Fiction & Life: New Study Shows that Losing Yourself in a Character Impacts Action, Beliefs

May 08, 2012

Fiction & Life: New Study Shows that Losing Yourself in a Character Impacts Action, Beliefs

[caption id="attachment_1443" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Image courtesy of healingdream"][/caption] I am an English teacher, and a proud one at that. I write about STEM curriculum and special ed. because I think they are important, but my first love is, was, and always will be books. To this day I use literature – both reading it and writing it – as a means to escape the realities of my life. It is a way to take “mini vacations” from the pressures of children, work, deadlines, etc. In fact, I spent this last weekend reading the first two books of Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy absolutely captivated. Quite frankly, if I didn’t have this blog post to write, I would probably be busy trying to figure out how to become more Dauntless in my own life (read the books to find out what I mean!). Anyway, suffice it to say that the power of literature, of the written word and the characters that inhabit it, has never been lost on me as an individual. However, as a teacher, I often push the literature aside to focus on the “requirements” of my courses that are more easily quantified – grammar, organization, writing in general. However, a new study from Ohio State University suggests that doing so is actually depriving our students of important lessons about life, acceptance, and living outside of their own experience. Losing yourself in a character, this data suggests, can actually have a positive impact on your actions and belief systems, ultimately leading to empathy and character lessons more powerful than any lecture. How It Works: Defining Experience-Taking The study was led by Geoff Kaufman, an Ohio State graduate student who is now a post-doctoral fellow at Dartmouth, and will be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology later this year. In it, Kaufman and his team first distinguish the action that leads to these changes as “experience-taking.” He explains, “Experience-taking changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about, which can lead to good outcomes.” Kaufman explains that, through research, he found that in order for experience-taking to take place several conditions must be present. First, readers must be able to let go of themselves in the process of reading. That is, they need to divorce themselves from their own self-identity in the reading process, something far more likely to happen during adolescence when readers are only beginning to discover what “self” really means. In addition, Kaufman’s team discovered that narratives written in the first person with details that included common group membership between reader and main character, made experience-taking more likely to occur. What Happens: How Experience-Taking Promotes Change If the conditions for experience-taking are set, reading about a narrator’s struggles can impact the reader’s perception of the narrator’s world and his own, thereby altering the reader’s actions. In one part of study, Kaufman presented voting-eligible college students with one of four short stories revolving around obstacles placed in front of a young person on Election Day trying to get to the voting booth on time. Those whose narrative was set up for experience-taking ended up being the most likely (65% vs. 29%) to vote in the actual presidential election a few days later in 2008. Their relation to the character seemed to impact their actions. On the flip side, Kaufman’s team found that when readers are not aware of the differences between themselves and a protagonist until later on in a narrative they are more likely to look at those differences favorably. In one study, a group of college age heterosexual males were given one of three versions of a story. In the first, the main character was identified early as heterosexual. In the second, the main character was identified early as homosexual. In the final version, the main character was identified late at homosexual. Later, questionnaires revealed that students who read the third version of the story were more likely to lose themselves in the character (engage in experience-taking) as well as view homosexuality in a less-stereotypical fashion. Basically, by connecting to a character before discovering their differences, these students were able to let go of their preconceived notions of that character. Similar tests on a main character of another race produced similar results. [caption id="attachment_1345" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Image courtesy of AKARAKINGDOMS"][/caption] Implications for K-12 Students The results of this study are really important for K-12 teachers to consider when developing lessons on character education, empathy, and emotional intelligence. The fact that relating to a main character in a book or a story can impact the actions as well as the beliefs of an individual shows the power that books truly have and how, when used properly, they can teach our students more about each other than we may have thought. Consider the impact of a main character who is a special needs student. What if, rather than focus on that fact, which most books with special needs characters do, the writer chooses to reveal the character’s disabilities later on in a story instead. How could that help non-special needs students to view their peers with autism or ADHD in a new light? This study proves that as much as we need to celebrate our differences, casting them aside in the beginning can impact the overall perception readers gain, perhaps bridging the gap between them and their peers. Maybe I should write that story. Maybe you should…what do you think?



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