Friday, 11 January 2019

Research Bulletin: Do Stories Satisfy Core Human Motives?

Stories, and transmission of information through stories, is one of the most universal aspects of human communication. But what role does it play in our lives and how does it relate to our core motivations? In this brief theoretical article, Costabile, Shedlosky-Shoemaker, and Austin (2018) set out to demonstrate how stories promote social and psychological wellbeing by satisfying core motivations. As a starting point, the authors adopt Susan Fiske’s (2010) five core social motivations: belonging, understanding, control, self-enhancement, and trust. These are essential social needs that each person desires in order to feel complete. Costabile and her colleagues argue that stories, both autobiographical stories and entertainment narratives, satisfy all five core motivations. The article is broken up into sections for each of the core motives, and in each section empirical evidence is presented to support the relationship between stories and the core motive in question.  
In conclusion, the authors propose that this article helps bring together research on narrative with more traditional social psychological research. Moreover, they believe that narrative approaches can be of use in other areas of social psychological research, such as intergroup relationships and overcoming resistance to persuasion. 


Costabile, K. A., Shedlosky-Shoemaker, R., & Austin, A. B. (2018). Universal stories: How narratives satisfy core motives. Self and Identity, 17(4), 418-431.

Fiske, S. T. (2010). Social beings: Core motives in Social Psychology (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Wiley.

Post by Connor LaForge.

* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail).

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Leïla Slimani Chanson Douce

With Chanson Douce, Leïla Slimani won the Prix Goncourt in 2016. The novel has been translated into English by Sam Taylor; published in England as Lullaby in 2018, and in North America as The Perfect Nanny. At the end of last year, the New York Times said it was one of the ten best books of 2018. Here’s a quote, from what was said, there: “Slimani writes devastating character studies, and also raises painful themes: the forbidden desires parents project onto their nannies, racial and class tensions” (New York Times, Book Review Section, 5 December 2018, p. 10).

Slimani was born into a Muslim family in 1981, and grew up in Rabat, Morocco. At the age of 17 she moved to Paris, where she lives now with her husband of ten years, who is a banker. Six years ago she got the idea for this, her second novel, from reading in Paris Match about a nanny in New York who killed two children who were in her care. At that time Slimani was herself starting to look for a nanny for her six-month-old son because she wanted to get back to work.

Throughout Slimani's childhood she was looked after by a live-in nanny, whom she remembers as strict but very affectionate. Her father was an economist and had been successful. Before she was born, for two years, he had been a Minister of the Economy in Morocco. Then, when Slimani was twelve years old, he was fired from his position as CEO of a bank, and sent to prison on charges of corruption. The family fell apart, and the nanny was let go. Slimani’s mother supported her and her two sisters by working as an otolaryngologist. A bit more than ten years later her father died, supposedly of lung-cancer. Slimani thinks he died of grief. Posthumously, he was acquitted.

Lullaby starts with a horrible jolt. Its first two-and-a-half pages are about the death of two young children whom their nanny kills. This makes it impossible for some people to read on; if you think you may be one of these, please read no further here. 

In a fundamental way, however, this killing is not what this novel is about. What it’s really about is how and why a person who is employed in an intimate position in a family as a nanny, and does absolutely everything for this family, first feels useful and very worthwhile, but then starts to experience the parents’ disdain and distrust of her and, in utmost despair, behaves in such a destructive way.  

In the novel, Myriam Charfa is the mother of the two young children: Mila, a toddler, and Adam, a baby. She is married to Paul Massé. They live in Paris, in the Tenth Arrondissement (at the center of which is the Gare du Nord). In her training as a lawyer Myriam has been brilliant. Then, after being very absorbed with her babies, she starts to feel trapped, and becomes very bitter towards Paul. Then, Pascal, who had been a student whom she knew in law school, encourages Myriam to come and work with him in a firm he has just started. She is excited at the prospect. So she and her husband look for a nanny. They find Louise, who has an excellent reference from a former employer. 

