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?

Reading Literature Makes You More Empathetic

So not only does reading the classics enrich you culturally, but it may very well better your capacity to understand people.

That’s the conclusion of a study in the journal Science that gave tests of social perception to people who were randomly assigned to read excerpts from literary fiction, popular fiction or nonfiction.

On average, people who read parts of more literary books like The Round House by Louise Erdrich did better on those tests than people who read either nothing, read nonfiction or read best-selling popular thrillers like The Sins of the Mother by Danielle Steel.

For example, folks who were assigned to read highbrow literary works did better on a test called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” which required them to look at black-and-white photographs of actors’ eyes and decide what emotion the actors were expressing.

This is the first time scientists have demonstrated the short-term effects of reading on people’s social abilities, says Raymond Mar, a psychology researcher at York University in Toronto. He has investigated the effects of reading in the past but did not work on this study.

“I think it’s a really interesting paper,” says Mar. “It seems to be largely consistent with this growing body of work showing that what we read and our exposure to narrative has a very interesting impact on our social abilities and our ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling.”

Pretty interesting stuff. But where exactly do we draw the line between literary fiction and everything else? Well, the answer to that question explains why there seems to be a correlation between reading literature and being more attuned to other people.

Popular fiction tends to be focused on plot, says Emanuele Castano, professor of psychology at The New School for Social Research in New York, and the characters are rather stereotypical. “You open a book of what we call popular fiction and you know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy.”

Literary fiction, in contrast, focuses on the psychology and inner life of the characters, he says. And importantly, characters in literary fiction are left somewhat incomplete. Readers have to watch what they do and infer what they are thinking and feeling.

“This is really the very same processes that we engage in when we try to guess other people’s thoughts and feelings and emotions, and to read their mind in everyday life,” says Castano.

This reminds me of my previous post about the evolutionary importance of art and literature. Not only do they serve as venues for sharing ideas, values, and even practical advice, but they apparently help build up the sort of empathy that is vital to human survival (since empathy in turn furthers cooperation and psychological well-being, which are vital to any high-functioning social species).

Castano says he doesn’t want people to think this study is a criticism of popular fiction, because there are lots of good reasons to read that, too. “But it’s unlikely that it’s going to train you to read other people’s minds.”

This study could be a first step toward a better understanding of how the arts influence how we think, says David Comer Kidd, a graduate student who coauthored the study with Castano.

“We’re having a lot of debates right now about the value of the arts, the value of the humanities,” Kidd says. “Municipalities are facing budget cuts and there are questions about why are we supporting these libraries. And one thing that’s noticeably absent from a lot of these debates is empirical evidence.”

And there’s the upshot: even if the evidence thus far is scant, it’s vital that we take into account the importance of art to societal well-being. Culture exists for a reason: to transmit ideas, prevent boredom, comfort us, and — ultimately — to make us human.

Another Reason To Read: Species Survival

For all the things I love about reading, I never considered human survival to be one of them. But that’s essentially the case made in this interesting piece in The Atlantic by Jennifer Vanderbes. Did storytelling and fiction actually play a role in our evolutionary development? Well before we get into that, consider this fascinating tidbit:

What we generally consider “ancient” time—Jesus of Nazareth and Julius Caesar time—was only about 100 generations ago. Throughout the 1.8 million-year cycle of Ice Ages called the Pleistocene,however, an estimated 85,000 generations of our ancestors lived, loved, lost, and, well, learned to tell tales. (Fossil evidence suggests that the vocal capacity for speech dates back over a million years, and it’s assumed that Cro-Magnons, who emerged 20,000 generations ago, used language of some sort.) These people were our deerskin-wearing, spear-wielding hominid proto-selves. And their actions and preferences over thousands of generations, during dramatically unstable climates (a volatility conducive to evolutionary change) helped shape us. Because a variant that produces 1% more offspring than its alternative, it has been posited, can enter 99.9% of the population in just 4000 generations.

