Monday, 29 August 2016

Literary reading and mentalizing

Since the publication from our research group that the reading of fiction as compared with non-fiction is associated with better empathy and understanding of others (Mar et al., 2006) people have done experimental tests on this issue. Among these, Kidd and Castano (2013) made a hit with their finding that reading literary fiction, as compared with reading popular fiction, prompted better empathy and theory-of-mind.

In a recent report from the University of L’Aquila, in Italy, Maria Pino and Monica Mazzi have taken some important further steps. Whereas previous experimental tests have used short stories and essays, Pino and Mazzi had 214 people read a whole book. The books were all about the same length, and participants were assigned to read one of two books of literary fiction, one of two of nonfiction, or one of two of science fiction. Also, whereas previous experimental studies on the issue have tended to use just one outcome measure, Pino and Mazzi used several. One set of measures was of what the authors call “Mentalizing.” They included a self-report test of empathy, a test of theory-of-mind in which participants were asked to say why people in the book they read did certain things, two tests in which participants were asked to infer from photographs what people were feeling, and an emotion attribution test in which participants were asked to infer from very short stories what people were feeling. A second set of measures was of what the authors call “Sharing.” These included scales that asked how participants were affected in emotional situations, how they behaved in certain social circumstances, and how emotional they felt in reaction to pictures and situations.

The results were that as compared with particpants who read a book of nonfiction or science fiction, those who read a book of literary fiction showed improved Mentalizing, but they showed no change in Sharing. Pino and Mazzi conclude that their results suggest that reading literary fiction may be helpful to people who have difficulties in understanding the minds of others.

Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342, 377-380.

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.

Pino, M. C., & Mazza, M. (2016). The use of "literary fiction" to promote mentalizing ability. PLoS One, 11(8). doi: org/10.1371/journal.pone.0160254

Image: Cover of George Saunders’s Tenth of December, one of the books of literary fiction read by participants in this study.
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Monday, 1 August 2016

Alternative Worlds

Haruki Murakami is acclaimed as one the most interesting present-day writers of short stories and novels. He is Japanese, but influenced by Western writers such as Flaubert and Kafka.

"The elephant vanishes," title story of a collection of short stories, is set in a small town in a suburb of Tokyo. The town used to have a zoo, but it closed. Only an elderly elephant remains, living in its own elephant house and looked after by its 63-year-old keeper, Noboru Watanabe. The outside part of the elephant house is solidly built cage, surrounded by a strong fence, ten feet high made of iron bars anchored in concrete. In addition the elephant has a steel cuff, a shackle, round its right hind leg, attached to a 30-foot-long chain. Between the evening of 17th May and the next day, the elephant is found to have vanished, along with its keeper.

Murakami is good at depicting the everyday world, and he is engaging to read. This story includes the political controversy in the town about whether to keep the elephant when the zoo closed and, when it vanishes, he depicts newspaper stories of a recognizable kind about the disappearance. The narrator is interested in the elephant and keeps a scrap-book of the published newspaper articles.

As readers we are on the edge of the ordinary: a small suburban community with a lone African elephant. But why the iron-bar fence and the steel shackle? We barely notice when the almost ordinary becomes strange, the barely plausible becomes impossible. The elephant did not escape. It is no-where to be found, despite extensive searches. And no large elephant footprints are seen on the muddy grounds around the elephant house. The steel shackle that used to be round the elephant's leg is still intact. It is still locked, and there are only two keys, both still in place, one locked up in the police station and one locked up at the fire station.

Then the narrator meets a young woman, as part of his work life. The two get on well together. They like each other. and something seems to be developing between them. They go out for a meal. The narrator cannot help talking to the woman about his preoccupation: the vanished elephant. The evening before it disappeared, after opening hours, he tells her, he was on a cliff overlooking the elephant house, observing the affection between the elephant and its keeper, which was not expressed during the day when the public would visit, and he noticed that the size difference between them started to get less. The elephant seemed to be shrinking.

Did the elephant get so small that it could slip out of its cuff and squeeze through the bars of its cage, and the bars of the fence, and go off with its keeper, of whom it seemed so fond?

The young woman avoids seeing the protagonist again. 

As it seems to me, Murakami is doing what the surrealists were trying to do, in depicting how the unconscious seeps into consciousness, and sometimes even pervades day-to-day life, though he does it better. His ordinary world and the alternative world interpenetrate in ways that enable each to throw light on the other, and enable us to think about our minds and ourselves in new ways. And, far more interesting than the surrealists' mere depictions, with Murakami there is always the relational. How does our individuality, with its peculiarities and unconscious aspects, affect our lives with others, and how do our relationships affect our sense of self?