Louise comes to work for the  family. She does everything for the children. She loves them. She looks after them in the warmest way, cares for them, plays with them affectionately. She also does everything for Myriam and Paul: tidies up, mends clothes, cooks meals, stays overnight when necessary. She could not be better. She becomes indispensable. 

On page 89 of Lullaby, we read that one afternoon Louise has been playing with Mila, and has put lipstick and make-up on her, painted her finger nails and toe-nails with nail varnish. The little girl loves it. When her father comes home early from work, she says  “Look, Papa … Look what Louise did!”

Then we read this:
He had been so pleased to get home early, so happy to see his children, but now he feels sick. He has the feeling that he has walked in on something sordid or abnormal. His daughter, his little girl, looks like a transvestite, like a ruined old drag queen. He can’t believe it. He is furious, out of control. He hates Louise for having done this. Mila, his angel, his little blue dragonfly, is as ugly as a circus freak, as ridiculous as a dog dressed up for a walk by its hysterical old lady owner.

In an interview with Lauren Collins (in the New Yorker on 1 January 2018), Slimani said “I wanted to take an interest in the home, which we always see as a space of softness, of protection, where we go to take shelter … It’s supposed to be a space where questions of power and domination are nonexistent. But that’s completely false!” 

Slimani is fascinated by how people can devote themselves fully to a particular activity. Whereas Louise devotes herself to her job as a nanny, the protagonist of Slimani’s first novel, Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre (In the Garden of the Ogre) to be published in English this year with the title Adèle, is a woman who devotes herself to sex. She wants to be wanted. Slimani said to Collins: “There are people who give themselves over to their sexuality, there are people who lose themselves in it, but, for me, sex is something very painful, very melancholy, because one sees oneself.”

Among themes to reflect on in Lullaby (The Perfect Nanny) are these.

The first is that Slimani enables us to know her protagonist, Louise, and the circumstances of her life. Of course, you might say, that’s the novelist’s job. But here it’s significant in more than the usual way. We read how Louise’s husband had abused her, then died, leaving her in the most terrible financial mess. She is no longer in touch with her grown-up daughter. Now she lives in a sleazy one-room apartment, and her landlord terrorizes her. She makes her job as a nanny into her whole life. So, then, we may ask ourselves: “Who are we?” “To what do we devote our selves?” And, in this life, whom do we come to know? We can sometimes come to understand a literary character, such as Louise, better than most actual people in our day-to-day lives. Slimani is astute at letting us readers know that Myriam and Paul have no idea who Louise is. The extent of their care for her is zero. At the same time they have her look after their children, in one of the most intimate and important relationships one can ever have. 

A second theme is that Louise’s care for the children of Myriam and Paul enables both of them to thrive in their careers. They both earn good incomes, but the amount they pay Louise is so little that she can scarcely afford to live. They come to think they are entitled to what she does for them, and they exploit her. In an article (on p. 69 of the New Yorker of 20 August 2018) Adam Gopnik wrote, “of the truth that we always resent most those to whom we owe most.” On page 130 of Lullaby, we read that because of the hopeless financial situation in which Louise’s former husband left her, Paul received a letter from the Income Tax people, who were trying to trace her. The letter says that Louise owes back taxes. Paul speaks to Louise in a malicious way. He says: “we are very upset by what we learned. There are certain things that cannot be tolerated.” Myriam and Paul become fed up with Louise, and think about how to fire her. In turn, Louise becomes despairing. She comes to think that she will no longer be able to love. 

A third theme is based on how Myriam Charfa is an immigrant. In contrast, Louise is not an immigrant, and she is white. Slimani said to Lauren Collins, that Louise is “a white woman doing an immigrant’s job, which is extremely demeaning.” Myriam is a non-white woman, from North Africa, as Slimani is herself. By means of these contrasts, Slimani invites us to think, perhaps in some new ways, of our relationships with people we employ. Among the issues are both social class and ethnicity. How far do we know people we employ who are from different social strata than ourselves? How far do we know people we meet who are different from us, in the work-place, or anywhere? How far do we want to?

