Michael Ann Dobbs discusses new research that has found that reading novels can make you a better person.
The principles found work similarly to vicarious experience but with a twist, a different twist than our recent discussion on using vicarious experience hypnotically to play a zombie game but related nonetheless.
We all know that reading about heroic characters in impossible situations can be thrilling and a great escape from our otherwise drab lives. But new research shows that reading fiction can actually make us better people as well — the more we identify with fictional characters on the page, the more we try to act like them.
Dartmouth and Ohio State researchers looked at how strongly identifying with a fiction character can influence your real-life behaviors. And it turns out, there’s a definite correlation.
Researchers Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby coined the term “experience taking,” to describe:
“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.”
Their results tell us more about how people read — and maybe, about how people should be writing.
The idea that readers’ behaviors can be influenced by the books they read has been around since there have been books. As with the panic surrounding video games or the internet, people were concerned that books, and novels in particular, would corrupt people. This fear even drove the plots of several early novels, like Charlotte Lenox’s 1752 novel The Female Quixote about a young woman who believes her life should be like a courtly romance. But actual research into this phenomenon is only a few decades old.
Kaufman and Libby argue that experience-taking is different from the processes that have been identified in the past. People have been shown to change their beliefs or attitudes when someone they admire does, and people have claimed that they share personality traits and abilities with those they admire — even when they don’t. Psychologists have even previously identified “perspective taking” in which people are able to understand the perspectives and beliefs of others (better known to regular folks as “empathy”).
What’s the difference between those processes and “experience taking”? All of those other processes are based in a certain amount of self-awareness. A person has to understand their own beliefs before they can change them. And most people express empathy by figuring out how they would feel in a certain situation. Kaufman and Libby, however, “propose that experience-taking depends on the relinquishing of the self-concept, which should facilitate the assumption of the other’s thoughts, feelings, and traits. Thus, we predict that experience-taking is fostered by a reduction rather than an increase in the activation of the self-concept.”
To test their theory of experience taking, Kaufman and Libby ran six different studies looking at self-concept and its relationship to experience taking. As with most psych studies, the participants were undergraduates at the school. Studies have shown that reflective, introverted people have high self-awareness. So Kaufman and Libby gave readers questionnaires where they could rate the truthfulness of statements like “I’m always trying to figure myself out.” Afterwards, students were given a story to read about an undergraduate student who felt somewhat socially anxious as they went about a typical weekend. The story didn’t specify things like hair color or gender of the main character. Afterwards, students filled out another questionnaire about how they would behave in various social situations.
Even though normally high rates of self-concept correlate with high rates of introversion, the research showed that low rates of self-concept led students to imagine they would be more introverted. In other words, reading a story about an introvert made people who really have no business being introverted, think they would behave in an introverted way.
Then the researchers tried to influence the students’ self-concept before they read the story. One group was told that the researchers were not interested in their opinions as individuals and were assigned numbers. A different group had to read the story aloud in front of a mirror. The students in the mirror study were led to believe the mirrors were for another study. After they had completed reading the story and filled out the introversion questionnaire, they were asked to fill out another questionnaire about their reading experience. They were asked to rate statements like, “I was mentally involved in the story while reading it,” and “While I was reading the story, activity around the room around me was on my mind” as well as answering multiple choice questions about the narrative. The numbered students were even more influenced by the story than the first group who had read it. While students in front of the mirror’s introversion scores were less influenced by the story, they had no problem answering the questions about the narrative and were not distracted.
See a lot more about these fascinating studies at http://io9.com/5910449/how-reading-novels-can-make-you-a-better-person.