Did You Know That You Are What You Read?

We’ve all heard the phrase, “You are what you eat.” Fitness and nutrition gurus everywhere seem to repeat this saying, or some version of it, like a mantra. But is it true that you are what you read as well? Recent research, conducted at Ohio State University, indicates that when you get lost in the world of a fiction story, you may modify your thoughts and behavior to align with those of the character.

Read It To Be It – You Are What You Read

The investigators studied what people experienced when reading a fictional story. The participants reported feeling emotions, beliefs, and internal responses that matched one of the characters. They found that even after the reader finished the story, this phenomenon (dubbed experience-taking by the researchers) could lead to actual changes in the reader. Even though these changes might not stick around for the long haul, it’s interesting that it can occur at all.

Lisa Libby, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State and co-author of the study, said that when study participants identified with a character who overcame obstacles to vote, they were considerably more likely to vote in actual elections a few days later. Also, people who strongly identified with fictional characters of a different race or sexual orientation were less likely to harbor negative thoughts and perpetuate stereotypes about the other groups in real life.

Geoff Kaufman, the lead researcher in the study, said, “Experience-taking changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about, which can lead to good outcomes.” But this phenomenon doesn’t always occur when reading fiction. It happens when the reader can truly “get lost” in a story and strongly identify with one of the characters, while, at the same time, temporarily forgetting themselves and their self-identity. The study appears online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and in the print edition of the periodical as well.

Yet another study, published in Science, found that reading literary fiction can help improve social skills by enhancing a reader’s ability to understand and respect that the beliefs and desires of others may be different than their own. The research found that those who read literary fiction scored better on tests of empathy and emotional intelligence – critical skills for reading body language or correctly empathizing with what others may be thinking.

So, maybe we are what we read. I know that when a story truly draws me in, I identify strongly with at least one of the characters. I often get so engrossed in the fictional world that I lose all knowledge of my surroundings while reading. But, as Kaufman mentioned, it doesn’t happen with every book I read; only those that hook me and pull me deep within the fictional world.

Perhaps when people read Chasing the Dead they will identify with one of those characters and the experience-taking phenomenon will occur. Hopefully, they’ll identify with Alex and not the antagonist. Because identifying with the antagonist in Chasing the Dead, and emulating those behaviors and beliefs would be a scary thing, for sure.

Have you identified strongly with certain fictional characters? Are you aware of any changes, even temporary, in your beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors as a result? I’d like to hear which characters you identified with and how your perceptions and thoughts changed.


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