May 9, 2012

Characters from novels can influence real-life behaviour


Patrick Bateman

Put down the Bret Easton Ellis. A study conducted at Ohio State University indicates that our behaviour can be influenced by the fictional characters we read.

It’s a phenomenon known as ‘experience-taking’, an unconscious process in which we identify with characters to the point of mentally merging our own identities with theirs. That’s as opposed to the less extreme ‘perspective-taking’, ‘where people try to understand what another person is going though in a particular situation’ — or empathy, the development of which has long been held to be one of the fruits of reading.

The study describes how different stories given to students during university election periods appear to have influenced their voting:

82 undergraduates who were registered and eligible to vote were assigned to read one of four versions of a short story about a student enduring several obstacles on the morning of Election Day (such as car problems, rain, long lines) before ultimately entering the booth to cast a vote. This experiment took place several days before the 2008 November presidential election.

Some versions were written in first person (“I entered the voting booth) while some were written in third person (“Paul entered the voting booth”). In addition, some versions featured a student who attended the same university as the participants, while in other versions, the protagonist in the story attended a different university.

After reading the story, the participants completed a questionnaire that measured their level of experience-taking – how much they adopted the perspective of the character in the story. For example, they were asked to rate how much they agreed with statements like “I found myself feeling what the character in the story was feeling” and “I felt I could get inside the character’s head.”

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. And a full 65 percent of these participants reported they voted on Election Day, when they were asked later.

In comparison, only 29 percent of the participants voted if they read the first-person story about a student from a different university.

It’s enough to make you reflect on the decisions of your past. Anyone retrospectively uncovering any defining moments that might have been determined by fiction?


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.