If We Are What We Read, Who Are We, Exactly?

According to research recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the book characters we love are the real-life characters we become. 

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We love books for being books. But books are more than just words on pages, lovely or terrible adventures, weird imaginings, plot twists and romances and things that would never happen to us in real life and therefore we should read about. Books have the power to change us—but not just in our minds, apparently. According to research recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Geoff Kaufman of Tiltfactor Laboratories at Dartmouth College and Lisa Libby of Ohio State, the act of reading of and identifying with a fictional character means also that we tend to subconsciously adopt their behavior. In reading about our favorite characters, we may actually become more like them.

This theory is based in "experience-taking," which is "the imaginative process of spontaneously assuming the identity of a character in a narrative and simulating that character's thoughts, emotions, behaviors, goals, and traits as if they were one's own," per Kaufman and Libby's study. The two ran six experiments to see how and when experience-taking occurred in readers. It turned out to be strongest in first-person narratives depicting "ingroup" (i.e., like the reader) characters. In books that depicted "outgroup" characters—the examples used in the research were a "homosexual or African American" character—there was greater experience-taking when those "outgroup" character identities were revealed later rather than early on. Delaying that identity, Kaufman and Libby found, kept readers from applying stereotypes in their evaluations of said characters and led to more favorable attitudes about them.

This research is interesting in lieu of the recent racist response to two key characters, Rue and Cinna, in The Hunger Games. Collins identifies both of them as black—you find out Rue has "dark brown skin and eyes” on page 45 in the book, and Cinna around the same time, both at their first meetings with Katniss. Had readers who reacted so poorly to the information found out the color of their skin later, would their reactions have been different? Hard to say, especially as many of those readers simply ignored the details and were shocked to find out later, in the movie, that Rue was black. Further, in the overall context of literature, "white" still remains largely a default race—that is not dealt with in this recent research.

As for who exactly we're relating to: Kaufman explained, via MSNBC, that bonding with Patrick Bateman's character in American Psycho may not be the healthiest example of this concept. “The character is very likable and charismatic. But he’s a serial killer. To the extent that you connect with him, you may try to understand or justify the actions he’s committing," he says. On the other hand, if you really relate to good characters, like Atticus Finch, or quintessential girl heroes, that might help make you more ethical and courageous and good. This is different, says Kaufman, than what happens with movies, which position us more passively as spectators rather than participants.

It follows to ask, then: What are we reading? A look at The New York Times Best-Seller List (combined print and e-book fiction for May 20, 2012) revealed the following:

  • Books 1, 2, and 3 on the list are 1, 2, and 3 in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E.L. James, the best-selling books in which "An inexperienced college student falls in love with a tortured man who has particular sexual tastes." Surely you've heard of Shades; maybe you've read them. The "tastes" that the Best-Seller list refers to so delicately have been known elsewhere as "mommy porn," BDSM, life-changing for Upper East Side moms, or "anti-feminist" (according to Katie Roiphe). According to Kaufman and Libby's research, our devouring of these books might mean we all want to be sexually dominated, or that we all want to sexually dominate. Which is the audience Newsweek attempted to communicate with via their recent article, "Spanking Goes Mainstream," we guess.  
  • Number 4 on the list is Nora Roberts' The Last Boyfriend, in which Owen Montgomery reconnects with his first girlfriend as he renovates the family's historic inn with his brothers in Boonsboro, Maryland. 
  • Number 5: Deadlocked, by Charlaine Harris. This is a Sookie Stackhouse book, in which Sookie and Bill solve a murder.
  • Number 6. David Baldacci's The Innocent. "A hitman who has become a target of the government rescues a teenage girl whose parents have been murdered." Sounds like a guy to emulate, minus the hitman/target of the government status. 
  • Number 7, The Lucky One, another in the Nicholas Sparks series of stalkery tearjerking romances. This involves a Marine who finds the photo of a woman while fighting in Iraq (a discovery that he credits with saving his life). He gets back home and sets out to find her. Now a major motion picture!
  • Number 8 is all the Fifty Shades books, packaged together in one efficient bundle. 
  • 9th is Nora Roberts' The Witness. "Daughter of a cold, controlling mother and an anonymous donor, studious, obedient Elizabeth finally let loose one night, drinking too much at a nightclub and allowing a strange man’s seductive Russian accent to lure her to a house on Lake Shore Drive." 
  • And 10th on the list is from John Grisham (the man is unstoppable): Calico Joe, about a pitcher who ends a promising rookie's career and his own after hitting him with a fastball. "Years later, the pitcher's son brings them together." Things, we are certain, ensue. 

Kaufman and Libby don't know if the changes in terms of who we are as incurred by what we read are long-term or brief, but if they're permanent, we can imagine there's going to be a run on BDSM paraphernalia. Or, maybe, these are just books, and as with anything that we consume, we take a little bit of them with us as we go—even if we're just reading them for fun and are fully aware that we don't want to be a character in a Nicholas Sparks novel, or a crime-fighting telepathic who hangs with vampires. Please, we have enough of those. The home renovations guy sounds handy, though. We should probably read that.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.