Leïla Slimani (2018). Lullaby (Sam Taylor, Trans.). London: Faber & Faber. (In North America the title of the translation is The Perfect Nanny, Penguin Random House).

Bookmark and Share

Monday, 3 December 2018

Research Bulletin: Stories and Race Perception

The notable rise of multiracialism in Western countries has made it crucial for society to develop tools that facilitate the understanding of individuals who are different from us. One such tool is narrative fiction, which can induce story-consistent behaviour and reduce out-group mentality by challenging our underlying beliefs and assumptions. Johnson, Huffman and Jasper (2014) examined this possibility by conducting a study that examined whether reading narrative fiction could affect racial boundary perceptions (i.e., the boundary at which a mixed-race face is perceived as belonging to one race or another).

In their first experiment, individuals were randomly assigned to either the narrative condition or the synopsis condition. In the narrative condition, the participants read an excerpt of Saffron Dreams by Shaila Abdullah, which is about a courageous Muslim woman who stands up to a series of religious attacks and racial slurs. In the synopsis condition, participants read a summary of the same excerpt that was devoid of its original narrative qualities. After exposure to either of the two conditions, all participants viewed mixed-race Arab-Caucasian faces and were asked to categorize them as mixed-race, Arab, or Causcasian. Their second experiment was very similar, but with an additional control condition in which people read a brief history of the automobile. Also different in this second study, was that all of the faces were expressing low to moderate levels of anger.

In support of their hypotheses, for the first experiment individuals in the full narrative condition saw the two races as more similar and were more likely to perceive the faces as being mixed-race as opposed to strictly Arab or Caucasian.  In the second experiment, participants in the full narrative condition were less likely to disproportionately categorize moderately angry faces as Arab. Based on these results, it seems that stories about race might have a positive effect on racial perception.


Johnson, D. R., Huffman, B., & Jasper, D. (2014). Changing race boundary perception by reading narrative fiction. Basic and Applied Social Psychology36, 83-90.

Post by Alma Rahimi

* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail).
Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The Lowbrow Status of Science Fiction

In trying to find out what makes a piece of fiction ‘literary’, Chris Gavaler and Dan Johnson of Washington and Lee University dove into papers from literary criticism and psychology that each proposed different definitions of ‘literariness’. Among the various definitions they came across, they found one that suggested that a text’s literariness might depend on how much it encouraged the reader to infer what characters are thinking or feeling (Kidd & Castano, 2013), an ability known as theory-of-mind. Gavaler and Johnson seized on this idea, hypothesizing that a literary text might contain the fewer explanations of a character’s state of mind, forcing the reader to make more inferences. These researchers were also interested in how this idea might interact with genre fiction, specifically the genre of science fiction. So they devised an experiment with four conditions. Participants would read a brief passage of science fiction or a realistic story, with or without explanations of the character’s state of mind. The authors would then measure readers’ ratings of literary merit, comprehension of the text, and inferencing effort. 

The researchers found that those who read a text with explanations of a character’s state of mind understood the text better and rated the text as having greater literary merit, compared to those who read texts without these explanations. This was regardless of whether the text was science fiction or not. Those who read a science fiction passage rated it as having less literary merit than did those who read a realistic passage. They also did not understand the text as well and made less of an effort to infer the character’s state of mind. This was the case whether or not the passage included explanations of the character’s state of mind. 

A subsequent experiment built on this research to examine the reader’s construction of a world’s physical and social rules, as well as their efforts to understand the plot. The results were similar to those of the first experiment. Interestingly, readers of science fiction exerted more effort in understanding the world of the narrative, yet did not understand the world as well as those who had read a text that was more realistic. Those who read science fiction also put in as much effort to understand the plot as did those who read a realistic passage, yet did not understand the plot as well. 

