A post by Yuchen Guo.
Imagine the following case:
Paul, a method actor, has been playing the role of Romeo on stage for a long time. Each time he takes the stage in front of spectators he feels that he becomes Romeo and that Romeo’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors seem to be his own.
This case shows that Paul enters Romeo’s experience and shares his thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. Two psychologists, Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby (2012), introduced the concept of experience-taking to describe this phenomenon. According to Kaufman and Libby, experience-taking is an “imaginative process of spontaneously assuming the identity of a character in a narrative and simulating that character’s thoughts, emotions, behaviors, goals, and traits as if they were one’s own” (Kaufman & Libby 2012, p. 1). Through this experience-taking, Paul assumes that he is identical to Romeo and adopts Romeo’s thoughts, emotions, and actions as if he were Romeo. Kaufman and Libby also found that the extent to which one’s self-concept is salient is a crucial determinant in the occurrence and degree of experience-taking (see pp. 4–8); being in a state of reduced self-concept accessibility promotes higher levels of experience-taking, while being in a state of heightened self-concept accessibility makes it more difficult to engage in experience-taking. Experience-taking means not only thinking and feeling how others are thinking and feeling but also entails a kind of self–other merging.
This feature of self–other merging distinguishes experience-taking from perspective-taking. Many works have shown that the process of perspective-taking must involve one’s self-concept as a basis for estimating another’s point of view (see, for example, Davis, Conklin, Smith, & Luce 1996; Galinsky & Moskowitz 2000; Epley, Keysar, Van Boven, & Gilovich 2004). However, experience-taking relies instead on self–other merging. Thus, perspective-taking is a process of putting yourself in the other’s shoes and thinking and behaving from the other’s perspective. In contrast, experience-taking is a process of thinking and behaving from your own perspective that merges with the other’s.
When a subject enters the experience of a fictional character, the feature of “self–other merging” may imply that a subject is in i-states—imaginative counterparts of states attributed to the fictional characters. In what follows, I attempt to verify this hypothesis.
To return to the example of the method actor: While Paul assumes he is identical to Romeo, he adopts Romeo’s propositional attitudes. A propositional attitude is often individualized by its content and type. A belief that snow is white is distinguished from other attitudes because it is a belief and contains the content “snow is white.” Paul does not really hold the same types of attitudes as Romeo. When the audience leaves the theater, Paul is able to stop his performance, though a real Romeo could not. So, Paul does not hold a belief that he is Romeo; if Romeo desires to commit suicide, he may really choose to die. Yet, Paul does not actually choose to die. So, Paul does not hold a desire to die.
Given that Paul and Romeo do not hold the same types of attitudes, the only interpretation is to say that their thoughts share the same content. As Romeo believes that Juliet is the most beautiful girl, Paul also holds the proposition that Juliet is the most beautiful girl; as Romeo desires that Juliet be safe, Paul also wishes this to be the case. Someone may suggest that Paul does not actually love Juliet but loves her in a drama. Yet, this entails that Paul explicitly knows that he is an actor playing a role in a drama, which contradicts the feature of “self–other merging.” Thus, experience-taking is an imaginative process in which a subject holds mental attitudes that are different from the character’s mental attitudes, but nonetheless have the same content as those of the character.
What mental states can describe this feature? I-states, imaginative analogues of mental sates, seem to be the only ones that fit. Proponents of i-states claim that people have a capacity to imaginatively recreate mental states that are similar to their actual counterparts, and that these imaginative states, referred to as i-states, have the same content as their counterparts (see Currie & Ravenscroft 2002; Goldman 2006). For example, when I see my friend weeping for joy because her grandfather has recovered from an obstinate disease, I may imaginatively have a belief with the same content—that my grandfather has recovered from the disease—and this i-belief may make me understand her joy. Nevertheless, i-states are different from the mental states of their counterparts because i-states are imaginings, but their counterparts are not. Thus, i-states share the same content as their counterparts but are different types of states from their counterparts. The process of experience-taking seems to be a case of i-states. When Paul takes Romeo’s experiences, he i-believes that he loves Juliet and i-desires to commit suicide.
Many philosophers insist that the theory that beliefs and desires motivate agents is universally efficacious, and, hence, there is no need to introduce i-states, including i-desires (see, e.g., Nichols & Stich 2003; Funkhouser & Spaulding 2009; Kind 2011; Langland-Hassan 2012). If the process of experience-taking must be seen as a case of i-states, then this point may be a defense of the thesis that i-states play a key role in motivating agents.
