Monday Miscellany: Can Reading Fiction Make You a Better Person?

The answer is apparently yes.

woman reading

A study conducted at Ohio State University suggests that “When you ‘lose yourself’ inside the world of a fictional character while reading a story, you may actually end up changing your own behavior and thoughts to match that of the character.”

Co-authors of the study are Geoff Kaufman, who led the study as a graduate student at Ohio State and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth College, and Lisa Libby, assistant professor of psychology at OSU. Their work:

examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own – a phenomenon the researchers call “experience-taking.”

“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,” said Kaufman. But “Experience-taking doesn’t happen all the time. It only occurs when people are able, in a sense, to forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity while reading,” he explained. In other words, experience-taking occurs when readers lose sight of their own self-concept and sense of identity and assume the fictional character’s identity.

In one experiment Kaufman and Libby found that “people who strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote were significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days later.”

In another experiment, people who went through this experience-taking process while reading about a character who was revealed to be of a different race or sexual orientation showed more favorable attitudes toward the other group and were less likely to stereotype.

Experience-taking while reading fiction is a powerful event because readers are not conscious of the process while it’s occurring; it happens outside of their awareness. Anyone who has ever “gotten lost in a good book” has had this experience. It’s part of what makes reading a good book so enjoyable and so compelling.

Libby said experience-taking is different from perspective-taking, where people try to understand what another person is going though in a particular situation – but without losing sight of their own identity.

“Experience-taking is much more immersive – you’ve replaced yourself with the other,” she said.


Kaufman, G. F., & Libby, L. K. (2012, March 26). Changing Beliefs and Behavior Through Experience-Taking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027525

However, columnist Russell Smith, in The [Toronto] Globe and Mail, disagrees. He sums up much of the recent research on how reading fiction affects the brain:

A psychology professor at the University of Toronto, Keith Oatley is an expert on these studies and publishes an online magazine, OnFiction, that lists all the recent analyses in this area. One of his own well-known experiments involved getting some participants to read a famous Chekov story and the others to read a rewritten “documentary” or non-fiction version of it. Those who read it as fiction scored higher on empathy tests afterward.

Dr. Oatley, who is by coincidence a published novelist himself, is often quoted by popular media around the world; he is a great proponent of the idea that fiction can give one a better understanding of the motivations of others. His idea is that the identification with characters that happens during narratives is a kind of brain training: With a lot of practice, you gain expertise in the area of other points of view.

But, Smith argues, history does not justify such conclusions: “We know that some of the most educated and artistic civilizations in history have been the most cruel.” Furthermore, he argues, if reading stories can affect our morality, isn’t it just as likely to corrupt us as to enlighten us?

What about stories that denounce or deride empathy, that describe success and social order through sheer self-centredness (e.g. Ayn Rand)? And couldn’t empathy for the wicked lead us astray? Is it good for us to empathize with the hero of American Psycho? Isn’t this exactly what conservatives argue when they restrict high-school reading lists to the morally uplifting?

Smith therefore concludes:

Look, I think reading is good for you in all kinds of intellectual ways but I would avoid telling young people it makes you better – I am more likely to tell young people that it is morally really bad for you. And it well might be, with all the wickedness and lust and moral unease that complex stories portray.

Meanwhile, Laura Miller also addresses these issues in Can You Identify? over at Salon. She summarizes the Ohio State researchers’ findings:

The Ohio State researchers gave 70 heterosexual male readers stories about a college student much like themselves. In one version, the character was straight. In another, the character is described as gay early in the story. In a third version the character is gay, but this isn’t revealed until near the end. In each case, the readers’ “experience-taking” — the name these researchers have given to the act of immersing oneself in the perspective, thoughts and emotions of a story’s protagonist — was measured.

The straight readers were far more likely to take on the experience of the main character if they weren’t told until late in the story that he was different from themselves. This, too, is not so surprising. Human beings are notorious for extending more of their sympathy to people they perceive as being of their own kind. But the researchers also found that readers of the “gay-late” story showed “significantly more favorable attitudes toward homosexuals” than the other two groups of readers, and that they were less likely to attribute stereotypically gay traits, such as effeminacy, to the main character. The “gay-late” story actually reduced their biases (conscious or not) against gays, and made them more empathetic. Similar results were found when white readers were given stories about black characters to read.

Miller then argues that publishers are routinely withholding information about non-white characters in literature by putting pictures of white people on book covers.

Of course, not all readers are white or straight, and the ones who aren’t deeply appreciate novels that advertise the diversity of their characters. It’s about time they got heroes and heroines who looked like them, and novels that speak to their distinctive experiences. They have been identifying with characters across the boundaries of race, gender and sexual orientation from time immemorial, and are masters of the art, but understandably they’d like to give their ninja skills a rest. Furthermore, there are also white readers who prefer variety in their fiction or are deliberately trying to correct the imbalances of the past.

Fiction shouldn’t have to trick (Miller’s term) readers into empathy and understanding for its characters.

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