The Guardian discusses research on the powerful link between empathy and reading fiction — a novel is a singular experience in terms of being immersed in the interior life of another person, forcing us to undergo events through the protagonist’s eyes and placing us amongst their thoughts. Studies have pointed to a stunting of empathy in young adults over the past few decades — could one reason be the decline of reading of novels for pleasure?
Burying your head in a novel isn’t just a way to escape the world: psychologists are increasingly finding that reading can affect our personalities.
Researchers from the University at Buffalo gave 140 undergraduates passages from either Meyer’s Twilight or JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to read. The study’s authors, Dr. Shira Gabriel and Ariana Young, then applied what they dubbed the Twilight/Harry Potter Narrative Collective Assimilation Scale, which saw the students asked questions designed to measure their identification with the worlds they had been reading about.
Published by the journal Psychological Science, the study found that participants who read the Harry Potter chapters self-identified as wizards, whereas participants who read the Twilight chapter self-identified as vampires. And “belonging” to these fictional communities actually provided the same mood and life satisfaction people get from affiliations with real-life groups.
The psychology of fiction is a small but growing area of research, according to Keith Oatley, a professor in the department of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto and a published novelist himself, who details the latest findings in the area in his online magazine, OnFiction.
One of his own studies, carried out in 2008, gave 166 participants either the Chekhov short story, The Lady with the Little Dog, or a version of the story rewritten in documentary form. The subjects’ personality traits and emotions were assessed before and after reading, with those who were given the Chekhov story in its unadulterated form found to have gone through greater changes in personality – empathizing with the characters and thus becoming a little more like them.
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