Opponents may suggest that, while he assumes that he wants to care for Juliet, Paul does have a conditional belief that “if I act like Romeo, then I should act like I care for Juliet” and have a desire to act as if I were Romeo (Nichols & Stich 2003, Funkhouser & Spaulding 2009; Kind 2011; Liao 2017; Kampa 2018). This account is based on the N&S model (Nichols & Stich 2003), which holds that pretend action is motivated by our understandings about character, which are also described as a conditional belief and a desire to behave as if this were the case. The combination of the two states cannot ensure that Paul merges with Romeo. The belief that “if I were Romeo, I should care for Juliet” and the desire “to act as if I were Romeo” can make him pretend to care for Juliet but is not enough to make him feel himself becoming Romeo. Moreover, while Paul enters Romeo’s experiences, he identifies himself with Romeo, and thereby thinks and behaves from his own perspective, not according to a behavioral law about how Romeo behaves. Paul comes to care for Juliet, because he wants to care for Juliet, not because he believes that “if I am Romeo, I should care for Juliet” and desires to become Romeo. In the latter case, Paul does not merge with Romeo. The N&S model involves the self–other distinction as a basis for estimating others’ perspectives. In contrast, experience-taking requires self–other merging. Hence, the N&S model cannot account for the phenomenon of experience-taking.
Others may say that Paul is motivated by unconscious beliefs and desires (Kampa 2018, Kind 2011): Paul does not need to consciously think about how he would behave if he were Romeo but does so unconsciously. However, unconscious beliefs and desires cannot avoid the previous problems; they cannot sufficiently account for the feature of self–other merging. Consider an old actor who has played the role of Romeo for many years and has remembered all Romeo’s lines and actions. He has no need to consciously consider how Romeo behaves or to ask himself what Romeo would do in this situation. All that he does on stage comes from his unconscious beliefs and desires. In this case, the old actor still may not assume that he is identical to Romeo. What he does is due to his habits, not to his identification with Romeo. Mere unconscious beliefs and desires cannot allow him to access Romeo’s experiences. Second, unconscious beliefs and desires bring out methodological worries. While Paul is taking Romeo’s experience, consciously, he feels himself loving Juliet and wanting to care for Juliet since he merges with Romeo; but, simultaneously, unconsciously, he also believes that if he were Romeo, he should care for Juliet and desires to become Romeo. If Paul’s conscious states can account for why he cares for Juliet, why must we introduce unconscious states that are not consistent with Paul’s conscious states? Perhaps the only reason they provide is that as the theory that beliefs and desires motivate is so effective in many areas, it should therefore also be effective in the case of experience-taking. Obviously, the inference is illogical; the fact that beliefs and desires motivate in many areas does not entail that they motivate in all areas. In fact, many actions are not easily explained as being motivated by beliefs and desires (e.g., see Velleman 2000, p. 270; Currie & Ravenscroft 2002, pp. 129–131; Gendler 2008a, 2008b).
 This phenomenon can also be seen as imaginative transportation or immersion. Transportation and immersion mean that one person is immersed or transported into the fictional world and all her mental systems and capacities become focused on events occurring in the narrative. But that does not require that a person adopts a character’s thoughts. In psychology, the Transportation Scale (Green and Brock 2000, p.704) does not include any items that measure whether a subject is identical to a character. Audiences can be fully immersed or transported by a narrative without identifying with any of the characters. Experience-taking is not the typical occurrence of episodes of transportation or immersion.
Currie, G. & Ravenscroft, I. 2002, Recreative Minds: Imagination in Philosophy and Psychology, New York: Oxford University Press.
Davis, M. H., Conklin, L., Smith, A., & Luce, C. (1996). Effect of perspective-taking on the cognitive representation of persons: A merging of self and other. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 70: 713-726.
Epley, N., Keysar, B., Van Boven, L., & Gilovich, T. (2004). perspectivetaking as egocentric anchoring and adjustment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 327-339.
Funkhouser, Eric and Shannon Spaulding, 2009, Imagination and Other Scripts, Philosophical Studies, 143(3): 291–314.
Galinsky, A. D., & Moskowitz, B. (2000). Perspective-taking: Decreasing stereotype expression, stereotype accessibility, and in-group favoritism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 708-724.
Gendler, T. S. 2008a, Alief and Belief, The Journal of Philosophy, 105(10): 634–663.
Gendler, T. S. 2008b, Alief in Action (and Reaction), Mind and Language, 23(5): 552–585
Green, M. C. & Brock, T. C. 2000. The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(5): 701-721.
Goldman, A.I. 2006. Simulating Minds: The Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience of Mindreading, New York: Oxford University Press.
Kampa, S. 2018. Imaginative Transportation, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 96:4, 683-696
Kaufman, G.F. & L.K. Libby. 2012. Changing Beliefs and Behavior through Experience-Taking, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(1): 1–19.
Kind, A. 2011. The Puzzle of Imaginative Desire, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 89(3), 421-439.
Langland-Hassan, P. 2012. Pretense, imagination, and belief: the Single Attitude theory, Philosophical Studies, 159 (2):155-179.
Liao, S. 2017(unpublishable), Immersion is Attention / Becoming Immersed.
Nichols, S. 2004. Imagining and believing: The promise of a single code, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62 (2):129-39
Nichols, Shaun and Stephen P. Stich, 2003, Mindreading: An Integrated Account of Pretense, Self-Awareness and Understanding Other Minds, New York: Oxford University Press.
Spaulding, S. 2015, Imagination, Desire, and Rationality, The Journal of Philosophy, 112(9): 457–476.
Velleman, J.D. 2000, “On the Aim of Belief”, in The Possibility of Practical Reason. New York: Oxford University Press.