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25 July 2018
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Evidence-Based Education: Definition and Issues
6 November 2018

From Fiction to Simulation: New Methods for Fostering Critical Thinking and Decision-Making



Often thought of as simply a diversion, fiction can prove to be a valuable pedagogical resource. From artistic workshops to simulation exercises, several Sciences Po courses mobilize students’ imaginations to foster their argumentation skills as well as their ability to make difficult decisions. This article uses research in the cognitive sciences to show how imagination and fiction can function as bridges to the development of critical thinking, and serve as a pedagogical model for Science Po.


The simulation of fictional scenarios can help decision-making in a variety of situations, be it ordering food in a restaurant or setting up public policy. Who has never imagined the different possibilities and potential consequences before making a choice? (Sloman and Fernbach, 2018, p. 62-67). In fact, these mental simulations correspond to a way of thinking that could be called counterfactual: the act of imagining alternative outcomes to past or future events (Byrne, 2016).

Thus, for cognitive psychology researcher Olivier Houdé “in order to make a decision, our brain doesn’t just look back on past experiences, pleasant or unpleasant….It must also be capable of imagining virtual and hypothetical (counterfactual) scenarios, and of anticipating regrets related to them. (Houdé, 2014, p. 124-129). According to Houdé, the anticipation of regret is actually a counterfactual cognitive emotion that can stimulate critical thinking by an “emotional guiding of reason.” Otherwise said, by imagining the different results of a potential decision, the brain gives them an emotional valence (positive or negative) and decides accordingly.


Promoting both reading and writing literary fiction can also be a good way to develop students’ critical thinking.  By bringing to life a variety of different people and everyday situations, reading a fictional story can actually be perceived as a “simulation of society” (Oatley, 2016). This represents an opportunity for the reader to stop looking inwards and explore other perspectives on the world.

Using the same logic, the social decision-making laboratory of University of Cambridge is conducting a research project around developing an “anti-fake news” game. Participants are asked to imagine that they are a producer and diffuser of fake news in order to better understand the underlying mechanisms of the disinformation phenomenon (Roozenbeek and Van Der Linden, 2018).

The rules are simple:  choose the most emotional content (sensationalist images or conspiracy headlines) in order to increase the number of one’s followers on Twitter, and at the same time keep a credible reputation.  The project is based on the inoculation principle in social psychology, in which, like a vaccination, the fact of being previously exposed to a weaker version of false information allows you to then develop a resistance to other false information. The game also builds on an active pedagogy method in that the participants are not just exposed to fake news, but must also actively think about how it is created, in order to better protect themselves against this type of false information.


Oriented towards innovation and active pedagogy since its creation, Sciences Po continues to explore new ways to refresh its teaching methods, thanks to an evidence-based approach that is founded on scientific evidence. Since 2011, the Collège Universitaire has offered artistic workshops with the aim of giving students the opportunity to explore new ways to question society. Other innovative teaching methods that highlight student inventiveness have also taken root in our research protocols. For example, the FORCCAST (Formation par la Cartographie des Controverses à l’Analyse des Sciences et des Techniques) programme develops simulation exercises that use role playing “by immersion in a fictional environment,” with the goal of “training participants in the art of debate and negotiation in a controversial situation, in cases where there is uncertainty generated by scientific and technical developments.”

At the Télécom Paristech school, the application of the FORCCAST programme has introduced “the possibility of using fiction to become aware of a controversy.”  During the most recent workshop, a group of students created a musical performance around the following subject: “Towards an Automated Suicide Prevention? Artificial Intelligence and Mental Health.”  According to one of the students, “rap was the best way to express what he felt inside.” This type of fictional detour appears to be a better reflection of the varying social logic at work during a socio-technical controversy, while maintaining awareness of the affective and subjective dimension (Fournoult and Beaudoin, 2017).

Manon BERRICHE, is a student at Sciences Po’s School of Public Affairs (specializing in “Digital, New Technology and Public Policy”) and the Interdisciplinary Research Centre. Manon is currently doing an internship with Science Po’s Active Pedagogy Lab.


Byrne R. M. (2016), Counterfactual thought, Annual review of psychology, 67, 135-157.

Hofstadter D. R., & Sander E. (2013), L’analogie : cœur de la pensée, Paris, France, Odile Jacob.

Houdé O. (2015), Apprendre à résister, Paris, France, Le Pommier.

Oatley K. (2016), Fiction: Simulation of social worlds, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20(8), 618-628.

Roozenbeek J. & Van der Linden S. (2018), The fake news game: actively inoculating against the risk of misinformation, Journal of Risk Research, 1-11.

Sloman S. & Fernbach P. (2017), The knowledge illusion: Why we never think alone, New York, NY, Riverhead Books.