Study links literature and behavior

by Sam Rauschenfels | 5/20/12 10:00pm

While many read fiction stories simply for pleasure, a recently released study by two psychologists found that immersive literature can affect the behavior of those who identify strongly with central characters. This can cause readers to reflect the strong qualities of main characters in their own lives, according to lead researcher Geoff Kaufman, a post-doctoral researcher at the College's Tiltfactor Laboratories.

The research, which was split into six individual studies, was conducted with Ohio State University psychology professor Lisa Libby.

The researchers developed the term "experience-taking" to explain what they observed in their studies, according to Kaufman.

"Readers actually adopted the traits of the character [in the story]," Kaufman said.

Libby and Kaufman observed that participants' behaviors were affected by the narrative material they read up to a week after completing the experiment, Kaufman said.

Kaufman and Libby conducted the first three of their studies with participants reading stories in cubicles. The researchers observed that readers watching themselves in a mirror while reading demonstrated less "experience-taking" than readers without a mirror in front of them. Kaufman attributed this to finding reduced self-awareness among readers lacking a mirror, which allowed them to connect on a deeper level to the story's character.

"People who are highly self-conscious are less likely to have experience-taking occur," Kaufman said.

The next set of studies sought to discover what factors of a story influenced experience-taking. Kaufman and Libby wrote narratives with varied characteristics, such as point of view and racial identification, and observed what effect the changes had on experience-taking.

They discovered that readers displayed more experience-taking if they belonged to the same "group" as the character in the narrative in this case, attending the same university and if the story was written in first person, Kaufman said.

Participants in the study who identified with one character's ability to overcome obstacles to vote actually went to the polls themselves a week later, according to Kaufman.

Libby and Kaufman's final two studies examined issues of race and sexual orientation in relation to experience-taking. They discovered that participants identified more strongly with the hero of the story and demonstrated more signs of experience-taking if they learned the race or sexual orientation of the character toward the end of the story as opposed to early on in the narrative. Kaufman attributed this to readers connecting to the character before discovering that the character was a member of a different group.

Libby and Kaufman used Ohio State students taking introductory psychology classes in their research. The students were required to participate in studies as part of the class, Kaufman said.

The researchers composed a paper, titled "Changing Beliefs and Behavior Through Experience-Taking," based on their research and submitted it to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology for publication last July, according to Kaufman. The journal provisionally accepted the paper in September, and the final version was posted on the journal's website on March 26 after a few rounds of editing.

Kaufman said one "broad goal" of his research was to validate the ability of fictional works to affect behavior and demonstrate that stories might impact people's lives for years to come.

"[I think] this might help trigger interest and research on narratives," Kaufman said.

Libby added that their research can demonstrate the full potential of reading.

The researchers said they will continue to investigate issues related to experience-taking in reading and other mediums. Kaufman said he is currently examining the use of video games in reducing stereotypes of girls and women at Tiltfactor. The study is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Tiltfactor focuses on using games to create "rewarding, compelling and socially responsible interactions" and on developing software for social change, according to the lab's website.

"I'm doing [research] now in terms of the game research, but I also intend to move forward with narrative research as well," he said.

Libby said she believes that experience-taking could occur in other media, such as television or movies. Like Kaufman, Libby also said she will continue narrative research.

"We're looking at what people do when they read stories where characters do bad things," she said, adding that she wants to address the question of whether or not experience-taking in stories with "immoral" characters results in negative impacts on readers' lives.