People who lose themselves inside the world of a fictional character may actually change their own behavior and thoughts to match those of that character, according to new research.
Researchers at Ohio State University examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, and beliefs of one of the characters as if they were their own, a phenomenon researchers call “experience-taking.”
The researchers found that, in the right situations, experience-taking may lead to real changes, if only temporary, in readers’ lives.
For example, in one experiment, the researchers found that people who strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote were significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days later.
In another experiment, people who went through the experience-taking process while reading about a character who was revealed to be of a different race or sexual orientation showed more favorable attitudes toward the other group and were less likely to stereotype.
“Experience-taking can be a powerful way to change our behavior and thoughts in meaningful and beneficial ways,” said Lisa Libby, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University.
“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,” added Geoff Kaufman, who led the study as a graduate student at Ohio State and is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Tiltfactor Laboratory at Dartmouth College.
Experience-taking doesn’t happen to all readers, he said, noting it only occurs when people are able to forget about themselves. The researchers found that most college students were unable to undergo experience-taking if they were 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. “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.”
In the voting study, 82 undergraduates who were registered to vote were assigned to read one of four versions of a short story about a student enduring several obstacles, such as car problems, rain and long lines, on the morning of Election Day before ultimately entering the booth to cast a vote. This experiment took place several days before the November 2008 presidential election.
Some versions were written in first person (“I entered the voting booth) while some were written in third person (“Paul entered the voting booth”). In addition, some versions featured a student who attended the same university as the participants, while in other versions, the person attended a different university.
The results showed that students who read a story told in first-person about a student at their own university had the highest level of experience-taking. About 65 percent reported they voted when they were asked later. In comparison, only 29 percent of the students voted if they read the first-person story about a student from a different university.
“When you share a group membership with a character from a story told in first-person voice, you’re much more likely to feel like you’re experiencing his or her life events,” Libby said. “When you undergo this experience-taking, it can affect your behavior for days afterwards.”
But what if the character is not similar to the reader?
The researchers conducted another experiment in which 70 male, heterosexual college students read a story about a day in the life of another student. There were three versions: One in which the character was revealed to be gay early in the story, one in which the student was identified as gay late in the story, and one in which the character was heterosexual.
Results showed that the students who read the story where the character was identified as gay late in the story reported higher levels of experience-taking than those who read the story where the character’s homosexuality was discovered early on.
“If participants knew early on that the character was not like them — that he was gay — that prevented them from really experience-taking,” Libby said. “But if they learned late about the character’s homosexuality, they were just as likely to lose themselves in the character as were the people who read about a heterosexual student.”
The version of the story participants read also affected how they thought about gay people, he said.
Those who read the gay-late narrative reported significantly more favorable attitudes toward homosexuals after reading the story than readers of the gay-early narrative and the heterosexual narrative.
Those who read the gay-late narrative also relied less on stereotypes of homosexuals, rating the gay character as less feminine and less emotional than the readers of the gay-early story.
Similar results were found in a story where white students read about a black student, who was identified as black early or late in the story.
Libby said experience-taking is different from perspective-taking, where people try to understand what another person is going through without losing sight of their own identity.
“Experience-taking is much more immersive — you’ve replaced yourself with the other,” she said.
The key is that experience-taking happens naturally, she added. “Experience-taking can be very powerful because people don’t even realize it is happening to them,” she said. “It is an unconscious process.”
The study, which appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to Kaufman.
Source: Ohio State University