Readers who identify with fictional characters are prone to subconsciously adopt their behaviour, new data shows.
Researchers at Ohio State University say bookworms have been shown to adopt the feelings, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of fictional characters they relate to in a phenomenon called 'experience-taking'.
According to the study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: 'When you "lose yourself" inside the world of a fictional character while reading a story, you may actually end up changing your own behaviour and thoughts to match that of the character.'
Geoff Kaufman, a post-doctoral researcher at the Tiltfactor Laboratory at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and his co-author Lisa Libby, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University, conducted a series of six different tests on about 500 volunteers.
Their research showed that first-person narratives can be temporarily transformative, changing the way readers see the world, themselves, and other social groups.
In one study, Kaufman and Libby found 'people who strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote were significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days later' than participants who read a different story.'
They also found it was important to reveal characteristics shared by the reader early on.
'The early revelation of the group membership seemed to highlight the difference between readers and the character, and made it more difficult for readers to step into the character's shoes,' according to the report.
Comparatively, a test on 70 heterosexual males asked to read a story about a gay undergraduate revealed strikingly different results depending on at what point in the narrative the character's sexuality was revealed.
According to the study: 'Those who read the gay-late narrative reported significantly more favourable attitudes toward homosexuals after reading the story than did readers of both the gay-early narrative and the heterosexual narrative.
'Those who read the gay-late narrative also relied less on stereotypes of homosexuals – they rated the gay character as less feminine and less emotional than did the readers of the gay-early story.'
Environment, they said, plays a major role.
One experiment required volunteers to read in a mirrored cubicle; findings showed fewer readers were affected by experience-taking.
Kaufman told MSNBC watching a movie, by comparison, does not require viewers to engage any more than as a spectator, limiting the ability to imagine themselves as characters.
Libby said the phenomenon could have powerful, if not lasting, implications.
She told the Edmonton Journal: 'If you can get people to relate to characters in this way, you might really open up their horizons, getting them to relate to social groups that maybe they wouldn't have otherwise.'
Which of your favorite book characters are you most similar to?