Aside from the astounding reminder that the overwhelming majority of human history predates any civilization as we know it, it’s fascinating to consider the role that narrative may have played in allowing us to get that far. How? Well…

Let’s look first at survival: Among the many things that set humans apart from other animals is our capacity for counterfactual thinking. At its most basic level, this means we can hypothesize what might happen if we run out of milk; in its most elaborate form—we get War and PeaceStories, then, are complex counterfactual explorations of possible outcomes: What would happen if I killed my landlady? What would happen if I had an affair with Count Vronsky? How do I avoid a water buffalo? According to Denis Dutton, these “low-cost, low-risk” surrogate experiences build up our knowledge stores and help us adapt to new situations. (“Mirror neuron” research indicates that our brains process lived and read experiences almost identically.)  A good “cautionary tale,” for example, might help us avert disaster. Stories can also provide useful historical, scientific, cultural and geographical information. Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines illustrates this on two tiers: In armchair-travel fashion, the book acquaints readers with the Australian Outback, while simultaneously describing how Aboriginals sang stories walking at a specific pace so that geographical markers within the story would guide their journey.

In terms of sexual advantages, a tale well told can undoubtedly up the storyteller’s charm factor.  Tales aren’t bland renderings of narrative events; they are, at their best, colorful, brilliant, and poetically polished.   They get gussied up.  And when storytellers use ornament and plumage to draw attention to their tales they inevitably draw eyes themselves.  (Think: author photos, author profiles, literary performances, awards – or, 45,000 years ago, the rapt gaze of the Pleistocene clan.) Literary peacockery benefits the audience as well. When we read books, we enhance our vocabulary. We glean information about particle physics or virtual reality or Australian Aborigines that make us better conversationalists. We hone our metaphors, refine our wit.  From the elaborate plumage of the story the reader, too, makes off with a few feathers.   

It all makes sense — literature, in all its forms, is a means of communication and expression. And when we communicate something — whether a life lesson, personal experience, or fleeting emotion — we’re inherently imparting it to others. We’re teaching each other even if we don’t mean to. Reading educates us, inspires us, and connects us; these things in turn help us to solve problems, build mutually beneficial bonds, and go on to do other useful things.

With all that, comes an important issue to keep in mind:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s American Time Use Survey, the average American spends almost 20% of his or her waking life watching television.  Add to that movies, gaming, books and magazines (reading alone consumed less than 3% of the waking hours of those surveyed), and you can postulate that almost a quarter of our waking lives are spent in imagined worlds.

Evolutionarily, that number is off the charts.  Thanks to Gutenberg and the inventions of film and television, we immerse ourselves in more narratives than our ancestors could have imagined, which means we’re cutting back, along the way, on real-life experience.

This means our choice of which stories to consume is more crucial than ever. They need to be as useful as lived experience, or more so, or we’re putting ourselves at a disadvantage.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that art needs to be strictly utilitarian and useful — after all, that would defeat the purpose of it. Art thrives when it’s natural and organic. But it does say alot about the importance of free expression, in all forms, for the development of society.

Lost In Translation

Earlier today I was reflecting on two articles,  one located hereconcerning publications in America and the woeful lack of international literature among them.

Only 2% to 5% of all books published in the United States come from a non-English language source. I always knew American society is insular with regards to international culture, but this low figure still surprised me. While some non-Anglophobe authors publish their works in English, most of them don’t, which leaves us completely unexposed to the overwhelming majority of  the world’s writings.

Imagine having no knowledge of most of humanity’s works – the different styles, stories, mythologies, wisdoms, and perspectives. It’s disheartening to think of all the knowledge I’m deprived of due to my geographic location (though I fault myself for not being as diligent with learning other languages). What of our society as a whole? The most powerful nation in the world, with a culture so ubiquitous across the globe, scarcely has any literary and academic contact with all but a handful of English-speaking countries. It’s a very one-sided affair for a country that almost singularly dominates the global media market. As the author of a book on the subject, Why Translation Matters, noted:

The free exchange of literary ideas, insights, and intuitions — a basic reciprocity of thought facilitated by the translation of works from other cultures — is central to a free society.

