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Fiction Influence Real Life

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

My sister and I spent the first 14 years of our lives bickering. Again and again my poor mother was forced to play referee. I still remember the time, we must have been about 10 and 11, when Nancy was indignant over something outrageous I had said and demanded, “Who does Carol think she is?”

My mom replied calmly, “Find out what she’s reading.”

It has ever been thus. As a child and now as an adult, I can’t help myself from taking on characteristics, borrowing speech patterns, and aping the manners of characters that attract me in the books I read. Occasionally the pathology goes deeper. Having “lost” myself as a young reader in the world of Black Beauty, I became completely convinced that I was brilliant on horseback – despite the fact that I’d never been near a horse in my life. My certainty was strengthened when later I became enchanted with how well Anna Karenina rode (and looked in her riding habit).  Who needs riding lessons when I could just pick up a book?

It was with great relief that I learned of new research out of Ohio State University demonstrating that readers who lose themselves in fiction often appropriate traits and attitudes from fictional characters. I wasn’t sick. Just highly susceptible.

According to Lisa Libby, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State, when readers feel the emotions of characters as if they were their own they sometimes change behavior based upon the vicarious experience. It doesn’t happen automatically, but only when readers put to one side their sense of themselves, their own identity, their own issues, while they read. Hence the expression, “getting lost in a book.”

The implications of this study for instruction are enormous. “In one experiment, 70 male, heterosexual college students read a story about a day in the life of another student. There were three versions — one in which the character was revealed to be gay early in the story, one in which the student was identified as gay late in the story, and one in which the character was heterosexual. Results showed that the students who read the story where the character was identified as gay late in the narrative reported higher levels of experience-taking than did those who read the story where the character’s homosexuality was announced early.”

The way the story was structured influenced how readers responded. Those who identified with the character before learning he was gay relied less upon stereotypes and “reported significantly more favorable attitudes toward homosexuals after reading the story.” Unconsciously, without anyone directing students to do anything or to reconsider their views, attitudes shifted as a result of the reading experience.

Some of us have always believed in the power of stories. Now we have research to support what we instinctively knew.