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Plausible fictions and irrational coherence

By Joseph Harris


One of the most intriguing developments in recent psychology, I feel, has been the recognition of the role played by irrationality in human thought. Recent works by Richard Wiseman, Dan Ariely, Daniel Kahneman, and others have highlighted the irrationality that can inform and shape our judgements, decision-making, and thought more generally. But, as the title of Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational reminds us, our ‘irrationality’ is not necessarily random for all that; in fact, there often appears to be something systematic and internally coherent about the sorts of mistakes that we make. For example, when we’re judging probabilities, we tend to vastly overestimate the likelihood of more dramatic outcomes (such as dying in an aeroplane crash) and underestimate that of less striking ones (such as dying of heart disease). Similarly, we’re very susceptible to whatever information is made ‘available’ to us. As Kahneman suggests, for example, we tend to typecast public figures like politicians as unduly prone to infidelity – not because of any solid statistical evidence, but because journalists’ exposure of such affairs makes the association spring to mind more readily. But our irrationality does not end there. In a further step, we often then compound our mistake by seeking to derive from it explanatory theories and narratives about, say, the aphrodisiac nature of power, and these explanations then help give credence and plausibility to our misguided assumptions.

This interest in the ‘cognitive biases’ of the human mind is nothing new. Long before psychology or behavioural economics developed as formalised disciplines, dramatists and dramatic theoreticians were keen to isolate and either exploit or overcome the predictable irrationality of theatre audiences. The so-called ‘father of French tragedy’, Pierre Corneille (1606-84), was particularly fascinated by the vagaries of audience response and eager to exploit his findings in his plays. Some of Corneille’s most interesting observations lie in the very area which has recently attracted Kahneman and others: our capacity to assess probability. This was a key issue for many seventeenth-century dramatists, not least because of the period’s insistence on aesthetic vraisemblance (‘verisimilitude’ — essentially, the dramatic fiction’s overall plausibility), as the backbone of dramatic illusion.

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Corneille takes a similar observation to Kahneman and turns it into a sort of aesthetic principle. As Corneille notes, tragedians (like modern journalists) typically focus on the crimes and misdemeanours of the notable and powerful. Corneille’s explanation for this is simple: only famous people’s misfortunes and deaths are typically ‘illustrious’ or ‘extraordinary’ enough to have been recorded by history, and thus to have the external historical backing that otherwise implausible events require. Spectators, he claims, are quick to mistrust tragic narratives they do not already know – not so much because the tragic events are themselves implausible (although they may well be), but because it is implausible that such implausible events occurred without having already been brought to their knowledge. (In contrast, comic plots can be entirely invented because they focus on private, domestic events that escape the public radar.) So although Corneille’s spectators display a very patchy grasp of history, they cling tenaciously to what they do know — thus embodying what Kahneman calls ‘our excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in’.

Does this mean that Corneille’s spectators deduce — as Kahneman suggests we do of politicians’ affairs — that such murderous deeds are more prevalent amongst kings and queens? Corneille certainly claims that ancient Greek tragedy played an important role in republican propaganda, fostering its audiences’ belief that kings were fated to lives of brutality. But Corneille uses a rather different logic when explaining the responses of his own contemporaries, those dutiful subjects of Louis XIV. Corneille, we remember, insists that our prior familiarity with historical narratives can win ‘belief’ for otherwise improbable tragic plots; the details of history have already won our belief, however implausible we recognise them to be. In other words, we tend to regard each tragic hero’s downfall as a discrete, one-off historical phenomenon – one chosen for the stage, indeed, precisely because of its uniqueness – rather than as something reflecting a more general propensity towards untimely or brutal ends amongst the upper classes.

Yet Corneille also implies that, despite recognising this uniqueness, we also crave to see a wider resonance and relevance in each tragic narrative. While watching a tragic hero’s downfall, he claims, we deduce that if even kings can be brought down by passions then lowly commoners like ourselves are at even greater risk of a misfortune proportionate to our station.

It seems, then, that however weak our own passions, and however little we stand to lose by being brought down by them, we commoners are actually far more susceptible to misfortune than the regal figures that appear so appealing to tragic dramatists. Strangely, then, Corneille takes a similar starting point to Kahneman, and shows a similar concern for cognitive biases, but ends up at a conclusion completely contrary to Kahneman’s – reminding us, in case we needed reminding, that there may be various different ways of being coherently irrational.

Joseph Harris is Senior Lecturer in French at Royal Holloway, University of London. He has published widely on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French literature (especially drama), and is the author of Hidden Agendas: Cross-Dressing in Seventeenth-Century France (Narr, 2005) and Inventing the Spectator: Subjectivity and the Theatrical Experience in Early Modern France (OUP, 2014). He is interested in how early modern French theatre engages with such issues as gender, psychology, laughter, and spectatorship, and he is currently writing a monograph on death in the works of Pierre Corneille. He can be followed on Twitter at @duckmaus.

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Image credit: Pierre Corneille, Anonymous artist, 17th century. Palace of Versailles. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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