Everybody has those special books that make a big impression on them, and often it's because we find ourselves identifying strongly with one of the characters. Well, it turns out those books might have even more power over us than we realized. A new study has found that when you get really absorbed by a story, your thoughts and actions can shift to match your favorite character's behavior.
Geoff Kaufman, a post-doctoral researcher at Dartmouth College, and his co-author Lisa Libby, from Ohio State University, suspected that as people read fiction they tend to live vicariously through their favorite character, which involves understanding the character's emotions, thoughts, and beliefs. This process is called "experience-taking," and the researchers found that it can lead to actual changes in the real lives of readers.
They ran several experiments to gauge our reaction to fiction. In one, they found that people who identified strongly with a character who "overcame many obstacles in order to vote" were much more likely to vote in an actual election a few days later than were people who read a different story. Hmm, maybe we should start requiring the entire voting population to read a story like this before elections to promote better turnout.
Another experiment involved comparing two groups of readers. One read a story in which the lead character was gay all along, and the other read a story where it was only revealed at the end that the character was gay. Those readers who learned about the hero's sexual orientation at the end "expressed more positive feelings towards gay people when they were questioned later on." Kaufman thinks this is because they got to connect with the character before their opinion of him could be affected by information about him that they might find objectionable.
While it's clear that we are affected by this "experience-taking," and it can lead to real changes in our lives, it's not yet clear how long these changes might last. For instance, Kaufman gives the example of bonding with Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, which might make you more focused on ethical behavior. Sure, but if you read it when you're in high school, will that effect last until you're an adult? Or will you grow up to be just as sleazy as anyone who didn't read it? As ever, more research is needed, but Kaufman says he suspects that books sometimes are life-changing:
If you've got a deep connection with the characters, it can have a lasting impact. It can inspire you to re-read something. And then the impact can be strengthened over time.
Though it also seems possible that you wouldn't even need to re-read books to be altered by their characters, since reading is constantly opening your mind to different worlds and ways of thinking, which in and of itself affects how you turn out in the long run.
As for whether the same phenomenon exists with movies, Kaufman doesn't think so. It's all in the way we experience it, he says:
When we watch a movie, by the very essence of it, we're positioned as spectators. So it's hard to imagine yourself as the character. I suspect that if you read the screenplay it would be more powerful as far as experience-taking goes.
Maybe, though it probably depends entirely on how the movies and books are written. Of course, be it in books or movies or both, there is an obvious dark underside to this phenomenon: It can have a negative impact just as much as it can a positive one. Kaufman uses American Psycho as an example:
The character is very likable and charismatic. But he's a serial killer. To the extent that you connect with him, you may try to understand or justify the actions he's committing.
Sure, though understanding a character's motivations hardly means you're likely to go out and kill someone yourself, since it's not like the thing keeping us from murdering people is that we don't understand why people do it. Furthermore, the lesson in most books with evil or criminal protagonists tends to be that crime pays you back in very bad karmic ways. So probably seeing your favorite character wind up in a Siberian prison from which there is no escape will be enough to keep you on the right track and not turn you into criminal mastermind.
Image via lithian/Shutterstock.