Long story short, it appears that the science fiction genre prompts a style of reading that is less attentive to characters, more attentive to the world of the narrative, and yet results in poorer overall comprehension. These experiments also show that the perception of literary merit seems to be tied to the inclusion of explanations of a character’s thoughts and feelings, and not the absence of such explanations, as the authors initially thought. 


Gavaler, C., & Johnson, D. R. (2017). The genre effect. A science fiction (vs. realism) 
manipulation decreases inference effort, reading comprehension, and perceptions of 
literary merit. Scientific Study of Literature, 7(1), 79-108. doi:10.1075/ssol.7.1.04gav

Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science,
342, 377–380. doi: 10.1126/science.1239918

Post by Krithika Sukumar

* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail).

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Extreme Music and the Processing of Anger

Extreme music, such as punk or heavy metal, is associated with anger and arousal due to its chaotic instrumentation, fast tempo, negative lyrical themes, and emotional vocals. Two opposing viewpoints in the literature suggest that extreme music either (1) elicits anger through arousal or (2) allows the listener to process existing anger through arousal. Sharman and Dingle (2015) set out to examine how listeners of extreme music process anger in an experimental design.

People who enjoy listening to extreme music (N = 39) were first induced to feel angry and then assigned to one of two possible conditions, either sitting in silence or listening to extreme music of their own choice for 10 minutes. Physiological arousal was measured in each condition and self-reports of emotional state were gathered before and after the anger induction. In the music condition, the researchers found that participants had a higher mean heart rate than participants who sat in silence, suggesting that extreme music sustained the arousal created by the anger induction. This view was also supported by participants’ own reports, with 79% of participants reporting that they listen to music to fully experience anger when angry. However, self-report ratings of relaxation did not differ by condition and 69% of participants also reported listening to music to calm down when angry. These findings are consistent with the idea that listeners of extreme music use it to match their emotions and emotion-regulation goals. 

There were also some interesting results outside of those related to anger. Ratings of inspiration were higher in the music condition compared to the silence condition, for example. Participants also reported a variety of positive emotional effects for music and all chose to listen to extreme music of their own accord during the music condition. For the often misunderstood genre of extreme music, these findings would seem to support a less negative and stigmatizing view of extreme music fans. This study has provided interesting insight into the emotional processes of extreme music fans and more research should be conducted on the nature of emotional processing and musical preferences.

Sharman, L., & Dingle, G. A. (2015). Extreme metal music and anger processing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience9, 272.

Post by Shayan Asadi.

Bookmark and Share

Monday, 5 February 2018

Can Children's Storybooks Teach Morality?

Although storybooks have long been used to teach moral messages to children, most research suggests that young children do not actually extract the intended meaning of these stories. However, a new paper by Walker and Lombrozo (2017) found that children may be more capable of extracting the moral from a story than previously thought. The researchers conducted two studies to see if children are better able to discern the moral of a story if they are asked questions throughout the reading process. The idea is that children need help directing their attention, so guidance from an adult may help them better comprehend the important aspects of a story. 

To test this idea, 5 and 6 year-old children were read stories that had a moral. As the story was read, children were either asked to recall surface details (e.g., "was Jocko sad?"), asked to explain an event (e.g., "why was Jocko sad"), or were simply told the lesson (e.g., "Jocko was sad because…"). Afterwards, the children were asked what the moral of the story was, and if they could name other stories with similar moral lessons. Children who were asked to explain the events of the story were better able to extract the story's moral. In the second study, the children asked to explain the story were also better able to apply the lessons to a real life example.

These two studies suggest that children can extract moral lessons from stories at much earlier ages than previously thought, but that they may need a little help. A key insight is that parents may be able to aid their children by asking questions about the story that direct their attention to important plot points, such as character motivation. Although more research is necessary to understand why these kinds of questions help children, these studies highlight the importance of interactive learning and provide promising evidence that storybooks may be more educational than previously thought.

