Courtesy of MCT
Getting lost in a good book has always been a popular hobby, but a recent study suggests that you could actually “lose yourself,” and a fictional character could begin to impact your decisions and actions, if only for a short period.
Researchers at Ohio State found that, in the right situations, readers subconsciously felt the emotions, thoughts and beliefs of the fictional characters they were reading about as if the feelings were their own. They call the phenomenon “experience taking.”
“You always hear that reading can enlighten and expand a reader’s horizons,” said Lisa Libby, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at OSU. “We wanted to push that and see to what extent it was true. Experience-taking is so powerful because it can change a reader’s thoughts in beneficial ways.”
One experiment had the participants read one of four stories about a student who overcame obstacles to vote. The study showed that those who read the first-person narrative about a character from their own university were significantly more likely to vote in an election compared to the participants who read third-person narratives or stories about characters from other schools.
“We were able to see measurable affects in behavior, and that was pleasurably surprising because it is so difficult to change behavior,” said Geoff Kaufman, who led the study as a graduate student at OSU. “We saw such a huge gap in voting behavior when comparing the different narratives.”
Libby and Kaufman said they were disappointed to find that experience taking could not occur when a reader realized that the character was of a different race or sexual orientation.
“If you know a character is different from you, it shuts down the process,” Libby said. “It was discouraging because we thought reading would expand your horizons. We learned that reading does have that potential, but it also has limitations.”
They were able to get around this obstacle by waiting to reveal certain character traits in some narratives. In a study, 70 heterosexual male college students read one of three stories depicting a day in the life of another male student. In one story the narrator was identified as gay at the beginning. In another version the student was revealed to be gay at the end of the story. In a third narrative the student was heterosexual.
Results showed that participants reported a higher level of experience taking when reading the story with the delayed reveal in comparison to the story where the student was identified as homosexual from the start.
“If participants knew early on that the character was different, in this case he was gay, it prevented them from experience taking,” Libby said. “But by revealing that the character was gay later in the story, the reader had the chance to lose himself in the character.”
Kaufman and Libby began the study in 2005. The study was accepted for final publication in late March and will be available in a future print publication.
Though many of the narratives used during the study were based in realistic settings, Kaufman said experience taking could also occur while reading fantastical writing.
“I think that with longer, fantastical narratives, there is more room for unfamiliar territory,” Kaufman said. “It gives you a chance to develop the character more, get to know the character and eventually lead to experience taking.”
Greg Lynch, a third-year in electrical and computer engineering, is a self-proclaimed fanatic of the fantasy epic “A Song of Ice and Fire,” by George R.R. Martin, which was recently adapted into the HBO series “Game of Thrones.” Lynch said that he felt some effects of experience taking while reading the series.
“The first thing I liked about the book was that the chapters weren’t numbered,” Lynch said. “The chapters are titled with the name of a point of view character, which makes it easy to jump into the character and immerse yourself in the book. When you stop reading, some of the character definitely leaves the book and comes with you. Especially if you can relate to the character.”
Kaufman said experience taking could be especially rewarding when reading a long series, such as “A Song of Ice and Fire.”
“You won’t be able to finish the series in a single sitting,” Kaufman said. “So when you exit and shut the book temporarily, you might reflect on that character. When you reenter that book, you might jump back into the character. With a series of books, you might develop a relationship with a character, and that can be very rich and fulfilling.”