The willing construction of disbelief

In our previous post, we discussed Richard Gerrig’s work on reading as a form of transportation. We argued that Gerrig’s ideas offer useful ideas for teachers to think about when planning lessons and talking about reading with their students. We outlined how Gerrig’s research showed that readers who felt greater levels of transportation were more likely to have been affected by what they read, and that the events depicted in the fictional world had an effect on their real world selves and beliefs.

In a further paper, Gerrig and David Rapp (2004) draw on a number of additional studies to explore how and why readers might be affected by reading fiction. They continue with their metaphor of reading as form of travelling to consider readers’ experiences:

we suggest that the extent to which the traveler will be changed by the journey will depend in part on the types of activities in which the traveler engages while on the journey.

(Gerrig and Rapp 2004: 267)

For one of their central ideas, Gerrig and Rapp rework S.T. Coleridge’s concept of the willing suspension of disbelief. Coleridge used this phrase to explain that when we pick up a book, we know that we are reading about fictional situations, events and characters but we accept them as believable in order to enjoy the story. Coleridge initially coined the phrase with particular reference to his own poetry that drew on the gothic and supernatural, but it has been used more generally to highlight the idea that we choose to ignore improbable or unlikely scenarios when we read.

In contrast to this, Gerrig and Rapp argue that when we read, we automatically accept the contents of a story unless we deliberately construct disbelief. In other words, we have to turn on rather than turn off our critical faculties. When constructing disbelief, readers consciously draw on their knowledge and memories to take a more critical stance to what’s in front of them. Gerrig and Rapp suggest that more reflective reading occurs when readers want, and are able, to put effort into disbelieving events and ideas: constructing disbelief is therefore a crucial part of developing a more critical response to literary works.

To illustrate their points, Gerrig and Rapp refer to an experiment that showed that readers are more likely to construct disbelief when what they read had strong personal relevance. In the experiment, the researchers gave groups of student participants two stories to read, one of which was set at their ‘home university’ and one which was set at an ‘away university’. They then asked them to comment on the extent to which they agreed with a series of statements that were based on events in the story. They found that readers agreed more with the assertions in the story when they read the ‘away’ narrative, and were more critical of the statements when reading their ‘home’ narrative. In other words, they more readily constructed disbelief when experiencing a narrative that had greater personal relevance. The experiment therefore suggests that personal relevance is a key factor in supporting more critical reading.

As we explained in our last post, readers who experience greater transportation or immersion when reading can sometimes be less inclined to scrutinise the contents of the text or the fictional world that they experience. In a later paper, Gerrig and Giovanna Egidi (2010) explore this idea in detail by distinguishing between two types of processes that readers use when engaging with a text: intuitive processes and reflective processes.

Gerrog and Egidi argue that intuitive processes are automatic and occur without any real effort. They are natural, ‘first impression’ responses that we utilise for the majority of the time that we are reading. On the other hand,

reflective processes require explicit planning; they are slow, and effortful.

(Gerrig and Egidi 2010: 191)

A more reflective reader will deliberately engage in critical processes that override the more natural intuitive responses to reading that may arise. In other words, they will be able to move into a more critical mode of reading that explicitly and willingly constructs disbelief. So how does this work? Gerrig and Egidi stress that any reader may be both intuitive and reflective at different points of their reading, and that we all read in intuitive and reflective ways at different times and in different circumstances, with different texts and with different reasons for reading. They also point out that some texts encourage more or less reflective stances and that consequently, readers might shift from intuitive to reflective reading and vice versa as they move from book to book or even, for example, between different sections of the same novel. This of course raises an important point about texts themselves, or rather the ways in which authors craft their writing so as to promote particular kinds of reading. Gerrig and Egidi suggest that through the language choices they make, authors themselves can influence when readers might choose to abandon more intuitive responses in favour of reflective ones, for example by drawing attention to moments of uncertainty and ambiguity, and deliberately foregrounding difficult questions. Some writers will naturally be more inclined to do this and consequently support readers to take more reflective stances.

Gerig and Egidi also view literary analysis (in its broadest sense) as a controlled and reflective experience. They argue that ‘most literary analysis arises from re-reading rather than the initial reading of the text’ (2010: 203). This also raises some interesting questions about how literary texts are introduced in the classroom. Since intuitive reading appears to be the default mode, a more reflective approach needs time (and good supporting activities) to develop. Readers need time and space to be reflective since initial responses are always likely to be intuitive ones!

We think the above discussion raises some additionally interesting questions regarding the teaching of literature in the classroom. If you have any views on these or on anything else in this post, do get in touch and/or leave a comment below!

  1. How much attention is given to personal relevance in choosing books that students read in the classroom? Debates about the literary canon and what should appear on examination specifications focus on either authorising or downplaying certain types of texts. Should teachers be more careful in devising tasks that consider the likely impact of making connections to students’ lives?
  2. To what extent do we encourage students to take ownership of their reading and to draw on their own experiences and life resources when both choosing texts to read and when responding to texts that appear to be outside of their immediate experience? If we take the points about personal relevance, the willing construction of disbelief and reflective reading seriously, this should be a central concern for the literature teacher.
  3. How can teachers encourage criticality? How might we draw on the idea that certain authors construct their texts to encourage reflective reading? Are there certain genres of texts or particular authors that might be helpful for this?
  4. In their paper, Gerrig and Egidi argue that advertising (as an extreme form of persuasion) aims to take advantage of the fact that readers intuitively respond to ideas presented to them. Are there ways that a critical analysis of advertisements, and by consequence other areas of the curriculum such as media and film studies, can support young readers in asking questions and engaging in the willing construction of disbelief?
  5. What benefits are there in deliberately making connections between different genres and text types in English teaching? How might teachers use this to explore the very notion of ‘literariness’?


Gerrig, R.J. and Egidi, G. (2010) ‘The Bushwhacked Piano and the bushwhacked reader: The willing construction of disbelief’, Style 44(1 and 2), 189-206.

Gerrig, R.J. and Rapp, D. (2004) ‘Psychological processes underlying literary impact’, Poetics Today 25(2), 265-281.

2 thoughts on “The willing construction of disbelief

  1. Fascinating issues raised here. 2 (instinctive!) responses – we tend to teach in a logical chronological order with tasks immediately linked to the passage just read. I think introducing a ‘time lag’ approach to tasks might encourage reflective analysis.

    Secondly, a wider and more explicit development of critical tools is needed. Non-fiction texts hold a key here. Exploring notions of bias, selective perspectives, use of statistics etc can be taught and then incorporated into critical reading of fiction


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