Walker, C. M., & Lombrozo, T. (2017). Explaining the moral of the story. Cognition, 167, 266-281.

Post by Joseph Hoyda.

* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail). 

Bookmark and Share

Monday, 22 January 2018

Writing Character

Imagine you are given this photograph, and asked to write a fictional character sketch of the man depicted here. This is the task that Marta Maslej, Raymond Mar, and I, gave to participants, in a study published last year. What would there be in your habits and traits that would influence what you write, and how you write it?

In our study we asked 207 participants each to write a fictional character sketch of the man in this photo. We asked them, too, about their habits of writing and reading, and gave them questions about traits of personality, empathy, and engagement in fantasy. Then, to a different group of people, 144 in number, we gave the character sketches that the first group of participants had produced and asked them to rate the sketches as to how likeable, interesting, and complex, each character was.

We found that habits of writing fiction, and of writing and reading poetry, were associated with producing character sketches that were rated as more interesting and complex. In terms of personality traits of Extraversion, Emotional Stability, Agreeableness, Openness, and Conscientiousness, only Openness was associated with sketches of characters who were interesting and complex. Higher levels of empathetic concern, and of engagement in fantasy, had similar effects. No habits or traits were associated with writing sketches of characters who were more likeable.

We found it surprising that reading more poetry had an effect on people’s abilities to create characters who were interesting and complex, although habits of reading more prose fiction and non-fiction did not. Perhaps reading poetry involves an interest in language and emotion, which are also helpful in verbal depiction of characters. Perhaps the lack of effect from reading more prose is similar to how listening to a lot of music does not necessarily contribute much to becoming a musician.

Some people are drawn to writing fiction. It seems that they are more likely to be among those who seek out challenges of intellectual and aesthetic kinds (the trait of Openness), as well as being higher in empathy for others, and more likely to engage in fantasy. We can imagine that it’s people with these habits and character traits who go on to become authors of novels and short stories that are published.

Maslej, M. M., Oatley, K., & Mar, R. A. (2017). Creating fictional characters: The role of experience, personality, and social processes. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11, 487-499. 

Bookmark and Share

Monday, 9 October 2017

Effects of leisure reading

What psychological effects are there of reading short stories and novels? By now there has been a substantial amount of research to answer this question. The consensus seems to be that reading fiction as an individual pursuit can enable people to improve their empathy and to understand others better. The method known as meta-analysis involves collecting a number of studies on an issue such as this, and statistically estimating the size of effects. In this way "seems to be" can become "is." In a study published earlier this year, Micah Mumper and Richard Gerrig conducted a meta-analysis of studies of associations of lifetime leisure reading with social cognitive measures. The main measure of lifetime reading was the modification made by Mar et al. (2006) of the Author Recognition Test, to distinguish reading of fiction from non-fiction.

Analyses were performed for effects on empathy with data from 22 studies. The most frequently used outcome measure was the Interpersonal Reactivity Index of Davis (1983). Analyses were also performed on data from ten studies for effects on theory-of-mind (understanding others). For these, the most frequently used outcome measure was the Mind-in-the-Eyes test of Baron-Cohen et al. (2001).

To estimate the size of this effect, the Mumper and Gerrig aggregated results for empathy and theory of mind. The result was that an association was found for reading of fiction with empathy and theory of mind, which was small but significant. Reading non-fiction did not have this effect. At least one other meta-analysis, as yet unpublished, has been performed on experiments in which people were given different kinds of material to read, and short-term and medium term effects were measured. It comes to a similar conclusion.

Mumper and Gerrig say that although the effect is small it is important because of "the potential interpersonal and societal benefits of greater empathy and theory of mind" (p. 118).

Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Hill, J., Raste, Y., & Plumb, I. (2001). The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test Revised version: A study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger's syndrome or high-functioning autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 42, 241-251.

Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 113-126.

