Monday, October 20, 2014

Research Bulletin: Harry Potter and the Reduction of Prejudice

Reading fictional stories may do more than entertain us. Researchers have found evidence that they may help to reduce prejudice against outgroups. Over a six-week period, grade five students in Italy were read passages from the Harry Potter novels that were either neutral (e.g., Harry purchasing his wand) or related to prejudice (e.g., Draco insulting “mudbloods”). The students completed self-report measures of their attitudes towards immigrants before and after this intervention. For students who identified with Harry Potter, there was a reduction in negative attitudes towards immigrants. In a second study, high school students in Italy were asked to complete two questionnaires. One asked about exposure to the Harry Potter novels and overall book reading and television viewing, and the second surveyed social attitudes with some items measuring contact with and attitudes towards homosexuals. Students who had both read more Harry Potter books and identified with its main character, had more favourable attitudes towards homosexuals. A third study used a college student sample and found that in the students who disidentified with the villain of the books (Voldemort), more exposure to the Harry Potter films was associated with better attitudes towards refugees. Although there are some limitations to the design of these studies, this research program lends support to the idea that fictional stories can supplement educational programs for reducing prejudice in youth.

Posted by Tonia Relkov.

Vezzali, L., Stathi, S., Giovannini, D., Capozza, D., & Trifiletti, E. (2014). The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Visualizing Language Use in TV and Film Over Time: A Simpsons example

For researchers of narrative, one unique asset is the preponderance of examples that exist to be studied. Humans create a lot of narrative fiction, in the form of books, television shows and films, among other media. Access to these examples has become increasingly simplified, thanks to both the Internet and growing computing power. A number of researchers have created tools that allow for some rather interesting visualizations of available data. One example is the Bookworm Browser, created by Dr. Benjamin M. Schmidt, an Assistant Professor of History at NorthEastern. The Bookworm Browser allows users to search for the incidence of different words which are then visualized as a line-graph, showing how often the word appears in the selected text as a function of time. In a browser dedicated to television and film, for example, one can visualize how often the names of the main characters are mentioned in the TV show The Simpsons (i.e., Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie). There are interesting patterns that emerge from this visualization. Perhaps not surprisingly, Homer is mentioned most frequently, followed by Bart, then Marge, Lisa, and Maggie. However, the mentions of Homer, Bart, and Marge decreases rather steadily for the first twelve years of the show perhaps as viewers became increasingly familiar with the family. (Lisa and Maggie are mentioned infrequently, and their frequency of mention stays relatively stable). Another interesting twist is that in the past two years the name Marge has come to be mentioned more frequently than Bart, perhaps reflecting an increasing importance for this character in the show. For more information on this browser please see this blog post by Dr. Schmidt (warning: it contains swear words). To try it yourself, click here

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Monday, October 6, 2014

Wrestling Seasons
As we pass the equinox, days and nights are the same length and summer and winter pass each other across the hemispheres. This makes me sit up and take notice of time, and it makes me think about what, specifically, I should be noticing before I will miss having noticed it.

In the wake of my recent reflection on phenology, the observation of the change in plants and animals over seasons—and on my attempt to stockpile sustaining phenological moments to help layer in comforting seasonal emotions to offset less comfortable ones—I have been reconstructing for myself one of the favorite stories of my childhood about the struggle between summer and winter. 

I do not properly know the origins of this story. My father told it to me, and I remember him calling it a story of the people who live in the middle of North America. The story recounts a long struggle (I remember it as a leg wrestling struggle) between the personifications of the spirits of the warm season and the spirit of the cold season. As I recall, there is a lot at stake for the people in the place where they are fighting—their crops and their comfort—but I also remember the story of the long struggle being both epic but also well supported: not carnage, but steady and well matched engagement. And the engagement goes on so long that it is decided that one of them does not win, but rather that half will govern one part of the year, and this is one of the origin stories of the seasons.

As I think about the relationship between the seasons—and as the popular media grapples with the instability of the polar vortex, and what it might mean to adapt our culture to seasons that do not act as our stories have prepared us to expect—I keep imagining summer and winter wrapping their legs and holding shoulders. I imagine the conversations they have. Weather conversations are such a trope of doldrums, but my meteorologist office neighbor has revised my understanding of that, and their conversations that play out in my mind are compelling and perhaps revealing.

Imagining them, I want to know more about what this story told people, and to honor what it made them explore--but I am also happy I have explored my imagination of it in the weeks since my last post on seasons. It has reminded me how much of the function of stories is not just to tell us something, but to get us to notice what it might be like.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

Structure of a life

The film Boyhood, written and directed by Richard Linklater, offers interesting insights into how we construct stories of our lives. Filming took place a few days at a time, every year or so, over a twelve-year period, with the same characters, played by the same four principal actors. The film’s protagonist is Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane). He is six when the film starts. Then there is his older sister, Samantha (played by Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter). Then there are these children’s parents, who are separated: Olivia (played by Patricia Arquette) and Mason senior (played by Ethan Hawke).

The film seems in some ways like a documentary, but it's actually a fiction film. In its first half its structure is a series of episodes that all seem distinct, linked not by a plot but by a continuity of characters’ lives and relationships. So we see the affection between Mason and his mother, the children's squabbles, them being taken out by their father on days when he has custody, scenes in the class room, Mason being bullied by some boys who are larger than he is, Olivia introducing a man who will move into the family home, and become a stepfather to the two children.

