How Good Books Can Change You

Ever read a book that's changed your life? You're not imagining it -- the process of digesting a character or a series of events actually turns you into a different person.

The Doctor Will See You Now
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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 percent) than those who read a first person story about a voter from another university (29 percent).

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.

In different experiments, the researchers found that experience taking can change the likelihood of a person voting and also change their attitude about people of different race or sexual orientation. Research on the topic is fairly new. Who knows what else it can change?

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 percent) than those who read a first person story about a voter from another university (29 percent).

The more a character has in common with you, the easier it is to identify with them. For this reason, experiments in 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 towards gays after reading a tale where the character was revealed to be gay late in the story. The effect was much weaker when the character was identified as gay earlier in the tale. They also seemed to react less stereotypically to the character, rating him as less feminine and less emotional than readers of the gay-late version did.

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.

An article on the study was published online by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

[Editor's note: What great books do you remember reading that changed who you are or how you live? We want you to tell us. Share your experience in the comments below, and we'll round up and post the best ones next week.]


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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