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?

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.