Readers Become Similar To Fictional Characters, Say Experts

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After reading a few pages of Jane Austen, I often find myself craving cups of tea, making a mental note to enquire about my neighbour's health and worrying about the women I know who aren't married.

And that’s because I'm experiencing what a team of psychologists at Ohio State University call ‘experience taking’ - brought on by reading.

In their study, researchers found that readers of literature (particularly first-person) begin spontaneously assuming the thoughts, behaviours, goal and traits of fictional characters, as if they are their own.

Days before the 2008 presidential election in the United Stares, 82 student were asked to read one of four versions of a short story about a person trying to vote and enduring a number of obstacles (such as rain, queues, or car breakdowns), reports Wired.

Some versions were written in the first-person, others in the third-person, and occasionally the voter was also attending the same university as the participants in the study. After finishing the story, the readers were asked to complete a questionnaire.

As Medical Daily reported, the results showed that participants who read a story told in first-person, about a student at their own university, had the highest level of ‘experience-taking’.

Days later, the volunteers were polled on their election day activity.

Almost two thirds (65%) of those who read a story about a student at their own university voted, in comparison to 29% who read the alternate version.

The research also highlighted how ‘experience taking’ could influence social attitudes.

In stories where the central character identified themselves as gay early on, readers were less likely to identify with them.

As lead researcher, Geoff Kaufman, explained to Wired: "If people identified with the character before they knew he was gay, if they went through experience-taking, they had more positive views - the readers accepted that this character was like them."

"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."

The findings, Wired suggest, could be used to increase election turnout and even address homophobia and racism.

 
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