Mumper, M. J., & Gerrig, R. J. (2017). Leisure reading and social cognition: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11, 109-120.

Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J. B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694-712.

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

In the Mind of Another

One of the lovely aspects of fiction is to be able to enter other minds, and this occurs in an especially touching way when the character in whose mind one finds oneself lives in a society different from one's own.

For Western readers, a novel by the Japanese author Hiromi Kawakami has this effect. The novel is translated as Strange Weather in Tokyo. It's about a woman, Tsukiko, who at the start of the story is age 37, who works in an office. Although she has had boyfriends, they seem not to have lasted long, and she doesn't seem to have close women friends. One evening she is in a bar, near the station, and happens to see, there, a man who is perhaps in his seventies, who recognizes her. He was her teacher of Japanese in secondary school. They keep running into each other, in this bar, and they chat. She calls him Sensei, "Teacher." They don't seem to have much in common. He remembers that, at school, she wasn't very good at Japanese. She remembers, too, that she wasn't very interested in it.

Sensei is a widower. After the meet several times in the bar, he invites her, after a good deal of sake drinking, to his home, which is nearby. Although reluctant, she goes along. The house is cluttered. It's full of things that other people would have thrown away. He gives her something to drink, and some crackers to eat.

Then Sensei starts to read a newspaper. It's not that day's newspaper, but one that has been discarded, which he has picked up from somewhere. He seems to have forgotten that Tsukiko is there. She speaks to him, and he replies: "Would you like to read the newspaper?" he asks.

Sensei goes into the next room and brings back some things: several old clay tea-pots that he has saved from railway take-out meals he had bought many years previously, and a collection of electric batteries that have long since lost their charge. He talks about them a bit. The chapter ends with him reciting three lines of a poem, and with him closing his eyes, nodding off, perhaps asleep. In the pale light of the moon, Tsukiko gazes at the batteries.

An effect the book had on me is that which one is supposed to attain though mindfulness. I would read a chapter—the chapters are short—then look up, and notice what I saw. On one occasion it was a pepper pot, which had been left on a wooden table. I looked at the small glass pot, which was octagonal, and had a silver-coloured metal top, pierced with thirteen small holes in a star pattern. I noticed the relation of the pot to the table, and to the window sill, and to the top of a straight-back chair, the seat of which was under the table. I saw the relation of these objects to each other.

Is this, I thought, a Japanese way? A way of being able to see and experience such spatial layouts and arrangements. A nineteenth-century Western way is quite different. The essayist and art critic John Ruskin, for instance, might have recommended that I look at the salt-cellar, and reflect that someone who had a training in art had drawn it, that someone else had made a model of it, someone else had arranged for it to be moulded in glass, and for the metal lid, with its holes in it, to be manufactured. Each of these people would have got up in the morning, eaten something for breakfast, gone to work, chatted with their work mates, as they made these things for us to use.

Kawakami's book continues with Tsukiko and Sensei getting along with one another, then falling out because he likes the Giants baseball team, whereas she does not. This is followed by a period when they notice each other but refuse to talk. Then they start to talk again. They go on expeditions of several kinds. They chat, sometimes quite a bit, sometimes not much at all. As readers we are within Tsukiko's mind. It is a mind that is uncertain, thoughtful but confused, wondering, lonely. And, as one may imagine, the novel is a love story.

Kawakami, H. (2012). Strange Weather in Tokyo (A. M. Powell, Trans.). London: Portobello Books.

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Literariness and Empathy

Virginia Woolf said that Katherine Mansfield was the only person of whose writing she had ever felt jealous. Some of Mansfield's stories are, indeed, strikingly original. A new study by Anežka Kuzmičová and colleagues is an investigation of the reading one of these stories: "The fly," published in 1922, a year before Mansfield died.

