Fiction as Autobiography: Characterizing the Phenomenology and Functions of Memories of Narrative Fiction

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People expend a great deal of time and energy telling each other stories of events that are known to be invented. These fictional narratives—emerging from novels, films, television shows, radio dramas, and other media—can nevertheless leave an impact once a book’s cover is closed or the theater lights toggle on. This dissertation characterizes memories of fiction, a phenomenon both commonplace and understudied within empirical psychology. Not only is characterizing this behavior valuable in its own right, understanding how people remember and recruit memories of fiction also holds theoretical implications: any theory of memory which does not allow or account for how and why people recollect and use memories of events they know to be fiction is incomplete.

In Chapter 1, I knit together the theoretical precedent from prior work in autobiographical memory, mental models, and more, for considering memories of fiction as part of the “autobiographical record.” In subsequent chapters and across six studies, I examine the assumptions of this claim empirically. In Chapters 2 through 4, I characterize the subjective experience and function of memories of fiction by adapting established measures of autobiographical remembering across four studies, such as the Autobiographical Memory Questionnaire (AMQ), Centrality of Event (CES) scale, and Talking About Life Experiences (TALE) questionnaire (Berntsen & Rubin, 2006; Bluck et al., 2005; Rubin et al., 2003). I find that people readily ascribe phenomenological vivacity and functional significance to memories of fiction, and that these reports follow the same patterns as reports of memories of lived experience. On average, memories of fiction are less vivid and significant than personal memories, but not as a hard-and-fast-rule. Thus, these first four chapters provide evidence for claiming that the differences between memories of fiction and memories of lived experience are of degree, rather than kind. Chapter 5 (Studies 5 and 6) explore the extent to which memories from works of fiction are recruited to fulfill similar directive functions as autobiographical memories, especially in the absence of lived experience. Chapter 6 concludes by summarizing this body of work and a discussion of notable differences between memories of fiction and lived experience.





Yang, Brenda Wei (2021). Fiction as Autobiography: Characterizing the Phenomenology and Functions of Memories of Narrative Fiction. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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