Few experiences are as rich as getting lost in a character while reading a great novel. But be careful: Losing yourself could cause you to actually lose a bit of yourself. A new study finds that such “experience taking” can result in actually changing your thoughts and behavior to match those of the character, albeit perhaps only temporarily.
While it may sound a little creepy, the findings could be put to beneficial uses.
In one experiment, the researchers found that people who strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote were significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days later.
“Experience-taking can be a powerful way to change our behavior and thoughts in meaningful and beneficial ways,” said Lisa Libby, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University.
There are many ways experience-taking can affect readers.
In another experiment, people who went through this experience-taking process while reading about a character who was revealed to be of a different race or sexual orientation showed more favorable attitudes toward the other group and were less likely to stereotype.
“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,” said Geoff Kaufman, who led the study as a graduate student at Ohio State and is now at Dartmouth College.
Their findings are detailed online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and will be published in a future print edition.
Experience-taking doesn’t always happen. A person has to able to forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity while reading, Kaufman explained. In another experiment, for example, the researchers found that most college students were unable to undergo experience-taking if they were reading in a cubicle with a mirror.
“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.
The study was funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to Kaufman.