In its second half, the film starts to take on a recognizable plot structure. This reflects psychological work of Dan McAdams (see, e.g. McAdams & McLean, 2013) on how people give themselves a sense of unity and purpose by remembering episodes in their lives and, from them, constructing narratives of selfhood: life stories. In the film, this narrative structure begins for Mason when he is given a camera and takes up photography. He starts to conceive his own aspirations, and to direct his own plans and actions. He wants to be an artist, and to go to college. Tilmann Habermas and Susan Bluck (2000) extend McAdams’s work by showing that, before adolescence, children’s cognitive capacities are such that they can remember events in their lives, but can’t yet link them together, or link such events to their current plans in a narrative way. The film gives a wonderfully seamless transition between its pre-adolescent episodic structure, and its adolescent narrative structure.

As Mason starts to make choices in his life, we see how he begins to influence his own character. He has been affected by his parents’ divorce, and not just by his first step-father who turns out to be a drunk and an abuser, but by a second step-father who is cold and rigid. Although Mason is attractive to others because he is temperamentally amiable and equable, in his identity-constructing conversation with his friends he takes on a stance that is cynical, and verges on nihilism. It’s another accomplishment of Boyhood that it leaves us wondering how this life might continue when the film stops.

Habermas, T., & Bluck, S. (2000). Getting a life: The emergence of the life story in adolescence. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 748-769.

Linklater, R. (2014). Writer and director. Boyhood. USA.

McAdams, D. P., & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 233-238.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Research Bulletin: Traumatic Brain Injury in Asterix and Obelix Comics

Here at OnFiction we are primarily concerned with employing the tools of psychological science to better understand the cognitive processes associated with narrative fiction. Fiction, however, can also be usefully employed to illustrate the principles of psychology. In a light-hearted article published in the journal Acta Neurochirurgica, Marcel Kamp (Heinrich-Heine-University) and his colleagues analyzed all of the instances of traumatic brain injury (TBI) that occurred within the popular Asterix comic books. For those unfamiliar with this series, it describes how a single tiny village in (formerly) Gaul successfully fends off the Roman occupation thanks to a magic potion that confers great strength to its warriors. Asterix, the Gaul warrior, and his friend Obelix (a menhir delivery man) have a great many adventures that inevitably involve Roman legionnaires (and others) getting thumped on the head an awful lot. The researchers read all of the Asterix comic books and noted evidence of TBI (e.g., raccoon eyes, A.K.A. periorbital ecchymoses), rated its severity, and noted the important contextual factors. Across all of the books there were a shocking number of instances of TBI, with over 700 suspected cases. Nearly all of the cases could be described as adult males receiving blunt-force trauma to the head within the context of an assault. Romans seem to have gotten the worst of it, accounting for 450 of the 704 cases, but the Gauls did not go unscathed, likely suffering a TBI in 120 cases. As far as perpetrators go, Asterix and Obelix were often involved (402 cases) although the other Gauls also got their lumps in (208 cases). Thankfully, all symptoms of TBI appeared to resolve within a few hours. One of the most important factors appears to be whether a helmet was worn by the victim or not. Although most victims wore a protective helmet, in the vast majority of cases this helmet was lost during the traumatic incident (88%), which resulted in a more severe TBI. This study holds important relevance for readers wishing to avoid TBI. Namely, leave the Gauls alone and keep your helmet chinstraps fastened.

Kamp, M. A., Slotty, P., Sarikaya-Seiwert, S., Steiger, H.-J., & Hänggi, D. (2011). Traumatic brain injuries in illustrated literature: experience from a series of over 700 head injuries in the Asterix comic books. Acta Neurochirurgica, 153, 1351–1355.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Research Bulletin: What attracts children to stories?

One needs only go through a child’s bedtime routine to quickly learn that children are highly attracted to stories. Children love storybooks, can be motivated by the chance to read storybooks (e.g., “brush your teeth or there will be no stories tonight!”), and form strong bonds with particular stories. That said, there has been little empirical work on what exactly attracts children to these stories. Jennifer Barnes and Paul Bloom (Yale) recently published a series of studies to explore this question. These researchers employed a simple paradigm, presenting children with two options of a possible book to read and recording the preference expressed. By systematically varying how the two options were introduced, they were able to assess whether certain aspects of stories are more appealing to children. In Study 1 (N = 32), they found that children between the ages 4 and 8 preferred stories that were about a person rather than an object (e.g., a boy at a picnic versus a blanket in the backyard). A second study (N = 16) found that 4 and 5 year-olds preferred stories about a person’s goals relative to a story about a person’s actions (e.g., a boy who wants to get a dog versus a boy who goes swimming). Lastly, a third study (N = 72) found that children between the ages of 4 and 8 had a preference for stories that had more characters (e.g., three boys at a circus versus one boy at the zoo), but did not have any preference with respect to stories containing more complex embedded mental states (e.g., a boy who doesn’t know he wants to win the big race versus a boy who wants to play baseball). As a whole, these studies demonstrate that it is the social nature of stories that attracts children, but that embedded mental-states (i.e., second-order theory-of-mind) do not seem to influence preference.

Barnes, J. L. & Bloom, P. (2014). Children’s preference for social stories. Developmental Psychology, 50, 498-503.

* For a copy of the full article, please contact R. Mar (e-mail in profile).

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