Monday, June 29, 2015

Fiction writers’ perspective-taking no better than other people’s

In a striking recent article Theanna Bischoff and Joan Peskin (2014) asked whether writers of fiction have better abilities of perspective taking—inferring the mental states of others (theory-of-mind)—than people who are not writers. In a survey, the researchers found that the general public did believe that fiction writers were better than average at perspective taking. When the issue was put to the test on writers and non-writers, however, no such superiority was found. Bischoff and Peskin studied 20 people who had a book of fiction published by an independent publishing house (established writers), 20 people who were enrolled in a fiction writing course, or who had published in a magazine, or who had self-published (intermediate writers), and 20 people who didn’t write fiction (the control group). Three outcome measures were used: the Mind in the Eyes test, in which people looked at 36 photographs of people’s eyes, as if seen through a letter box, and chose from four adjectives what the photographed person was thinking or feeling; the Interpersonal Perception Task in which people viewed 15 video clips of people in interaction, and for each clip answered a question about what was going on; and the Levels of Embedded Mental StatesTask, in which people read two vignettes and answered a series of true/false questions about the embedded mental states of the characters in the vignettes. The researchers also asked their participants to provide sample pieces of fiction, and had these rated for quality by independent expert assessors. 

Bischoff and Peskin found no difference between established writers, intermediate writers, and the control group in their peformance on any of the outcome measures. Nor was there any relationship between participants’ performance in the perspective taking tasks and the expertly rated quality of the writing they supplied.

This result came a surprise to the researchers. There is now good evidence that reading fiction promotes better perspective taking in readers. Bischoff and Peskin review these results. So the difference between the current experiment on writers and the previous data on readers of fiction prompts a question. Are writing and reading fiction different, and if so, in what ways?

Bischoff and Peskin suggest that their finding can be explained by perspective taking being very specific to context. I think this may be right. The way I see it is that, first, in reading fiction one can sample across a wide variety of societies, personality types, and circumstances so that reading extends the range of one’s experience of others, and second that in reading fiction, particularly artistic fiction, one has to make inferences about what characters might be thinking, feeling, and wanting. It seems likely that these factors contribute to the better perspective-taking abilities of people who read a lot of fiction. In contrast, as Djikic, Oatley and Peterson (2006) have shown, fiction writers tend to be preoccupied with negative emotions, and these no doubt are their own emotions. In their fiction, writers typically explore implications of such emotions. Hence although writers often depict particular kinds of circumstance, they are not extending their experience of a range of circumstances in the way that people can do when reading. Because fiction writers tend to project themselves into their writing, it may be that the skills of writing don’t involve any more perspective-taking than occurs for everyone in day-to-day life.

It will be fascinating to see how the similarities and differences between writing and reading fiction, which Bischoff and Peskin have uncovered, will be uncovered in further research.

Bischoff, T., & Peskin, J. (2014). Do fiction writers have superior perspective taking ability? Scientific Study of Literature, 4, 125-149. 

Djikic, M., Oatley, K., & Peterson, J. (2006). The bitter-sweet labor of emoting:  The linguistic comparison of writers and physicists. Creativity Research Journal, 18, 191-197.

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Monday, June 22, 2015

Research Bulletin: How Other People Influence Our Experience of Reading

Reading a critic’s review of a movie or asking a friend their opinion before you read a book shapes your expectations more than you may think. A recent study by Dr. Randi Shedlosky-Shoemaker and colleagues (2011) investigated how a peer’s evaluation influenced readers’ enjoyment and engagement in a story, known as transportation.  Participants were required to read the short story Sunday in the Park by Bel Kaufman, with the influence of peer reviews examined in two different studies.
In the first experiment, 106 undergraduate students were randomly assigned to read reviews of the text that were either favourable or unfavourable, before they read the story themselves. After reading the story, the participants were asked to also write a review. Not surprisingly, those who read positive reviews expected the story to be better than those that read negative reviews. Participants who read positive reviews also wrote more positive comments compared to those who read negative comments. Since the nature of the review was randomly determined, it appears that reviews do influence our perception of a text.
In the second experiment, 163 participants were told by the experimenters that they were the last group in a three group experiment. They were asked to read the evaluations of the text by both the previous groups before reading the story themselves. Reading favourable evaluations made participants focus on the positive attributes of the story. In contrast, reading unfavourable evaluations made them criticize the same things that were criticized in the reviews they had read. When there were inconsistent evaluations (e.g., one negative and one positive) the reader paid closer attention to the story. This led to increased engagement with the story, presumably to try and resolve the inconsistency between the two evaluations.

