand what a movie is trying to communicate to you, you need to access the memory objects that represent the real-world-equivalent of the pattern that you have recognized in the movie. This will connect the MO’s, whether you like it or not, and it will connect the emotions that you feel when watching the movie,