The story is about "the boss," an elderly man who is reminded of the death of his only son, six years previously, in World War I. His son had been everything to him. In the period after his son's death, the boss had wept many times. Following the reminder, he made a demand to his office assistant that he should not be disturbed. He did this because he wanted to weep again, but no tears came. Mansfield writes: "He wasn't feeling as he wanted to feel." He noticed a fly in his inkwell, fished it out with a pen, put in on his blotting pad, and watched it go through elaborate motions to clean itself. When it had done so, the boss filled his pen, and from it let fall a drop of ink onto the fly.  Then, writes Mansfield, "... as if painfully, it dragged itself forward." More slowly this time, it started to clean itself again, and finally finished the task. Then the boss dripped more ink on the fly, then did so once more. The fly was dead. The boss flung the blotting paper with the sodden fly on it into the waste-paper basket, and could no longer remember what he had been thinking about before.

"The fly" is a story with lots of imagery and foregrounding, characteristics of literary writing. Influenced by the finding of David Kidd and Emanuele Castano (2013), that reading a literary short story as compared with a popular one, improved readers' empathy and theory-of-mind, Kuzmičová and colleagues asked people to read either a direct translation of "The fly," into Norwegian, or a translation that had been rewritten by a writer of popular fiction to remove foregrounded phrases. The method used by the researchers was to ask participants to read either the literary translation or the more popularly written version, and to mark passages that they found striking and evocative. They were then asked to choose three of these passages and write of their experiences in reading them. People's writings of their experiences were then coded for expressions of empathy.

The researchers expected, with this method, to replicate the result of Kidd and Castano. Instead they found that empathetic expressions were more numerous among readers of the more popularly written story than among readers of the more literary version. No allowance was made for differences of reading difficulty between the two versions, and there is no mention of the coding being done by people who were blind to which condition the participants' experiences were from. Nevertheless the result is thought provoking, and goes against a current trend. What might it mean?

Since our research group published the finding that the more fiction people read, the better they did in a test of empathy and theory-of-mind (Mar et al., 2006), empathy has become a topic of interest in understanding effects of fiction. Kidd and Castano (2013) hypothesized that the effect is principally due not just to fiction as compared with non-fiction, but that it occurs especially with literary works. So a kind of generalization has occurred: that the main effect of literary reading is to increase people's empathy.

Increased empathy may indeed occur with literary writing. Indeed this effect has been found by Emy Koopman (2016) for a literary text that included foregrounding as compared with a version from which foregrounding had been removed.

When I read Mansfield's stories, I find myself going back to read passages again, in order to think about them. This happened when I re-read "The fly." It could be that, in the study by Kuzmičová and colleagues, the popular version of "The fly" was more straightforward, more engaging for its readers, than the literary version.

Prompting empathy is not the only effect of literary writing, and foregrounding is not the only feature that makes for literariness. "The fly" seems to me to be less about empathy than about the passage of time, about regression to childhood, about the unconscious, about the human propensity, in war and in grief, to be cruel.

Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342, 377-380.
Koopman, E. M. E. (2016). Effects of "literariness" on emotions and on empathy and reflection after reading. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 10, 82-98.
Kuzmičová, A., Mangen, A., Støle, H., & Begnum, A. C. (2017). Literature and readers’ empathy: A qualitative text manipulation study. Language and Literature, 26, 137-152.
Mansfield, K. (1922). "The fly." In D. M. Davin (Ed.), Katherine Mansfield: Selected stories (pp. 353-358). Oxford: Oxford University Press (current edition 1981).
Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J. B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694-712.
Bookmark and Share

Monday, 15 May 2017

Modes of Life

Literary fiction has a main concern with character. Literary characters are made up of sets of features that enable us to make mental models of them, to understand them in ways that—if we knew them in daily life—would enable us to interact with them. Character, in fiction, has aspects of the psychological traits of personality, but enhanced by influences of specific events. A less-noticed aspect might be called "modes of life." People with particular traits adapt to, or are unable to adapt to, different modes, such as being married or divorced, being a parent, being employed as a civil servant or a shop assistant, being unemployed, living here or living there. A writer who is particularly good on such modes is Penelope Lively, whose most famous book is Moon Tiger. Born in Cairo in 1933, she continues to write and, on 4 May this year, a thoughtful and engaging profile of her was published in the New York Times, Sunday Book Review Section, by Charles McGrath.

