The last book I bought was David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. I’m only about 80 pages in, but so far it’s a terrific read. For me, it seems to be just a book, but recent research suggests it may be much, much more.
In a recent paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, psychologists Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby claim that the books we read can transform our personalities and redefine our perspectives. Their research centers on the process of “experience-taking,” or the idea that when people read they “[assume] the identity of a character in a written narrative and [simulate] that character’s subjective experience while immersed in the world of the story.” So what’s the big deal? Immersion in literature is as old as literature itself. How does this change anything?
The new insight in Kaufman and Libby’s research is what happens when we put the book down. According to Kaufman:
Experience-taking can dramatically affect the beliefs and behaviors of readers once they emerge from the narrative world…People who report higher levels of experience-taking are subsequently more likely to adjust their behavior to align with the character’s and to describe themselves as having the same personality traits displayed by a character.
There are some limits on what experience-taking can do. It’s not as if we can just pick up a stack of Sherlock Holmes to become wittier or a handful of Kerouac to be more free-spirited. Experience-taking is nuanced and relies on a number of factors. The research shows that reading in a room with mirrors limits experience-taking. So does reading about out-group individuals; Kaufman and Libby showed that experience-taking was reduced when heterosexual white men read about African-American or homosexual characters. What might be most disheartening for the would-be experience-taker is their lack of choice in the matter:
Moreover, we have discovered that experience-taking is by and large an unintentional and unconscious process, rather than an effortful and volitional one. In fact, when people are instructed to take the perspective of a character in a story, they actually report lower levels of experience-taking compared with readers who are not so instructed
Immersion is most successful when we do it subconsciously. Any additional effort can sabotage the process. Kaufman has stated that he believes experience-taking is less commonplace in other media; it’s the act of reading itself that grants new perspective. It may be true that other forms of media influence our views less, but a mounting body of research shows that the media choices we make are still a reflection of who we are.
A 2009 University of Cambridge study showed that “sample groups of subjects regularly make the same assumptions about people’s personalities, values, social class and even their ethnicity, based on their musical preferences.” Furthermore, these assumptions are often carried over into how we describe ourselves to others. Says Dr. Jason Rentfrow, who led the study, “The participants who liked the classical and jazz clips rated themselves as being more creative and open.”
Another recent study charted connections between video game choice, personality traits, and academic performance. As might be expected, those who played a wider selection of games rated higher in Openness (a psychological term used to describe curiosity, creativity, and desire to broaden experience) than those who stuck to a few specific games.
The world of marketing is full of these studies; advertisers everywhere want to know what we read, play, watch, and most importantly buy. Mindset Media researches television viewers and has drawn several conclusions:
Creative people are 41% more likely to watch “Mad Men” than less creative people…Off-color cartoon comedy “Family Guy” draws an audience of rule breakers or rebels who are 61% more likely to watch the show…Traditionalists are 21% more likely to watch Dancing With The Stars.
Mindset Media quantifies what countless other studies have shown. We choose our media for the way it reflects the values we embrace and lets us connect with other people that share these values. Maybe The Pale King is just a book. Or maybe, combined with all the other media I consume on a daily basis, it paints a much broader portrait than anyone ever realized.
Michael Ferguson studies architecture at the University of Cincinnati. As an amateur singer and ukulele-player, his life is filled with musical exploration and being “that guy.” His musical tastes are informed primarily by rainy Saturday afternoons and a keen ear for so-upbeat-you-wanna-vomit twee pop. In his free time he pretends to understand philosophy, sketches buildings, drinks overly bitter tea, and wishes he read more.