For all this, American publishers certainly bear some blame. They generally claim that translations would cost too much, and since most Americans aren’t interested in international literature, they’d lose a lot of money. But this raises a question of causality: is the lack of interest on the part of American readers the reason why publishers don’t bother translating and publishing such works? Or is it the lack of such publishing on part of the publishers leads to or facilitates of our disinterest?

Personally, I think it is a bit of both. Americans have always maintained a sense of entitlement and exceptionalism, and we view our society and its values as inherently superior, such that we have little inclination to look elsewhere for any other idea or alternative point of view. Why supply the viewpoints of another civilization if we don’t view them as worthy of our time? I’m not asserting that Americans are unique in this perception, or intentionally close-minded; isolationism simply has a strong and historical presence in our society (which is something best left to be discussed in another post).  While I wish publishers could be enlightened and illuminate us with world literature anyway, I know that is not their job, and the demand that beckons them simply isn’t there in any profitable degree (though this does inspire to someday found a publishing company geared specifically for this purpose).

To be clear, I’m well aware that I am coming from a bias towards cosmopolitanism and world culture. But even factoring that in, I think it’s safe to say that this deficiency of  world literature is a serious concern. Not only are we denied a variety of unique and enlightening perspectives, but we retain – if not worsen – a disconnection from the rest of the world we proclaim to be leading; a world we’re constantly involved in despite a considerable lack of understanding. From the article linked above:

The dearth of translated literature in the English-speaking world represents a new kind of iron curtain we have constructed around ourselves. We are choosing to block off access to the writing of a large and significant portion of the world, including movements and societies whose potentially dreadful political impact on us is made even more menacing by our general lack of familiarity with them. Our stubborn and willful ignorance could have — and arguably, already has had — dangerous consequences. The problem starts in the Anglophone publishing industry, where translated books are not only avoided but actively discouraged…

This will come to no surprise to long-established readers or friends of mine, but I’ve always held strongly to the notion that knowledge, dialogue, and empathy- as would be provided by transcultural literature – is a necessary prerequisite to peace, cooperation, and progress. If we expose ourselves to the cultural products of other countries and civilizations, we create a bond with them. We see their depth and their humanity, and we sympathize with them better. When we read and learn about the views, thoughts, and experiences of ‘foreigners,’ they become less alien to us and far easier to relate with. Jingoism, parochialism, and bigotry become eroded and marginalized.

It can be  argued that America’s status as the world’s foremost immigration hub does similarly create a diverse, dialectical, and progressive society. But other cultures generally become Americanized within a few generations, and American society is largely geared towards assimilation. Interactions with immigrants within our own cultural context is no substitute for delving into their deeper ideals and perceptions as provided by their media and literature. While our wonderfully multicultural society bridges many divides, it’s not as effective as connecting to other cultures on their own terms.

Feeling a connection with an author who’s subject matter or narrative is completely alien to you is a wonderful experience, for it breaches barriers in favor of transcendent human-wide values. It is the ability to transcend cultural, religious, ethnic, national, and  numerous other differences in order to establish a personal connection. It’s something I’ve had the joy of experiencing for years as both an international relations major and someone who simply enjoys other cultures. Being able to discover all that we share, in spite of what we don’t, is an enlightening, touching, and even sobering exercise.

To read of how other societies struggle with the same needs, ambitions, and conflicts brings us a closer to them and their interests, facilitating cooperation towards pursuing similar interests (for example, all societies are concerned about education, job growth, the erosion of moral values, and so on). Discovering alternative policies, explanations, and theories for various subjects  introduces us to solutions we may never have otherwise realized. There is literally a world of ideas out there that we’re completely oblivious to.

I am in no way claiming that reading stuff from around the world will usher in world peace and prosperity. My sole point  is that we would stand to benefit tremendously from reversing this entrenched cultural isolation. There is a lot beyond our borders that we’re completely missing out on. Even setting aside my bleeding-heart rhetoric on the matter, one can certainly argue that, at the very least, it would make for interesting reading.