When you become fictional

Are you an absolute addict of a particular television show? Maybe you can’t wait until the next instalment of a certain book series becomes available? Do you salivate in anticipation of the next in your favourite film series? If this is you, do you identify with a character from the book or films? If you do it could just be possible that you become like that character in your real life.

This is based around a phenomenon dubbed “experience-taking” and it has been the subject of a new study from Ohio State University.

A series of experiments have been conducted by these researchers but in one study they assigned subjects in the United States who were eligible to vote to read one of four versions of a story about someone enduring several obstacles to voting on the morning of election day. The obstacles included car problems, rain, and long queues. One version of the story was written in the first person (“I entered the voting booth”) while others were written in the third person (“Paul entered the voting booth”). In some versions the story featured a person who attended the same university as the participant, while in other versions the person in the story attended a different university. The experiment took place a few days before the presidential election in November 2008.

After reading the story the subjects completed a questionnaire that measured their level of “experience-taking”; where the reader or viewer feels the emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and internal responses of the character as if they are their own. For instance, they might agree with a statement like, “I felt I could get inside the character’s head.”

Subjects who read the story in the first person and about a student at their own university showed the highest levels of experience-taking. On election day 65 per cent of these people voted. By contrast only 29 per cent of subjects voted among those who read a first person account of a student from another university.

So people are more likely to “experience-take”, or lose themselves, in a character that they perceive as similar to them, and this can lead to changes in real world behaviour.

In another experiment male heterosexuals read a story about a day in the life of another male student. In one version the character was revealed to be gay early in the story. In another the character was identified as gay late in the narrative and in a third version the character was heterosexual.

If the subjects learned early on that the subject was gay and therefore not like them, then there was little, if any, experience taking. However, if they learned late about the character’s homosexuality then they were just as likely as subjects reading about a heterosexual character to experience-take.

Experience-taking is therefore not about understanding someone else’s perspective; it is a much more immersive process where you replace yourself with the other character. It leads to real changes in behaviour, albeit possibly temporary, and results from some degree of identification with the character you are reading about.

It might mean that experience-taking could be used as a tool for changing your behaviours. It also suggests that you might want to be careful about mixing your reading matter. Immersing yourself in a James Bond novel followed by a bout of Harry Potter could lead you to believe that you not only have extraordinary charisma with the ladies but that you can do extraordinary things with a broom between your legs, and that could be a dangerous recipe.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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