Murakami, H. (1994). The elephant vanishes: Stories (A. Birnbaum & J. Rubin, Trans.). New York: Vintage.

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Monday, 11 July 2016

Books, Computers, Television, Mothers

Engagement in fiction starts with stories being read to young children, and with parents and other adults interacting with children in relation to books that have pictures and text. By middle childhood, reading is taught at school, while at home it’s in competition with the watching of television and with being on the computer for various reasons. With four colleagues, Johanna Rosenqvist, who is at the University of Helsinki, analyzed data from 381 typically developing North American children, who were between the ages of five and twelve, who had taken part in a study of neurocognitive development (see the report by Korkman et al. 2013). Assessments were analyzed for each child in five domains: Attention and Executive Functioning, Language, Memory and Learning, Social Perception, and Visuospatial Processing. A parent of the child (or in 5.5% of cases another adult such as a grandparent) gave information on how many hours a day the child watched television, how many hours a week the child was on a computer, and how many hours a week the child spent reading at home.

The amount of television that children watched had a significant and negative relationship with children’s scores in all five domains of functioning that had been analyzed: the more hours of television watching, the worse was children's neurocognitive processing. In contrast, the amount of computer use was significantly and positively associated with scores in the domains of Language, Memory and Learning, and Social Perception. The amount of reading children did was significantly and positively associated with scores the domains of Attention and Executive Functioning and Visuospatial Processing. The researchers say that when maternal education was lower than average, reading was also positively related to Memory and Learning. Overall, maternal education, rather that the media with which children spent their time, was the strongest positive predictor of all neurocognitive variables.

The researchers suggest that limiting the amount of time that children spend watching television might be a good idea but this may not get to the root of the issue. It seems likely that mothers who are more educated have the effects they do by encouraging their children to read.

Korkman, M., Lahti-Nuuttila, P., Laasonen, M., Kemp, S. L. and Holdnack, J. (2013). Neurocognitive development in 5- to 16-year-old North American children: A cross-sectional study. Child Neuropsychology, 19, 516-539.

Rosenqvist, J., Lahti-Nuuttila, P., Holdnack, J., Kemp, S. L., and Laasonen, M. (2016). Relationship of TV watching, computer use, and reading to children's neurocognitive functions. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 46, 11-21.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, School in Laos - Reading Time. Author: BigBrotherMouse, who gives permission for reproduction of this image.
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Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Research Bulletin: Do "You" Feel Things More Deeply than "I"?

You enter the room, spot the glances of your peers and know, that you are about to overcome your greatest weaknesses.

What does this line mean to you? Did you feel present? Empowered? Fearful? Some sort of emotional reaction would seem likely given the gravity of these words. But, intriguingly, it might not be the most obvious words in this sentence that drive your emotional reaction. Reading something like “overcome” or “greatest weaknesses” can certainly prompt strong feelings but this might be particularly the case thanks to the personal pronoun “you.” Based on fascinating research by Tad Brunyé and colleagues, It seems that reading something in the second person (using “you” as the pronoun) can elicit stronger reactions compared to reading an identical text using the first-person (i.e. “I”) (Brunyé et al., 2011). 
When we read a story, we don’t simply come to understand the information contained within the piece. Reading a story also involves imagining the events described and implied. In effect, we build a model in our minds of what’s going on in the story, known as a “situation model.” Situation models represent a wide range of information from the story, including how things look, smell, and feel, along with the emotions and actions of characters. It is these models that prompt us to embody the narrative, or feel as if we are a part of them, and all of this can be enhanced by the pronouns used. It has been shown that using the second-person (i.e. “you”) is more effective at having readers see things from a character’s perspective; compared to the first-person (i.e., “I”) or third-person (i.e., “he”). 
In a recent study, it was suggested that readers develop more in-depth situation models when they put themselves in the shoes of the characters in the story (Brunyé et al., 2011). This theory was tested by observing how readers represent events that either use “you” or “I” when describing the protagonist. In the experiment, each of the 48 native English-speaking undergraduates from Tufts University were told to read 8 passages, 4 of which used “you” as a pronoun and 4 of which used “I” as a pronoun. How well people understood each passage was measured by having people respond as quickly as possible to some yes-or-no comprehension questions. Importantly, arriving at the correct answer required participants to make some inferences regarding what was represented by the text, rather than simply remembering the text itself. In addition, before and after each passage read, emotions were measured. 

