It has recently come to light that bookworms may actually absorb personality traits from their favourite characters. That’s not to say that, after a few chapters of Harry Potter, readers have inexplicably found themselves donning a mighty beard and waving a pink umbrella around (although I’m sure there’s a fair bit of that going on at most Halloween parties these days), the results seem to be lot more subtle than that.
Researchers at Ohio State University examined a process known as ‘experience-taking’, a phenomenon that sees readers experiencing the emotions, thoughts and values of fictional characters in the books they’re reading. The researchers found that, after participants (all students of the university) had read a story in which a central character overcame obstacles in order to vote, said participants were much more likely to vote in a real world election several days later.
Interestingly, experience-taking only seems to work when readers are able to forget about and forgo their own self-identity whilst reading. As a way of discouraging one group of the experiment’s participants from forgetting about their own self, the researchers made them read in a cubicle in front of a mirror. The members of this group were significantly less likely to undergo the experience-taking process.
Experience-taking seems to be at its most prolific when readers share a group membership with one of the characters. In one trial, the students were given the voting story but with one crucial difference: the protagonist also attended Ohio State University. This particular trial yielded the highest percentage of real world voter turnout.
The group membership effect has some apparent similarities with a famous psychology experiment involving children from Oklahoma. Known as the Robbers Cave experiment, the children were divided into two arbitrary groups, and not allowed any contact with the other. Within a few days, strong social structures had developed in each group, as well as a fierce animosity towards the others. The psychologists concluded it is a natural human response to form emotional, empathetic connections with members of your own group, be it race, religion etc. Equally, jingoistic fear of non-group members is also easy to acquire.
Whether it’s formed via the group membership mechanism or not, it’s currently unclear how long the experience-taking effect lasts. One thing’s for sure however: you need to choose your next read carefully.
- The experiment also revealed that first person narratives are more likely to result in experience-taking than third person.
- A 2010 survey announced The Gruffalo as the current favourite children’s book character – will the next generation be terrified of mice?
- Although there is no species of worm known to invade books, there is a book-loving louse (Psocoptera) that loves nibbling on the glue holding hold books together
Have you ever felt so engrossed in a book, you couldn’t untangle your feelings from that of a character’s? Let us know about it in the comments below.