Psychologists have discovered that while reading a book or story, people are prone to subconsciously adopt their behavior, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses to that of fictional characters as if they were their own.
Experts have dubbed this subconscious phenomenon ‘experience-taking,’ where people actually change their own behaviors and thoughts to match those of a fictional character that they can identify with.
Researcher from the Ohio State University conducted a series of six different experiments on about 500 participants, reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that in the right situations, ‘experience-taking,’ may lead to temporary real world changes in the lives of readers.
They found that stories written in the first-person can temporarily transform the way readers view the world, themselves and other social groups.
In one experiment lead author Geoff Kaufman a post-doctoral researcher at the Tiltfactor Laboratory at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hamphire, and his co-author Lisa Libby, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University, found that people who had strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote were also significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days later compared to participants who read a different story.
Psychologists also found that it was critical for the story to reveal characteristics shared by the reader earlier rather than later for ‘experience-taking’ to take effect.
“The early revelation of the group membership seemed to highlight the difference between readers and the character, and made it more difficult for readers to step into the character's shoes,” researchers wrote in the report.
In an experiment consisting of 70 heterosexual males, who were asked to read a story about a homosexual undergraduate student revealed extraordinarily different results depending on when in the narrative the character’s sexuality was exposed.
Participants who had found out about the protagonist being gay later in the narrative reported significantly more favorable attitudes toward homosexuals after reading the story than participants who read that the protagonist was gay early on or read that the protagonist was heterosexual.
“Those who read the gay-late narrative also relied less on stereotypes of homosexuals – they rated the gay character as less feminine and less emotional than did the readers of the gay-early story,” researchers wrote.
Researchers showed similar results with white students who read about a black student who was either identified as black early or late in the story.
The environment also played a major role in determining whether participants will engage in ‘experience-taking,’ according to the researcher.
In an experiment which required participants to read in front of a mirror, researchers reported that fewer readers were able to undergo ‘experience-taking’ because they were constantly reminded of their own self-concept and self-identity.
Researchers said that ‘experience-taking’ can only happen when readers are able to in a way forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity when reading.
"The more you're reminded of your own personal identity, the less likely you'll be able to take on a character's identity," Kaufman said in a news release. "You have to be able to take yourself out of the picture, and really lose yourself in the book in order to have this authentic experience of taking on a character's identity."
In contrast, watching a movie does not require viewers to engage any more than as a spectator, which would limit the ability of putting themselves in the shoes of fictional characters.
Researchers said that experience-taking is different from perspective-taking, a process where individuals try to comprehend what another person is experiencing in a particular situation, without losing sight of their own identity.
"Experience-taking is much more immersive -- you've replaced yourself with the other," Libby said in a statement.
The process is spontaneous and happens naturally under the right circumstances.
"Experience-taking can be very powerful because people don't even realize it is happening to them. It is an unconscious process," Libby said, adding that the phenomenon could have powerful, if not lasting, effects.
“If you can get people to relate to characters in this way, you might really open up their horizons, getting them to relate to social groups that maybe they wouldn't have otherwise,” Libby told the Edmonton Journal.