Summer's here and time for summer reading at the beach, in a hammock or on the porch. Books are great for passing the time on lazy summer afternoons. And according to Ohio State researchers, the books you read from childhood on can also change who you are.
They do this by a process the researchers called experience taking. More than just understanding a character, it's taking a little of them inside of you and changing yourself in the process. It's not something that you plan on, it happens spontaneously. Good writing helps, but there's much more involved.
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 voter from another university (29%).
It's not like reading about Superman and then thinking that 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.
Reading the right story increased the number of people who voted in 2008.
The voting experiment was done with 82 college undergraduates. Several days before the 2008 election, they all read one of four versions of a short story about another college student's problems on voting day (rain, long lines, etc.) The versions either told of the problems of a student from the same university as the reader or from a different one. And they also differed in whether they were told in first person (I was soaked through and through) or third person (Newt was soaked through and through).
After reading the story, the students filled out questionnaires attempting to rate their experience taking--how much did they feel like the character in the story and how well could they get inside that character's head? And the study also looked at how many students actually voted that November.
First person writing led to greater experience taking. That's probably not a surprise, since first person writing is so much more immediate than third person writing is. But the 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 voter from another university (29%).
The same results were obtained when white students read a tale of a black man.
One factor that seems to prevent experience taking is a mirror. Students reading in a cubicle with a mirror were rarely able to undergo experience taking. Mirrors reinforce your personal identity, they make it more difficult to lose yourself in the experiences in the book.
The researchers only looked at fiction, but there's no reason to think that biographies won't have the same effect.
So who would you like to become more like this summer? Katniss, Kinsey Millhone, Edward Cullen, Susan Sontag, LBJ or Mahatma Gandhi? It's up to you. Just remember to leave your mirror at home.