This pair of studies shows how peer evaluations can influence how we see a story, shaping our own opinions and attention in complex ways. Not only are we swayed by positive and negative reviews, but contradictory reviews can also make us more attentive to a story and its various aspects. 

Shedlosky-Shoemaker, R., Costabile, K., DeLuca, H., & Arkin, R. (2011). The Social Experience of Entertainment Media: Effects of others’ evaluations on our experience. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 23, 111-121.

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

Posted by Guneet Daid.

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Monday, June 15, 2015

Finding Base, with love for Paul

On the occasion of celebrating Paul (a cousin of mine who was a well-loved wrestling coach in New York and who passed this week), I want to share a small story in three parts about finding base, a kind of metaphysical version of a wrestling parable I realize I learned from him.

The soundtrack for the story is the recent arrangement of Meghan Trainor’s ‘All about the Bass’ by the Postmodern Jukebox: I know it’s about bass and treble, not base and instability, but it makes a nice complement to Paul’s lifelong intense insistence on the enjoyment of the tenor.

The part of the story you should feel in your body is something I’m finally picking up from studying yoga with people learning to inhabit their bodies more fully even through disability: it’s all about the base. Bipedalism isn’t great to us in terms of a base of stability, and as we sway and twist under the various vicissitudes of life, we grip and slacken and may not often be reminded how to settle back into all the points of contact with balance we have – spreading the load out as easily as we can lift it, securing those points of contact with the floor, moving fluidly from there like Paul’s wrestlers.

Paul has been a solid part of all of the lives of my whole generation of our family. Rocked back on his heels, arms folded or in his pocket or gesturing along to his whistle, Paul made us feel where we were standing, and made us appreciate it by the intensity and effort he put into being there.

Growing up as a child of our extended family so palpably (my grandfather’s brother, his father, was dead before his childhood) – stretched between his visits and so visibly sharing his need, his toughly vulnerable quest to navigate a degree of lostness – he gave us so much coaching in the material and spiritual practice of how to relax into things, even when they were sad. And I really appreciate that coaching right now, as I tend to shift up toward my toes in the best of situations.

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Monday, June 8, 2015

Research Bulletin: Science Fiction and Enjoying the Company of Robots

Science fiction transports readers into a realm similar to reality, but dominated by imaginary futuristic technology. The characters in this genre often include robots as well as people, and many of these robots are strikingly similar to humans. Soon, they won’t only exist in these stories. As technology becomes more advanced, scientists are creating robots that are increasingly life-like. Not quite humans, yet not what’s expected when you think of robots, they make people feel strange and ill at ease, an occurrence termed the “uncanny valley”.

Researchers Martina Mara and Markus Appel of the University of Koblenz-Landau in Germany conducted a field study to see if reading a science fiction story about robots could create a bridge across the “uncanny valley,” helping people be more accepting of robots. At the Austrian technology museum “Ars Electronica Center,” 72 participants interacted for the first time with a human-like, puppet-sized robot named “Telenoid.” Telenoid is capable of transmitting the voice, facial expressions and gestures of its human operator. 

Before the interaction, these participants were randomly selected to engage in various activities. People either read a short story featuring Telenoid as the main character, read a factual pamphlet about Telenoid, or read nothing at all. The interactions themselves were kept identical across all participants, and the human operator of Telenoid didn’t know what the participants had read before the interaction.

Participants who had read the story about Telenoid saw the robot as more human-like and felt more comfortable with it. They also saw Telenoid as more appealing and thought more positively of it, compared to those who read only facts or nothing at all. Those who read facts about Telenoid or nothing at all tended to feel that the experience was more eerie and had more ill thoughts toward the robot. Reading a story about Telenoid appeared to help participants place it in a context, adjust their understanding, and prepare them for their interaction with the robot. 

