You Are What You Read

According to an article in Medical Dailya study conducted last year found that readers will unknowingly be influenced by, or even adopt, certain characteristics of the fictional characters they’re reading about.

Experts have dubbed this subconscious phenomenon ‘experience-taking,’ where people actually change their own behaviors and thoughts to match those of a fictional character that they can identify with.

Researcher from the Ohio State University conducted a series of six different experiments on about 500 participants, reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that in the right situations, ‘experience-taking,’ may lead to temporary real world changes in the lives of readers.

They found that stories written in the first-person can temporarily transform the way readers view the world, themselves and other social groups.

Experience-taking differs from perspective-taking in that you immerse yourself in the character you’re reading about, rather than simply try to comprehend what the character is experiencing.

For example, people who had strongly identified with a fictional character that overcame obstacles to vote were also significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days than participants who read a different story. But it gets more interesting:

Psychologists also found that it was critical for the story to reveal characteristics shared by the reader earlier rather than later for ‘experience-taking’ to take effect.

“The early revelation of the group membership seemed to highlight the difference between readers and the character, and made it more difficult for readers to step into the character’s shoes,” researchers wrote in the report.

In an experiment consisting of 70 heterosexual males, who were asked to read a story about a homosexual undergraduate student revealed extraordinarily different results depending on when in the narrative the character’s sexuality was exposed.

Participants who had found out about the protagonist being gay later in the narrative reported significantly more favorable attitudes toward homosexuals after reading the story than participants who read that the protagonist was gay early on or read that the protagonist was heterosexual.

“Those who read the gay-late narrative also relied less on stereotypes of homosexuals – they rated the gay character as less feminine and less emotional than did the readers of the gay-early story,” researchers wrote.

Notably, there were similar results with white students who read about a black student who was either identified as black early or late in the story.

So in essence, these stories prime our ability to empathize, which coincides with similar research I discussed months ago that found literature to have a positive effect on one’s level of compassion. Yet another post had explored the important role that fiction in particular plays in shaping our growth and development as a species.

Of course, this isn’t a surefire effect, as certain parameters are required:

The environment also played a major role in determining whether participants will engage in ‘experience-taking,’ according to the researcher.

In an experiment which required participants to read in front of a mirror, researchers reported that fewer readers were able to undergo ‘experience-taking’ because they were constantly reminded of their own self-concept and self-identity.

Researchers said that ‘experience-taking’ can only happen when readers are able to in a way forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity when reading.

“The more you’re reminded of your own personal identity, the less likely you’ll be able to take on a character’s identity,” Kaufman said in a news release. “You have to be able to take yourself out of the picture, and really lose yourself in the book in order to have this authentic experience of taking on a character’s identity.”

Notably, this effect only seems to occur with reading — film and television narratives, by contrast, delegate viewers to the role of spectator, which limits their ability to put themselves in the shoes of fictional characters.

“Experience-taking can be very powerful because people don’t even realize it is happening to them. It is an unconscious process,” Libby said, adding that the phenomenon could have powerful, if not lasting, effects. 

“If you can get people to relate to characters in this way, you might really open up their horizons, getting them to relate to social groups that maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Libby told the Edmonton Journal.

Fascinating stuff. What do you guys think? Can anyone relate with this experience?

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