Have you ever had the experience of stepping away from a novel and finding yourself thinking a little bit like the main character would? I’ve often described the feeling as being a little “book-drunk”, but I usually only experience it with really great novels. It seems to be worse when I read all or most of a book in one session.
According to a story over at GalleyCat, scientists have completed a study that verifies that this experience is a common one, and that the actions of fictional characters can actually influence the decisions we make – whether we consciously realize it or not. They call the phenomena “experience-taking”, and it’s very real.
Researchers exposed students to stories about students voting told in third-person and first-person tense, both written to encourage voting, and followed up later to see which group had the highest number of students who went to the poll.
Here’s what they found:
The results showed that participants who read a story told in first-person, about a student at their own university, had the highest level of experience-taking. And a full 65 percent of these participants reported they voted on Election Day, when they were asked later. In comparison, only 29 percent of the participants voted if they read the first-person story about a student from a different university.
This would seem to imply a lot of wonderful and potentially scary potential for something I’ve often referred to as “weaponized narrative”. Fiction for self-transformation can and does improve the lives of men and women (see also “narrative psychology” and memetics) but it could be just as easily used to influence behavior in ways that benefit state and non-state actors. Apparently, Darpa is already investigating such applications.