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Immersive literature can change reader behavior: study

Researchers reported changes in attitude toward homosexuality, race.

Reading books can affect behaviorEnlarge
A model reads before the 2011 Ferragamo fashion show in Beijing, China. A new study suggests reading can affect behavior and influence decisions. (Feng Li/AFP/Getty Images)

Immersing yourself in a good book and identifying with its characters has longer-lasting effects than you might realize, going so far as changing your behavior, a new study suggests.

Researchers at Ohio State University and Dartmouth College found people emulate characters in books they’ve read, especially if those characters are similar to themselves, Postmedia News reported.

They called the phenomenon “experience-taking.”

“It’s something we’ve all experienced at some point, but few of us appreciate the impact those connections with characters have on our daily lives,” Geoff Kaufman, the study’s co-author, told Postmedia.

Kaufman, a post-doctoral researcher at the Tiltfactor Laboratory at Dartmouth, and OSU assistant professor Lisa Libby, studied 500 people in various situations.

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They say their findings could be used to tackle issues such as racism, homophobia or post-traumatic stress, Wired UK reported.

In one section of the study just prior to the 2008 US presidential election, they asked 82 undergrads to read stories about students overcoming obstacles to vote.

Those who read stories written in the first-person featuring a character at their university were more than twice as likely to vote themselves.

The study found 65 percent of the undergrads voted compared to 29 percent who read stories written about a student from a different school.

Libby said the effects can last days.

“Experience-taking can be very powerful because people don't even realize it is happening to them,” she told Wired. “It is an unconscious process.”

They also discovered students expressed views that are more sympathetic to homosexuality after reading about gay characters.

Interestingly, if the character revealed his or her sexuality late in the story the effect on readers was deeper.

“If people identified with the character before they knew he was gay, if they went through experience-taking, they had more positive views – the readers accepted that this character was like them,” Kaufman said.

The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published the research. 

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/science/120511/immersive-literature-can-change-reader-behavior-study