What the researchers found was that when “you” appeared in the passages, readers answered the comprehension questions more accurately and more quickly, compared to when they read the passages using “I.” This result was true only for information about the space described in the story (e.g. was the desk at the corner of the room?). Reading passages that employed “you” as the pronoun also resulted in greater shifts in emotion as a result of reading the passage, relative to the “I” passages. In other words, using the second-person (i.e., “you”) led readers to experience more profound emotions. 

It appears that stories that use the second-person may produce more emotional experiences in readers. But, why is this? The researchers suggest that reading about “you” can prompt readers to place themselves in the shoes of the characters they read, therefore thinking of themselves as being in the situation described and as a result, feel these emotions more profoundly. 
These findings might be useful for writers looking for a leg up in producing an emotional reaction in readers. Helping readers to feel a part of the story and see things from a character’s perspective, such as using “you” instead of “I,” will certainly help!

Posted by Michelle Vinitsky


Brunyé, T. T., Ditman, T., Mahoney, C. R., Augustyn, J. S., & Taylor, H. A. (2009). When you and I 
share perspectives: Pronouns modulate perspective-taking during narrative comprehension. Psychological Science, 20, 27-32.

Brunyé, T. T., Ditman, T., Mahoney, C. R., Taylor, H. A. (2011). Better you than I: Perspectives and 
emotion simulation during narrative comprehension. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 23, 659-666.

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Monday, 20 June 2016

Literary Reading

What distinguishes novels and short stories that are literary from those that are not? The issue has come into focus in the psychology of fiction with David Kidd and Emanuele Castano’s (2013) finding that reading stories that were literary was more likely to prompt an improvement of empathy and theory-of-mind than reading stories that achieved high popularity on Amazon.

In his book on literariness, David Miall (2006) proposed that one factor is that literary writers use styles such as foregrounding, which attract attention and prompt reflection. In S/Z Roland Barthes (1975) distinguished writerly reading from readerly reading. In writerly reading a person takes on a role like that of a writer, in creating the story that he or she experiences. In contrast, he says, readerly reading is a “kind of idleness” (p. 4). Another possibility is that literary works enable people to think and reflect on characters. This view was put by Frank Hakemulder (2000) in The moral laboratory. He said that: "The complexity of literary characters helps readers to have more sophisticated ideas about others’ emotions and motives than stereotyped characters in popular fiction” (p. 15).

Although it has often been thought that literature has a function to instruct, with Shelley’s (1819) idea that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” being an example, this may not be right. It is possible that the central quality of the literary is that it enables readers to feel and think for themselves (Djikic & Oatley, 2014).

Emy Koopman (2016) compared three different versions of a chapter from Anna Enquist’s literary novel, Counterpoint, about loss of a child. The original version contained a high level of semantic, phonetic, and grammatical foregrounding. In a second version, foregrounding that depended on imagery was removed: a version without imagery. In a third version all foregrounding was removed: a version without foregrounding. People assigned to read the original version scored higher on self-reported empathy than those who read the version without foregrounding. Koopman also found that people who read the original text experienced more ambivalent emotions such as “a sad beauty” or a “grey joy,” than those who read the version without foregrounding. Might this have indicated that as well as having their own feelings of empathy for others, readers of the original story were feeling for themselves in a writerly way? Readers of the original version were not however found to be more reflective than those who read other versions. What might be done, one may wonder, to see how literary stories may invite us not just to feel empathetically and ambivalently, but also to think reflectively, for ourselves?

Barthes, R. (1975). S / Z (R. Miller, Trans.). London: Cape.
Djikic, M., & Oatley, K. (2014). The art in fiction: From indirect communication to changes of the self. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 8, 498-505.
Hakemulder, F. (2000). The moral laboratory: Experiments examining the effects of reading literature on social perception and moral self-concept. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
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.
Miall, D. S. (2006). Literary reading: Empirical and theoretical studies. New York: Peter Lang.
Shelley, P. B. (1819). A defence of poetry. In C. Norman (Ed.), Poets on poetry (pp. 180-211). New York: Free Press.
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Thursday, 9 June 2016

Research Bulletin: Movie Genre Preference Influence Efficacy of Product Placement

When Lady Gaga and Beyoncé released a music video for their single, Telephone, the blatant and numerous product placements for brands such as Virgin Mobile and Hewlett-Packard incited backlash. These product placements, in which products are strategically placed or embedded within a medium for marketing purposes, has become increasingly prevalent (Russell & Belch, 2005; Wiles & Danielova, 2009). This increase may be unsurprising, as the strategy can be successful. But how does product placement work?

