We Are What We Read?
Published on May 1, 2013 by lahilden | Views: 1027

Books are believed to have the power to change us and influence how we see the world and others.  We know that pictures, music, and even simple words can evoke feeling and memories, and so it makes sense that stories would influence us as well.  Novels have the ability to make us laugh and make us cry, but do they really have the ability to change how we behave?

According to a recent study of 500 people in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology done by Geoff Kaufman, Tiltfactor Laboratories at Dartmouth College and Lisa Libby of Ohio State, “the act of identifying with a fictional character also means we subconsciously adopt their behavior.”  Kaufman and Libby claim this happens most often in first person narratives.  So in essence, we become more like the characters we read.  Have you ever been reading a book and thought, yep, I’d have behaved in the same way as this character if that were to happen to me.  Or perhaps you are in a real-life situation and you ask, what would (insert latest kick-butt heroine you read) do?  I certainly believe learning can be gained from reading novels of all sorts and I believe some of the knowledge can be used in daily life.

Brain scans have also been conducted in this research.  The research showed that as we read fictional stories our brain is stimulated, in turn this stimulation could change the way we act.  Experts suggest that reading becomes a way to exercise our real-life social skills.  Scientists, Dr. Oatley (University of Toronto) and Dr. Mar (York University-Canada), along with several other scientists, reported that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.”

When we look at the New York Times or USA Today’s Best-Seller List it becomes easier to see what people are reading, but are they connecting with these characters in a phenomenon called “experience-taking?”

Since 50 Shades of Gray is an erotica that captured worldwide attention and sat on the N.Y.T. Best Seller List for many weeks, this had me thinking.  Books are a type of escapism, where voyeurism plays a part in creating fantasy, but do we really believe we can make fantasy a reality?  In many ways I’d have to say yes, if you believe in something or wish to participate in quilt making after reading about it, then I’m sure you can make that happen.  Manifestation of anything is a huge part of getting what we want in life.  Hence, you can in part, live in the shoes of the character you love. We had some good laughs on Goodreads over what this research means for murder, thriller readers.  Although books may influence, we should never allow them to lead us into trouble or negative behavior.

Another positive in the study was the influence novels have on changing readers’ views in regards to minorities and gays.  In the study, those who read the gay narrative had a more favorable attitude toward homosexuality after their reading, leading the researchers to believe that environment also plays a role.  This type of attitude shift can be seen in television as well with shows like Modern Family, which aid to move public view in a nonjudgmental direction.  Of course there are films, movies, and books that do the complete opposite by instilling and resurrecting racism and intolerance.

The Journal’s study suggests that having a deep connection to fictional characters can have an impact, but their research does not claim these changes in the reader are long lasting.  Kaufman claims the reason this doesn’t hold true with television is because “you are a spectator, and so it is harder to imagine yourself as the character.”  I find myself disagreeing with this conclusion for I can often imagine myself in the shoes of the characters I watch on television, and the previous example of Modern Family, tends to prove that even if we can’t imagine ourselves as an on screen character, that does not mean we don’t empathize with the drama unfolding.

But what about non-fiction?  According to the studies, we read non-fiction with a shield of skepticism, but we drop our guard when reading fictional stories and become more moved emotionally.  They conclude that changes of thought occur more often in people who read fiction when compared to non-fiction.

My opinion is that books do have the ability to shape the way we think and treat others, but for the majority of books we read, their influence is short lived.  I remember being fascinated by Dante’s Inferno in my English Literature class at U of M.  When I read The Divine Comedy and we discussed the many possible meaning for Dante’s words, I likely did view things differently, but many years have passed since then and all I can recall of the story is the different rings of hell.  Yes, I should reread it, but it is very unlikely.  I have far too many books waiting to be read.  My point is that our memory becomes faulty and we don’t remember the stories and characters as clearly as we once did, which lessens their influence.  Plus our thoughts evolve through our real-life experiences, thus changing our views.  I do believe books like The Divine Alignment by Squire Rushnell have the ability to change views and encourage spirituality, which is a positive and I recommend you read it, even if its influence is short lived.  The stories Rushnell shared in the novel often moved me to tears and I found myself logging onto the Internet for more research on all manner of things when I finished the book.  To me a sign of a good book is one that not only moves me emotionally, but one that makes me think.  Research consistently shows that fiction molds us, and the deeper involved we become in the story, the more potential the story has to influence.


A special thank you to: Anne Murphy, Your Brain on Fiction. Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.