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Four reasons why source monitoring cannot explain how people handle fictional information

Authors Pierre Gander
Published in SweCog 2014 - First Conference of the Swedish Cognitive Science Society
Publication year 2014
Published at Department of Applied Information Technology (GU)
Language en
Keywords Fictional information, source information, source monitoring, memory
Subject categories Psychology (excluding Applied Psychology), Cognitive science, Cognitive science


Fictional information refers to information which a person can learn, remember and use, but that the person believes should not be evaluated against the real word (such as objects and persons that do not exist and events that did not really happen). Examples are fairytales, novels, and thriller movies. Source monitoring (Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993), a theory if how people handle information from various sources, have been applied to many phenomena, such as eyewitness testimony, persuasion, amnesia, and memory and aging. The theory has also been suggested as an account of how people handle fictional information (Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993), but more specific research to test this account has not been made. The suggestion by Johnson et al. is sketchy and only applies to cases where each source either has fictional or non-fictional information. According to me, there are at least four problems with using source monitoring as a theory of how people process fictional information. First, a single source can convey both fictional and non-fictional information. It is not sufficient to identify the source of some information in order to know if that information is fictional or non-fictional. Second, it is possible to remember the fictional status of information without remembering its source. Third, results from studies suggest that the processing of fictional information shows a different pattern compared to source monitoring. Marsh et al. (2003) and Green and Brock (2000) found that people still applied fictional information to the real world, even when they realised that the information was fictional. This is in contrast to source monitoring, where people compensate when they learn that the information originated from an unreliable source. Fourth, there is a problem with associating internal events to events that are made up and external events to events that really occurred. The part of source monitoring which lets people distinguish between internal and external events are called reality monitoring (Johnson & Raye 1981). With the perspective from reality monitoring, memory of non-fictional events is equated with memory of external events, and memory of fictional events is equated with memory of internal events. According to reality monitoring theory, there is a systematic difference between these memories so that memory of external events contains more perceptual, spatial, and temporal details. But since fictional information can be conveyed through various media and sense modalities (e.g., text, speech, video, face to face), reality monitoring theory cannot give a satisfactorily explanation to how people are able to distinguish fictional from non-fictional information (Gander, 2005). Explorative empirical studies suggest that the perceptual and contextual content do not differ between memories of events which have varying fictional content (e.g., a short story, computer games, and real events). Rather, what seems to be involved are two unrelated dimensions: external/internal and fictional/non-fictional, where reality monitoring theory only captures the first dimension.

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