Product placement may be more effective when branded objects don’t appear centrally, but in the background of movies or TV shows. These products then become implicitly associated (unconsciously and gradually) with the emotional aspects of the viewer’s experience. This is known as evaluative conditioning, which can result in more positive implicit attitudes toward new stimuli (Cacioppo, Marshall-Goodell, Tassinary, & Petty, 1992).

With these ideas in mind, Christopher Redker (Ferris State University), Bryan Gibson, and Ian Zimmerman (Central Michigan University) conducted a study on background product placement to see if different variables affect implicit brand attitudes. Participants were first asked about their brand preferences towards Coke and Pepsi along with their attitudes towards the sci-fi genre. Those who had neutral attitudes towards Coke and Pepsi then watched a segment of a sci-fi movie. The experimental group watched a segment of the movie that included background product placement for Coke, with the brand appearing on a billboard in the background. The control group watched a segment of the movie that did not include any product placement for Coke. 

After the movie segment, participants were asked more questions about their brand attitudes. Explicit attitudes toward the four brands were measured using a 7-point Likert scale, disguised as a pilot study irrelevant to the first half of the study. Implicit brand attitudes were measured using Implicit Association Tests, in which Coke and Pepsi were paired with negative, positive, or self attributes.

Viewers who liked sci-fi had more positive implicit brand attitudes after watching the clip, compared to those who had other movie genre preferences. In addition, those who disliked sci-fi shifted their implicit brand attitudes to be more negative. Explicit brand attitudes, in contrast, were shown to be unaffected by product placement.

This study illustrates how implicit brand attitudes are affected by background product placement in a movie as a function of genre and genre preferences. 

Posted by Jennifer Ip

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

Cacioppo, J. T., Marshall-Goodell, B. S., Tassinary, L. G., & Petty, R. E. (1992). Rudimentary determinants of attitudes: Classical conditioning is more effective when prior knowledge about the attitude stimulus is low than high. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28, 207–233.

Redker, C., Gibson, B., & Zimmerman, I. (2013). Liking of Movie Genre Alters the Effectiveness of Background Product Placements. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 35, 249–255.

Russell, C. A., & Belch, M. (2005). A managerial investigation into the product placement industry. Journal of Advertising Research, 45, 73–92.

Wiles, M. A., & Danielova, A. (2009). The worth of product placement in successful films: An event study analysis. Journal of Marketing, 73, 44–63.

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Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Research Bulletin: Empathy and Fantasy Role Playing Games

Negative stereotypes about “gamers”, those who play all kinds of games (e.g., videogames, boardgames, etc.), are everywhere. Indeed, those who “game” are often thought of as lazy, nerdy, or even out of touch with reality. Yet while we often clump gamers together as one big group, the act of gaming can actually encompass countless different types of activities appealing to a wide variety of different people. One particularly interesting type of gaming is the fantasy role-playing game (RPG), in which players create their own fictional characters as well as develop the fictional worlds where those characters exist.
Playing a fantasy RPG, then, is a little bit like doing improv in drama class: players create characters (deciding upon the characters’ qualities, attitudes and beliefs) and play “make believe” with others embodying their own characters. And just as drama classes have their benefits (Schellenberg, 2004), research is beginning to show that there may be some positive aspects to playing fantasy RPGs, which so far seem to have flown under the radar. Specifically, because this type of gaming requires players to take another’s perspective, it has been suggested that people who play fantasy RPGs may have a higher capacity for empathy: the ability to share in someone else’s thoughts, feelings, and perspective on the world (Davis, 1994; Wondra & Ellsworth, 2015). 

