Bookworms mimic their heroes

bookwormIt 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.



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.

Jack Croxall

Jack Croxall is a science/literature writer and author living in Nottinghamshire. He tweets via @JackCroxall and you can visit his author blog by clicking the 'Website' link below.

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Posted on in , with 7 Comments.


  1. Sarah

    “Have you ever felt so engrossed in a book, you couldn’t untangle your feelings from that of the character’s? Let us know about it in the comments below.”

    ALL THE TIME; it is sometimes frustrating.

  2. Olivia

    I’ve done this all my life! I even take on the character’s mannerisms and speech patterns. Its so weird but I love it when it happens as it is a sign that I’m reading a really good book. It can be pretty bizarre though, particularly when it happens with a character I don’t feel I like very much.

    • Olivia

      It happened most recently with a character I didn’t like when I was reading the Godspeaker Trilogy by Karen Miller. Hekat made an impact on my thought processes, I started to speak a little like her and took on some of her hardness even though I thought she was morally questionable at best. She was just such a strongly written character that when I fell into the book, she was the one I landed in. Its weird because I’m not easily lead in real life but when its a good book I really take on the characters.
      I read a lot of fantasy and after reading Dune I was very particular about not sitting with my back to a doory. :)

  3. Jack Croxall

    That’s fascinating, there must have been a particular aspect of Hekat that just resonated with you. It would be great to know how long the experience-taking effect last for because (as far as I know) that’s yet to be quantified.

  4. willow

    I’ve had this experience with almost every good book series I’ve read. Now I pick books that have characters that have character traits I admire. I’m currently reading the sequal to divergent and I’ve been taking alot more risks because of it. This has turned out to be a good thing though, so I hope this extra bravery stays with me.
    I didn’t realize how strong the mimicking was though until I started taking a strong interest in my dinner knife…

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