What is fiction about, and what is it good for? An influential family of theories sees fiction as rooted in adaptive simulation mechanisms. In this view, our propensity to create and enjoy narrative fictions was selected and maintained due to the training that we get from mentally simulating situations relevant to our survival and reproduction. We put forward and test a precise version of this claim, the “ordeal simulation hypothesis”. It states that fictional narrative primarily simulates “ordeals”: situations where a person’s reaction might dramatically improve or decrease her fitness, such as deadly aggressions, or decisions on long-term matrimonial commitments. We study mortality in fictional and non-fictional texts as a partial test for this view. Based on an analysis of 744 extensive summaries of twentieth century American novels of various genres, we show that the odds of dying (in a given year) are vastly exaggerated in fiction compared to reality, but specifically more exaggerated for homicides as compared to suicides, accidents, war-related, or natural deaths. This evidence supports the ordeal simulation hypothesis but is also compatible with other accounts.
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