Recently, a study was conducted that examined this very possibility (Rivers, Wickramasekera II, Pekala & Rivers, 2016). Researchers measured levels of four distinct types of empathy in a group of self-proclaimed fantasy RPG-players, as well as how “absorbed” (i.e., “lost in the story”) they tended to feel while playing. When the authors compared these levels to the general population, they found that fantasy RPG-players scored significantly higher than average on every facet of empathy. In addition, the more absorbed a player reported being, the higher their self-reported empathy and vice versa. Intriguingly, the authors note that this association between engagement with stories and engagement with people is found not only in the “gamer” population, but also in the general public. So, gamers tend to be more empathic the more they become immersed in the game, and the same is observed among those who have a tendency to become highly immersed in other types of fictional stories. These results are correlational, of course, and so it is not clear whether the act of playing fantasy RPGs improves empathy, whether more empathic people gravitate toward these types of games, or some other factor plays a role.

Of course, the stigma behind gaming remains, but it’s time to pay attention to its advantages. Although many of us are quick to dismiss gamers as out of touch, we may in fact be the ones missing out on a crucial skill of human connection. 

Posted by Shaina List.

Davis, M. H. (1994). Empathy: A social psychological approach. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Rivers, A., Wickramasekera II, I. E., Pekala, R. J., & Rivers, J. A. (2016). Empathic features and absorption in fantasy role-playing. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 58, 286- 294.

Schellenberg, E. G. (2004). Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychological Science, 15, 511–514.

Wondra, J., & Ellsworth, P. (2015). An appraisal theory of empathy and other emotional experiences. Psychological Review, 122, 411–428.

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Monday, 25 April 2016

Stories of the Earth: Prince reminds us how much care it takes to live with each other

The week of Earth Day was intense in Minneapolis this year. Earth Day eve, already a time of pensive introspection given the reminder of climate change this year has been (the pile of street snow that usually would not be melted at the end of my driveway for another month has been gone for over two months already!) and ongoing struggles with dire racial inequalities, also brought the news of Prince's death. As my hometown's most notable hero, Prince has inspired not only the overnight purplization of the city (everyone I encountered on Earth Day was wearing purple, and murals like the one pictured went up immediately), but also an Earth Day sung in and out with all night mourning dance parties. 

I will remain brief and encourage readers to go back to watching amazing Prince music videos and sharing their stories with friends, but will also share a quick reflection of my own. Listening to and watching the outpouring of remembrance and appreciation amongst all my friends (most of whom grew up here, in the inspiring and liberating purple shadow -- and who are giving bookish tributes, #princerevelry, and more), a significant part of what I am hearing echoed is the caring work that makes it possible to live with each other. Van Jones emotional remembrance perhaps has made this most visible for people, opening up the view to Prince's humanitarianism, if they hadn't been paying attention to visible work such as Planet Earth or his more subtle involvement building and funding Green for All and #YesWeCode. Watching those music videos (such as this one with Beyonce) in this light reveals ways of listening and responding that seem important to learn from (this moment, this move!) -- they make Prince so sexy and so loved partly because they show graceful and creative ways of acting on paying attention and caring. 

Caring enough to continue living here seems like one important way to practice our celebration of Earth and its communities, and trying to pay attention, then figuring out what to DO about what we've noticed, like Prince, seems a good tribute.

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Monday, 18 April 2016

Reading Fiction Improves Vocabulary

If you want to test your vocabulary, you can go to this website (click here). It’s a quick and easy test and lots of people have taken it. As a reader of OnFiction, you might like to go to the blog (click here) written by the people who run this test, who have graphed vocabulary scores of 287,314 people who had taken the test by May 2013 in relation to age and to the amount of fiction the test takers read. The results, shown in the figure above, are that the more fiction you read, the better is your vocabulary, that this effect has already started by the age of 15, and that your vocabulary score levels out by middle age. In the first half of life, the size of the vocabulary of people who read a lot of fiction is about twice that of people who read not much fiction.

You might also like to know that the effect of reading fiction is not due to people who are more educated, or have higher IQ, liking to read more fiction. Research shows that it’s not. Research of this kind started with the very important work of Keith Stanovich, Richard West, and colleagues (e.g. Stanovich, West & Harrison, 1995) who did two very cunning things. First they conceived the Author Recognition Test, a list of names, some of which are of authors and some of which are not. You check the names you recognize as authors. Stanovich, West and their colleagues have shown that scores (numbers of authors’ names correctly checked) on this test give a very close proxy to the amounts of reading people do as measured by daily diaries, questionnaires and  behavioural means. The second cunning thing Stanovich, West, et al., did was to take each outcome measure, such as vocabulary, and by means of a statistical technique called hierarchical regression, look to see the influence of everything that might affect it: age, IQ, level of education, gender and so on. The statistical technique allows one both to see the influence of each factor in turn, and then subtract out that influence. What they found was that after all the other influences had been subtracted out, the amount of reading people did predicted not only their vocabulary, but also other verbal abilities which include general knowledge, and verbal fluency.