One of Lively's interests is in how events that may seem small at the time can have large effects, and—as it were—jolt people from one mode into another. In her most recent novel, How it all began, she pushes this idea towards a certain edge. A random event occurs when one of the novel's characters, Charlotte, is mugged on a London street. We don't know about the mugger, but the event prompts changes in several other lives. Charlotte is taken to hospital and a phone-call is made to her daughter, Rose. She works for an academic, Henry, who likes being famous, and likes to mix with famous people. She deals with his correspondence and accompanies him to important events. The mugging means that Rose has to look after her mother, Charlotte, and therefore cannot accompany Henry, next day, to Manchester, to give a distinguished lecture. Another person has to be called in to accompany him: his niece, Marion. Without the presence of Rose, Henry messes up his lecture, makes an utter fool of himself. He has an idea of how to reinstate himself, but following the debacle, his life starts to unravel. Rose accepts her mother coming to stay in her house, and move about on crutches. This has a substantial effect on Rose and her husband. As to Henry's niece, Marion: because she has to escort Henry to Manchester, she isn't able to meet her lover, Jeremy. Thinking Jeremy to be in his flat, she leaves a message to tell him she can't see him. But he's not in the flat. He is at home where he lives with his wife Stella. Without thinking, he leaves his mobile phone in the pocket of a jacket he has hung on a door, while he nips out on an errand. Stella finds the phone and the message. She realizes her husband is having an affair. She throws a wobbly, and starts proceedings for a divorce.

In an earlier novel, Consequences, Lively traces the influence of events, and the ways in which they precipitate people into different modes of life, over three generations of women. Lorna is born in privilege. As she sits on a bench in St James's Park, she sees Matt an artist, who is making drawings of ducks on the pond there. The two start going out, then get married, and go with almost no money to Somerset, to live in a tiny cottage. On the walls of its upstairs room, Matt paints murals: love scenes of Lorna and him. Matt is killed in Crete, in World War II. When she is grown up, their daughter, Molly, comes across a discarded newspaper, and happens to see an advertisement for a job, for which she applies, and is accepted: the job changes her life. Molly's daughter, Ruth, who considers her own birth to have been an accident, finds out about some of these events. She retraces the footsteps of Matt to Crete, and of him and Lorna to the Somerset cottage, where she sees the murals. This last part of the book, I found, was very moving.

We each enter into a different mode with each kind of person with whom we interact: parent, child, employer, someone we are fond of, someone we don't like. As Erving Goffman (1961) says, with each person it's as if we pass through an invisible membrane that separates one role from another. These roles can expand into modes. An engaging aspect of Lively's work is that she concentrates on these modes in ways that enable us to reflect upon them in our own lives.

Goffman, E. (1961). “Fun in games” in Encounters: Two studies in the sociology of interaction (pp. 15-81). Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

Lively, P. (1987). Moon tiger. London: Deutsch.

Lively, P. (2007). Consequences. Toronto: Key Porter.

Lively, P. (2011). How it all began. New York: Viking.

McGrath, C. (2017, 4 May 2017). "A writer writes:" Penelope Lively's fiction defies the test of time, New York Times Book Review Section.

Bookmark and Share

Friday, 5 May 2017

Happy Birthday to Us!

Today marks the 9th anniversary of OnFiction! 
Just wanted to take a moment to thank all of you readers for supporting us all these years. We've managed almost 650 posts so far and hopefully you have enjoyed reading them just as much as we've enjoyed writing them. A huge thanks as well to all of our contributors!
Looking forward and moving forward...

(Painting: 'Miss Auras, The Red Book' by Sir John Lavery)

Bookmark and Share
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...