+ Reading as “Experience Taking”

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An article by Neil Wagner in The Atlantic reports that according to researchers at The Ohio State University, the books you read as a child could also have changed  who you are.

Researchers have determined that there’s a process called “experience taking.”  When we read a text, we don’t just understand a character, we take a little of them inside ourselves; we find ourselves to some extent changed.  It’s spontaneous.  We don’t do it intentionally.

It’s not like reading about Superman and thinking you can fly.  It’s a much more subtle process, like the seasoning in a soup.  But it can definitely change your attitudes and behavior.

In several different experiments, researchers found that experience taking can actually change behavior.  It can change the likelihood of a person voting, and change their attitude about people of a different race or sexual orientation.

Reading a story increased the number of people who voted in 2008 — in an experiment done with 82 college undergraduates, they were each given one of four versions of a short story.

In the story, a college student had problems with voting on election day (rain, long lines, etc.)  The versions placed the student voter in either the reader’s university, or in a different university.  Some versions were told in first person (“I was soaked through and through”) or third person (“Newt was soaked through and through”).

After reading the story, each student filled out a questionnaire attempting to rate their experience taking –how much did they feel like the character in the story? How well could they get inside the character’s head.

The study also looked at how many students voted that November.

What they found was that first-person writing led to greater experience taking.  That isn’t so surprising, since first-person writing is more immediate.  But students who read a first-person story about a voter from their own university also ended up much more likely to vote (65%) than those who read a first-person story about a student from another university (29%).

It is easiest to identify with a person who has much in common with you.  Experiments with race and gender have revealed that it’s easier to identify with a character whose differences come out late in the story.

Heterosexual students reading a tale of a gay man reported greater experience taking and a significantly more favorable attitude toward gays after reading a story where a character was revealed to be gay late in the story. (The effect was much weaker when the character was identified as gay earlier.)  Readers of the gay-late version  also apparently reacted less stereotypically to the character, rating him as less feminine and less emotional.

Results were the same when white students read about a black man.

For the complete article, visit http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/06/how-good-books-can-change-you/259169/

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