According to a new study, you are what you read — in your head at least. When we read we don't just identify with the characters, we psychologically become part of their world and take away emotional benefits.
Psychologists at the University at Buffalo studied the phenomenon by having 140 subjects read excerpts from the Harry Potter or Twilight books and answer a questionnaire. They found that when absorbing a story, we can psychologically become a member of the characters' social group, and the process provokes feelings of satisfaction similar to what we'd experience after a making a real connection with another person.
Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at UB, explains:
"Social connection is a strong, human need, and anytime we feel connected to others, we feel good in general, and feel good about our lives. Our study results demonstrate that the assimilation of a narrative allows us to feel close to others in the comfort of our own space and at our own convenience ... In our subjects, this led to a reported increase in life satisfaction and positive mood, which are two primary outcomes of belonging."
In addition to identifying more with wizards or vampires, subjects reported adopting behaviors and attitudes like the characters they read about (minus the spell-casting and biting). Graduate student Ariana Young, who worked on the study, said, "Research has found that when we are with a group of our 'real' friends, we shift our behavior to be more like them. We now know that this occurs when we read a book, as well."
Gabriel added that this means books provide more than just an opportunity to tune out and relax. She said, "They give us a chance to feel like we belong to something bigger than us and to reap the benefits that result from being a part of that larger realm without having a 'real' social encounter." Or being chased by a murderous dark wizard.