Nel's New Day

August 22, 2013

Reading Can Change Lives

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 8:01 PM
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If you ever identify so closely with a fictional character that you find yourself feeling his or her thoughts, beliefs, and emotional responses, you may have participated in a phenomenon called “experience-taking.”

According to researchers at Ohio State University, people may end up changing their behavior, although perhaps only temporarily, after being “lost” inside the world of a fictional character. For example, people who strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote became significantly more likely to vote themselves. Other people who read about characters of a different race or sexual orientation develop a more favorable attitude toward these people with less of an inclination to believe stereotypes about them.

Co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University Lisa Libby said, “Experience-taking can be a powerful way to change our behavior and thoughts in meaningful and beneficial ways.” Geoff Kaufman, a graduate student at Ohio State who led the study, added, “Experience-taking changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about, which can lead to good outcomes.”

Experience-taking doesn’t occur in all reading. Research shows that it only occurs when people forget about themselves—their own self-concepts and self-identities. For example, most college students were unable to experience the phenomenon while reading in a cubicle with a mirror. “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.

The study included 82 undergraduates, registered and eligible to vote, who were assigned to read one of four versions of a short story about a student enduring several obstacles on the morning of Election Day (car problems, rain, long lines, etc.) before entering the booth to cast a vote. This experiment occurred several days before the 2008 November presidential election. At least one version was written in first person (“I entered the voting booth) while another was in third person (“Paul entered the voting booth”). Versions featured a student who attended the same university as the participants or protagonists who attended a different university.

After reading the story, the participants completed a questionnaire to measure their level of experience-taking–how much they adopted the perspective of the character in the story. For example, they were asked to rate how much they agreed with statements like “I found myself feeling what the character in the story was feeling” and “I felt I could get inside the character’s head.”

Participants who read a story, told in first-person, about a student at their own university had the highest level of experience-taking, and 65 percent of these participants reported they voted on Election Day. In comparison, only 29 percent of the participants voted if they read the first-person story about a student from a different university.

Another experiment explored outcomes if people lose themselves in a character who initially appears to be similar but then is shown to be different from the reader. In one experiment, 70 male heterosexual college students read a story about a day in the life of another student. In one version, the character was revealed to be gay early in the story, in another the student was identified as gay late in the story, and in the third, the character was heterosexual. Students who read the story in which the character was identified as gay late in the narrative reported higher levels of experience-taking than did those who read the story in which the character’s homosexuality was announced early.

Those who read the gay-late narrative reported significantly more favorable attitudes toward LGBT people after reading the story than did readers of both the gay-early narrative and the heterosexual narrative. 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. Similar results were found when white students read stories about a black student, who was identified as black early or late in the story.

Libby said experience-taking is different from perspective-taking, in which people try to understand what another person is experiencing in a particular situation without losing sight of their own identities. “Experience-taking is much more immersive; you’ve replaced yourself with the other,” she said.

The key is that experience-taking is spontaneous: it happens naturally under the right circumstance. “Experience-taking can be very powerful because people don’t even realize it is happening to them. It is an unconscious process,” Libby said.

By comparison, watching a movie does not provide the experience taking. With that medium, viewers engage only as spectators which limits their ability to imagine themselves as characters.

Another stereotype that the study may not have addressed is that of gender. Sede Makonnen has put together a list of ten authors who will change the stereotype that a hero has to be male. In these fantasy novels, young women are as heroic—perhaps even more so—as young men. Although the books were published for young adults, their quality makes them transcend the ages of readers. (My favorite might be Patricia Wrede, but it’s hard to decide!)

Is it possible that people who exhibit openness toward others have a wider reading experience that those who tend to be narrow in their beliefs? This research seems to support the fundamentalists who don’t want their children to read about the world: young people may learn to accept diversity.

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