Recently, Raymond Mar and Marina Rain (2015) used a version of the Author Recognition Test (click here) which they had modified to separate the amount of fiction and non-fiction that people read. They found that the effects found by Stanovich, West, et al. including superior scores on vocabulary, were due not to the reading of expository non-fiction, but to reading fiction. So the result found by the testyourvocab group is solid.

Why should this be? There are probably several reasons. One is that it’s in fiction, rather than in expository non-fiction that the fullest range of words in a language is to be found. Expository non-fiction often contains technical terms, but not most of the range of words in a language. Another reason is that many of the people who read fiction tend to read a lot, and in that way tend to come across more words than people who don’t read much, or who only read expository non-fiction. This effect may be especially true for people who read literary fiction.

Mar, R. A., & Rain, M. (2015). Narrative fiction and expository nonfiction differentially predict verbal ability. Scientific Studies of Reading, 19, 419-433.

Stanovich, K. E., West, R. F., & Harrison, M. R. (1995). Knowledge growth and maintenance across the life span: The role of print exposure. Developmental Psychology, 31, 811-826.
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Monday, 11 April 2016

Are shrubs the hipster scented candle? Shrubs and Fermentation, part 2 of 2

As I should perhaps have explained in my prior essay struggling through the social justice implications of sugars and flavorings, shrubs are intense extractions of aromatic compounds from plant matter, contributing a much wider and more idiosyncratic flavoring of beverages. They are often extracted by the combination of fruits, herbs, and spices with sugar and cider vinegar, the active bacterial cultures of which continue to ferment the sugars and fruits, creating novel but recognizable flavors—often from produce that might otherwise have spoiled, such as softening fruits.

Given contemporary interest in mixology, shrubs represent a rediscovery of longstanding folk foodways, such as making switchel (highlighted in the haying scene featured in my childhood copy of the Little House on the Prairie cookbook, for example). They are often also used to perform claims about the tastes of place, taking advantage of locally characteristic flavors and preserving them in relatively storable — and marketable — ways.

Shrubs are also an excellent example of what are often characterized as hipster approaches to consumption and production, emphasizing artisanal craft and unique and intense experience, particularly in the mundane materiality of everyday life. As part of a recent project exploring the uses of edible signal species of climate change, I have been learning about shrubs, and experiencing their intensity has led me to pose this question about whether they represent something like a hipster version of scented candles, a question I think is interesting beyond the superficial similarity of enjoyable aroma.

As a person who has always avoided artificial scents because of unpleasant effects such as headache and respiratory tract pain, I have often been dubious about the appeal of cinnamon-scented stores, smelly candles and fruity personal care items, and air fresheners in general. (And research on the effects of phthalates and other substances used in these scented products reinforces my concern and suggests that people with heightened chemical sensitivities to such substances may well be providing coal-mine canary services to the broader populace.) However, the half hour I spent sniffing at my first shrub once it had brewed (when I had rescued impulse-buy strawberries and some leftover parsley) gave me a sudden appreciation for the sensory pleasure that scented candles must provide for others less punished by them!

Recognizing the joy and beauty of this sensory enjoyment — whether it's a more protected and less acute one, or a more sensation seeking version — makes me also recognize some of the social dynamics caught up in the celebration of the invitation to inhabit a particular place through the senses, or the deriding of poor taste around someone else's scent preferences. As with the precious approach to many food and "lifestyle" choice, things like scent can be used not only for enjoyment, but to perform that enjoyment in ways that signal class positioning as well as empathy for other (as with sugar boycotts). Implications for the ways we craft narratives of of the senses may include more attention to the way we invite others to share or explore our experiences of sensory delight, without dismissiveness or judgment and with attention to the embedding of privilege in foodie preciousness. (A wonderful film treatment of taste this evokes is The Taste of Others!)

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Monday, 4 April 2016

Research Bulletin: Does Music Influence How we See Characters in Movies?

