How Reading Novels Can Make You A Better Person

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We all know that reading about heroic characters in impossible situations can be thrilling and a great escape from our otherwise drab lives. But new research shows that reading fiction can actually make us better people as well — the more we identify with fictional characters on the page, the more we try to act like them.

Image by eisenbahner on Flickr.

Dartmouth and Ohio State researchers looked at how strongly identifying with a fiction character can influence your real-life behaviors. And it turns out, there's a definite correlation.


Researchers Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby coined the term "experience taking," to describe:

"spontaneously assuming the identity of a character in a narrative and simulating that character's thoughts, emotions, behaviors, goals, and traits as if they were one's own."

Their results tell us more about how people read — and maybe, about how people should be writing.

The idea that readers' behaviors can be influenced by the books they read has been around since there have been books. As with the panic surrounding video games or the internet, people were concerned that books, and novels in particular, would corrupt people. This fear even drove the plots of several early novels, like Charlotte Lenox's 1752 novel The Female Quixote about a young woman who believes her life should be like a courtly romance. But actual research into this phenomenon is only a few decades old.


Kaufman and Libby argue that experience-taking is different from the processes that have been identified in the past. People have been shown to change their beliefs or attitudes when someone they admire does, and people have claimed that they share personality traits and abilities with those they admire — even when they don't. Psychologists have even previously identified "perspective taking" in which people are able to understand the perspectives and beliefs of others (better known to regular folks as "empathy").

What's the difference between those processes and "experience taking"? All of those other processes are based in a certain amount of self-awareness. A person has to understand their own beliefs before they can change them. And most people express empathy by figuring out how they would feel in a certain situation. Kaufman and Libby, however, "propose that experience-taking depends on the relinquishing of the self-concept, which should facilitate the assumption of the other's thoughts, feelings, and traits. Thus, we predict that experience-taking is fostered by a reduction rather than an increase in the activation of the self-concept."


To test their theory of experience taking, Kaufman and Libby ran six different studies looking at self-concept and its relationship to experience taking. As with most psych studies, the participants were undergraduates at the school. Studies have shown that reflective, introverted people have high self-awareness. So Kaufman and Libby gave readers questionnaires where they could rate the truthfulness of statements like "I'm always trying to figure myself out." Afterwards, students were given a story to read about an undergraduate student who felt somewhat socially anxious as they went about a typical weekend. The story didn't specify things like hair color or gender of the main character. Afterwards, students filled out another questionnaire about how they would behave in various social situations.

Even though normally high rates of self-concept correlate with high rates of introversion, the research showed that low rates of self-concept led students to imagine they would be more introverted. In other words, reading a story about an introvert made people who really have no business being introverted, think they would behave in an introverted way.


Then the researchers tried to influence the students' self-concept before they read the story. One group was told that the researchers were not interested in their opinions as individuals and were assigned numbers. A different group had to read the story aloud in front of a mirror. The students in the mirror study were led to believe the mirrors were for another study. After they had completed reading the story and filled out the introversion questionnaire, they were asked to fill out another questionnaire about their reading experience. They were asked to rate statements like, "I was mentally involved in the story while reading it," and "While I was reading the story, activity around the room around me was on my mind" as well as answering multiple choice questions about the narrative. The numbered students were even more influenced by the story than the first group who had read it. While students in front of the mirror's introversion scores were less influenced by the story, they had no problem answering the questions about the narrative and were not distracted.

But Kaufman and Libby wanted to know if this experience taking would last outside the lab and influence real behavior. So, one week before the 2008 Ohio Presidential Primary, they gave students a story to read about a student who voted. There were four versions of the story: two in first person and two in third person. One of the first and third person stories was about a student who attended the same school as the readers, while the other stories were set at a different school. They also asked the students about their intention to vote. After Election Day, the students were asked about their voting participation. 65% of students who read the first person narrative about a student from their school voted. 29% of students who read the third person narrative about a student from their school voted. 25% of students who read the first person narrative from another school voted. And, perhaps surprisingly, 43% of students who read the third person narrative from another school voted.


The last two studies examined how the introduction of character traits impacted experience taking. In the first of these studies white students were given one of three stories: one where the character identifies himself as black in the first paragraph, one where the character identifies himself as black in the middle of the story and one where the character identifies himself as white. Readers filled out the Modern Racism Scale before and after reading the story. There was no significant difference with pre-reading scores. White students who read the story where the character being black was introduced in the middle of the story had lower scores on their second Modern Racism Scale and higher levels of experience taking. White students who read the story where the character being black is introduced in the first paragraph had relatively unchanged Modern Racism scores and had lower rates of experience taking. White students who read about a white character had similar Modern Racism scores as the students who read the story where the character is introduced as black, but they had higher experience taking scores. Another study run with similar character introductions, in which the character was gay revealed much the same thing. Image of Harvey Nichols window display by Mark Hillary/Flickr.


So what does all this mean for readers and writers outside of Ohio State's psych lab?

Well, first off you should probably decide whether you want your reading to be an immersive experience where you lose yourself. If you don't, you should probably read lots of novels in first person about people who do not share your gender, race or sexual orientation.


But most of us probably read for just such an immersive experience. And most of us probably want to read books about people who are not like us. Lazy people, or people with stereotypical views, are probably going to read books about people who they identify with, but that's a great way to miss some spectacular books. When choosing books about people who aren't like them, readers may want to look for books written in third person, since participants in the voting study had more experience-taking with regards to someone unlike themselves when they were reading third person than first person. Readers can also try to suppress their feelings of individuality before reading, since students whose sense of self was repressed by the researchers had higher rates of experience taking.


We should also realize that groups who do not identify with the characters in published works will have lower rates of experience taking and probably enjoy reading less. This is probably far more important a consideration in the realm of getting school children to read, but it certainly shouldn't be ignored in general. If children don't identify with characters they may enjoy reading less and actually read less. Educators may also have questions about whether many techniques, such as making notes while reading, stopping to look up unknown vocabulary words, or journaling about preceding passages reinforce ideas of the self, making reading a less effective tool for positive experience taking or character identification. Unfortunately this paper only hints at the possible answers. Image by michi003/Flickr.

And if you're writing or publishing a book about a main character who's different than a lot of your intended readers — including a minority character, when your target audience is mostly in the majority — you may be better off writing in the third person. On the other hand, if an author is creating a character for a practical purpose, like an instruction book or guide, they may want to obscure qualities like race or gender and write in the first person.


Also, don't read in front of mirrors.


Image by [Patrick Feller] Creative Commons License

Original article can be purchased from the APA [here.]