People may begin to feel uneasy as technology advances and introduces strange humanoid machines into our lives. It seems that fictional stories can help to decrease these feelings by adjusting readers to these new technologies, in a sense helping readers cross the “uncanny valley” and feel more comfortable around robots.

Mara, M. & Appel, M. (2015). Science fiction reduces the eeriness of android robots: A field experiment. Computers in Human Behavior, 48, 156-162.

- By Helen (Hongjin) Zhu

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Thursday, June 4, 2015

Quick Hits: Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew, How to get children to read during the Summer

Many of us grew up on the books of Franklin W. Dixon (The Hardy Boys) and Carolyn Keene (Nancy Drew). But as we grew older, we soon realized that these weren't real people and that the books must have been written by someone else. Who did write these books? How did it all work? This article in The Atlantic magazine solves the mystery. 

Elementary school students who don't read over the Summer fall significantly behind their peers who do. This is just one reason why many have fretted over how to create a love for reading. How can we encourage students to read on their own time? This article in the Washington Post provides a great summary of research that points toward an enticingly simple solution: stop assigning books and let students choose their own.

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Monday, June 1, 2015

Project Bookmark Canada

A lovely idea of Miranda Hill was to start and continue to administer Project Bookmark Canada. (We had a Quick Hit on the Project in April last year, click here.) Each bookmark is a plaque on a sturdy metal post set into the sidewalk at a particular place. The first Bookmark was to Michael Ondaatje. It’s on the Bloor-Danforth Viaduct in Toronto. Ondaatje wrote about the viaduct in his novel, In the skin of a lion, which is about about workers involved in the building of the city. There are bookmarks across Canada, from Vancouver in British Columbia to Woody Point in Newfoundland.

When I am out walking and I see a plaque, I stop and read it. In London, England, I like the many blue plaques on the sides of houses. They began to be set up by the Society of Arts. Then the scheme was taken over by the London County Council, and more recently by English Heritage. 

If I move to a new place, even for a short time, I feel at first without bearings. To combat this disorientation I read writings of people who lived there, and plaques are wonderfully helpful. When I lived near South End Green in Hampstead, London, for three months, I saw a plaque to George Orwell on a building at the corner of Pond Street and South End Road. The place is now a cafĂ©, Le Pain Quotidien. It used to be the second-hand bookshop, Booklovers’ Corner, in which Orwell worked during the afternoons for 15 months. The job allowed him time to write in the mornings. A short walk away, at 77 Parliament Hill, on the edge of the Heath, is a house in which he had rented a furnished room. It has a plaque put up by the Hampstead Plaque Fund. The book Orwell was writing when he worked at the bookshop was Keep the aspidistra flying. I hadn't read it, so then I did. I went to look at 31 Willow Road, not far away, which I imagined to be 31 Willowbed Road, the house in which Orwell has this novel’s protagonist, Gordon Comstock, rent a room. Comstock works in a bookshop in the afternoons, so that, like Orwell, he can write in the mornings. The novel helped give me a sense of that place.

To track down what Orwell had been writing when he worked at South End Green, I had to do a bit of research. I didn't mind doing that, but a very good idea for the Canadian plaques, which can give a start to one's research, is not just to give the name and dates of an author, but to have some 500 words of a piece of poetry or fiction that relate to the spot where the plaque is set up. I feel very pleased to have been present at the unveiling of the Bookmark at the corner of College Street and Manning Street, in Toronto, which bears a passage from Anne Michaels’s book Fugitive Pieces. Here is part of the passage that the plaque bears.
Up Grace, along Henderson, up Manning to Harbord I whimpered; my spirit shape finally in familiar clothes and, with abandon, flinging its arms the stars. 
But the street wasn’t empty as I thought. Startled, I saw that the blackness was perforated with dozens of faces. A forest of eyes, of Italian and Portuguese and Greek ears; whole families sitting silently on lawnchairs and front steps On dark verandahs, a huge invisible audience, cooling down from their small hot houses, the lights off to keep away the bugs.

Image: Anne Michaels on the left and Miranda Hill on the right, at the unveiling of the Bookmark at College Street and Manning Street in Toronto.

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