If you ask someone why they read, the response is usually to learn, or as an escape from the everyday routine of life. New research finds reading does much more than “merely” educate or entertain.
Psychologist Dr. Shira Gabriel studied how reading appears to foster a human connection — that is, as we read we become a part of the community described in the narrative — even when the text is set in a fictional fantasy land. This connection appears to satisfy the deeply human, and evolutionarily crucial, need for belonging.
Researchers began by studying 140 undergraduates on the extent to which they meet their needs for connection by identifying with groups.
Then some read a passage from the novel “Twilight” in which the undead Edward describes what it feels like to be a vampire to his romantic interest Bella. Others read a passage from “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in which the Hogwarts students are separated into “houses” and Harry meets potions professor Severus Snape.
Participants were given 30 minutes to read the passage and were instructed to simply read for their own pleasure.
Two methods were then used to gauge the participants’ psychological affiliation with vampires or wizards.
In the first, the students were instructed to categorize—as quickly and accurately as possible—”me” words (myself, mine) and “wizard” words (broomstick, spell, wand, potions) by pressing the same key when any of those words flashed on the screen; they pressed another key for “not-me” words (they, theirs) and “vampire” words (blood, fangs, bitten, undead).
Then the pairs were reversed. Gabriel and her research team expected participants to respond more quickly when “me” words were linked with a group to which “me” belonged, depending on which book they read.
Next the researchers administered what they called the Twilight/Harry Potter Narrative Collective Assimilation Scale, consisting of questions indicating identification with wizards or vampires.
Examples: “Do you think you might be able to make yourself disappear and reappear somewhere else?” and “How sharp are your teeth?” Finally, short questionnaires assessed participants’ life satisfaction and mood.
Results of the experiment were as one might expect: Harry Potter readers “became” wizards and the Twilight readers “became” vampires. And individuals who were more group-oriented in life showed the largest assimilation effects.
Finally, “belonging” to these fictional communities delivered the same mood and life satisfaction people get from affiliation with real-life groups.
According to the researchers, the study shows that reading is not just for escape or education, but helps to fulfill a deep psychological need.