‘Suspension of disbelief’ is a phenomenon that refers to one’s willingness to believe the unbelievable and to suspend one’s critical thinking process.
If “belief” simply states “I believe”, then “willing suspension of disbelief” implies “I believe because I agree to ignore certain factors that would cause me not to believe”. The term was coined by literary figure Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his work titled ‘Biographia Literary’ from 1817. Many films employ the suspension of belief to make the audience more engaged in films by helping them think fictional factors as a reality. For me, as an audience, while watching ‘Transformers’ series, I felt like the invasion of Autobots is happening in real life and was worried if my family’s car would become a robot. It is an essential feature of theatre for the audience to consider a virtual reality, for example, real to some extent. Writers, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, want their readers not to question fictional parts of writings and to believe what is written on books while reading them. In fact, it is not so hard for artists to “trick” audience.
For instance, in dramas, though people are aware that plots of dramas are fictional, people can still feel all sorts of human emotions and sympathize with protagonists. As people are more engaged in those dramas, they unconsciously suspend their disbelief during the moment when watching these shows. According to Jonathan Gottschall, suspension of disbelief is a phenomenon that people cannot intend to control.
The aim of this essay is to explore how these arguments of the suspension of disbelief apply to two areas of knowledge (AOK), Natural science and Psychology, to see whether it is beneficial to the process of knowledge production. In the field of natural science science, where extensive work is required to prove scientists’ ideas, ‘suspension of disbelief’ acts as a driving force to encourage scientists to demonstrate based on assumption that that is real. There had been a major controversy of Higgs Boson that was finally found scientifically in 2012.
The Higgs Boson particle was “found” in scientists’ imagination. This particle was described as being “the only particle predicted by the standard model of physics that hasn’t yet been observed” (Hank Green). Indeed, even before the particle was discovered, it was a popular topic in a science field, suggesting that many people already believed in its existence, even though there was no proof at all. This case demonstrates that in order to advance in any form ideas that have not proven yet, suspension of disbelief is vital. In order to find something new, it is critical to first have faith in its plausibility, with no certainty in its truth. It was interesting to take note of the actual language used to describe the phenomenon of this particle’s discovery (In an article on the Smithsonian).
Higgs Boson was not founded upon truth and certainty. Everything being said was accompanied by words such as “if,” “would,” and “if you imagined.” The language in itself suggests that this discovery was based mainly on a “what if,” which proves that the presence of a suspension of disbelief was a big part of a breakthrough discovery in science. However, the suspension of belief does not seem valid in science where it can be decided whether one theory is wrong or not. Unlike the Higgs Boson particle which scientists seemed to accept its existence without any experimental proof, there have been some scientists who were dismissed as crazy even if they suggested groundbreaking theories that would be proven years later. For instance, Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician, insisted that bacteria spread out due to lack of sanitation while working at the Vienna General Hospital in the 1840s.
He noticed when doctors wash their hands in chlorine lime solutions, the mortality rates went down to 1-2%. At that time, his suggestion didn’t go over well in Europe as many doctors were offended that Semmelweis implied that they are dirty. Also, the main reason why they did not trust his theory was that he never published an official report about sanitation. Thus, they just rejected his idea and viewed him as an embarrassment.
Nowadays, it is a common sense that sanitation is crucial since it has been proven that bacteria is a main cause of disease. Despite his early suggestion about sanitation, the rejection of his idea led him to alcoholism and depression. However, the natural sciences are not the only area of knowledge to incorporate suspension of disbelief. Psychology does too. The suspension of disbelief is a prevalent method used in an advertisement to attract customers, which can be explained by so-called consumer confidence. The recent studies have revealed that consumers tend to suspend their disbelief on fictional characteristics of advertisement in order to experience fantasy and enjoyment. Commercial makers want to portray a role of products that exist in people’s life, experience, and imagination. So, companies often put unrealistic models to attract consumers to buy their products so that consumers will experience the same thing as shown in the advertisement.
Thus, unrealistic exaggeration is one of the main characteristics of advertisement. Consumers must have been aware of the unrealistic side of advertisement. However, according to Callot and Lee’s study, consumers undergo the process of the suspension of disbelief because of the intervention of psychological factors that make consumers anticipate. Another study done by Holbrook and Hirshman supports that people buy products not only because of the practicality of products but also the experience that could be gained by buying them. There are some commercials that prove previous studies.
First, a Hankook Tire advertisement starred two famous celebrities. Though they are not in a relationship, they appear as one’s love for each other in this advertisement. Viewers would soon realize they are not dating in real life. However, they would not consider this relationship unnatural; rather, the audience would react emotionally to the dramatic situation described in the advertisement. Another example is a bed advertisement.
In this commercial, there is a woman who hopes one day, she will sleep next to a man so that she could have a comfortable sleep. So, God sends a guy from heaven. Even if the guy lands on the bed, she does not wake up and is still sleeping, which emphasizes the quality of beds that is not shaky. Though the unrealistic exaggeration is used, consumers seem to take this advertisement as a form of entertainment. In fact, after this advertisement was released, the revenue of this bed company went up by 20%. Despite the advantages of applying the suspension of disbelief into commercial, consumers are sometimes very objective and skeptical when a particular product does not seem real. Consumers have common senses about products in general.
So, they know whether one product seems unreal or not. Also, they are aware of that advertisements are biased, so commercials are not credible. According to a joint report between British newspaper Trinity Mirror and research firm Ipsos Mori, 69% of British distrust advertisement. It has been noticed that in the advertisement, consumers want the factual data rather than dramatic situations that are basically fictional. Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that the suspension of disbelief is considered hart to be successful in commercials that consumers are sensitive to the information since it is closely related to their money. It can be assumed that it makes sense why people are skeptical about advertisements because unlike films and paintings, advertisements deal with practicality and usefulness of products, not using imagination to decide the quality of goods. In conclusion, it can be said that the suspension of disbelief is a necessary part depending on areas of the field.
The areas such as science, where new innovative thinking is necessary, definitely need the suspension of disbelief before a new idea is proven. On the other hand, the suspension of disbelief shown in advertisement shows limitations since it is hard to allude consumers. In addition to that, Jonathan Gottschall’s assertion may be acceptable especially when people put themselves in one’s shoes that is portrayed in the advertisement, for example. Humans cannot intend to control as long as advertisements or art works seem realistic to the some extent though they are not existent in real life. Both AOKs agree on Jonathan Gottschall’s statement to certain extent because they suggest that humans lose their intention to decide whether to believe or not, but only when the ideas or advertisements seem plausible.