When watching a movie, music plays a significant role in how we interpret the story and its characters. Berthold Hoeckner, Emma Wyatt, Jean Decety, and Howard Nusbaum (University of Chicago) were interested in how music in film might affect empathy. They predicted that music will serve as a vehicle for the audience to better understand and identify with a character’s feelings. Ambiguous scenes were paired with either melodramatic or thriller music to investigate whether the type of music can influence the viewers’ reactions.  Participants were asked to either view several film clips accompanied by either melodramatic or thriller music (N = 16) or view the same clips with no background music (N = 16). Subsequently, the participants completed questionnaire about the how likeable the character was and how sure they were of their ability to pinpoint the character’s thoughts. Additionally, participants partook in a recall task involving the identification of the character’s emotions based on still images from the previously presented clips. What they found was that viewers who saw clips accompanied by music saw the character differently compared to those who saw clips without music. Moreover, different effects were observed depending on the type of music that was used. Melodramatic music led viewers to see the character as more likeable and gave them more confidence in knowing what the character was thinking, compared to no music. In contrast, thriller music made participants feel more uncertain about what the character was thinking and decreased how likeable they saw the character. Both genres of music also evoked certain emotions in the participants. Melodramatic music elicited feelings of love, whereas thriller music aroused anger. These emotions were highly related to the participants’ likeability ratings. Music helped the audience relate to the character by illustrating the character’s emotions and arousing those emotions in the participants. The results suggest that music can influence our ability to emphasize with characters. Although this study demonstrated a strong connection between film music and empathy, further studies are needed to investigate how the way we process film music can affect our emotional attachment. 

Posted by Lilach Dahoah Halevi.

** For a copy of this article, please contact RM (e-mail in About section)

Hoeckner, B. Wyatt, E. W., Decety, J., & Nusbaum, H. (2011). Film music influences how viewers relate to movie characters. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 5, 146–153.

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Monday, 21 March 2016

Research Bulletin: Effects of Video Games and Television Series

Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues’ (2001) Mind in the Eyes Test has become a preferred way of measuring empathy and theory of mind in adults, and it has been extremely useful in research on effects of reading that we have discussed in OnFiction, see most recently our report of the study by Jessica Black and Jennifer Barnes (2015a) who found in an experiment that reading fiction improved social understanding, as measured by this test, but did not improve non-social understanding (click here). In the Mind in the Eyes Test a person looks at 36 photos of people’s eyes, as if seen through a letter box, and for each photo is asked to choose one of four terms to say what the person is thinking or feeling. This image is one of them, and for it the four terms from which to choose are “joking,” “flustered,” “desire,” “convinced.” The correct answer is “Desire.”

In exploring such effects, until now all the studies that I know had people read texts such as short stories or essays. I have been asked: What about films? What about video games? Usually I say that in principle they should be the same. Now Daniel Bormann and Tobias Greitemeyer (2015) have done a study that answers this question.

Bormann and Greitemeyer had people play a single-player, exploration video game in which a student comes home to her house after a year abroad to find her family missing. The researchers write that the game is played: “By analyzing different clues, such as voice records on answering machines, documents, books, and everyday objects that are distributed in the house, the player gradually reveals bits of the plot. Key elements of the story are narrated by the protagonist’s sister, in form of spoken diary entries. Gone Home was critically acclaimed, above all for excellence in narrative” (p. 648). There were three groups, each of 37 people. In one group the participants were introduced to the game by being given the game’s description from the developer’s website, and in this way, the researchers say, the participants would have in mind “in-game storytelling rather than superficial game characteristics.” Those in the second group also played Gone home, but they were introduced to it by asking them to “register, memorize, and evaluate technical and game play properties of the game as objectively and accurately as possible.” The third group was called neutral, and participants in this group played a different game, an adventure called Against the wall. People in the first group, the narrative condition, achieved better scores on the Mind in the Eyes Test than those in the other two groups.

A comparable effect has now also been found, using the Mind in the Eyes Test by Black and Barnes (2015b) with people who watched an award-winning television series.

So, the effect of fiction on improving empathy and theory of mind is not just due to the inferences of reading. It occurs with other media and, if I may say so, that is perhaps as it should be.

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.

Black, J. E., & Barnes, J. L. (2015a). The effects of reading material on social and non-social cognition. Poetics, 52, 32-43.

Black, J. E., & Barnes, J. L. (2015b). Fiction and social cognition: The effect of viewing award-winning television dramas on theory of mind. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 9, 423-429.

Bormann, D., & Greitemeyer, T. (2015). Immersed in virtual worlds and minds: Effects of in-game storytelling in immersion, need satisfaction, and affective theory of mind. Social Psychological Personality Science, 6, 646-652.

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