Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Quick Hit: Photos of Reading

Photographer Steve McCurrry (Magnum) has a beautiful new book out by Phaidon of people all around the world engaged in reading. Many more examples and additional information can be found in this BBC article

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Monday, 2 January 2017

Writing and Inspiration

Do writers who feel themselves to be inspired enable their readers to feel the same way? This is the question that Todd Thrash and his colleagues asked in a recent paper (Thrash et al., 2016). The authors quote Maurice Bowra (1951) who wrote “inspired words create life in us because they are themselves alive” (p. 36).

Thrash and his colleagues gave 195 students half an hour to write a poem on “the human condition,” and then to rate how inspired they felt when writing their poem. All the poems were scored on a series of measures by independent raters. The most important independent rating was of Insightfulness: “The degree to which the poem transcends the obvious or superficial and discerns the hidden nature of things.” All the poems were also read by 220 student readers, who rated how inspired they felt on reading each poem.

The main results of the study were that poems by writers who felt more inspired when writing elicited more inspiration from their average readers, and that the effect was moderated by the independent ratings of the poems’ Insightfulness.

What is inspiration? For the researchers the answer is indicated by the scale of nine items, which they gave their student writers. The items included, “I felt inspired while expressing my ideas,” and ‘I was inspired to revise this poem.” It may be, therefore, that what the researchers call “inspiration” is of writers having the sense that they have had a good idea to write about, with the additional sense that its wording catches something that is worthwhile, and is of a kind that can be offered to readers. It may be interesting to wonder what other ways there may be of thinking about this kind of mental state when one is writing.

Bowra, M. (1951). Inspiration and poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Thrash, M. T., Maruskin, L., Moldovan, E. G., Olevnick, V., & Belzac, W. C. (2016). Writer-reader contagion of inspiration and related states: Conditional process analyses within a cross-classified writer x reader framework. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, advance online publication.

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Monday, 7 November 2016

Open Mind

The story of Haruki Murakami's novel Colorless Tsukuru Tasaki and his years of pilgrimage is that of a quest. In late adolescence, Tsukuru had been one of a group of five young people who were very close. They were not just friends, they thought and acted almost as one. Then, in his second year at university, his four friends cut him off, and told him not to get in touch with any of them again ... ever. It seemed as if he had done something, but he did not know what it was. For months he was extremely depressed. He wanted to commit suicide. The novel is a pilgrimage in which Tsukuru journeys through his life, and tries to find out what the meaning of all this had been.

In his twenties Tsukuru meets Haida, a young man of about the same age as himself, and they become close. Haida is a graduate student who says that his idea in life is "to think deeply about things. Contemplate ideas in a pure, free sort of way ... kind of like constructing a vacuum" (p. 48).

I think what Haida is talking about here is a kind of reflection, a kind of contemplation, a kind of mindfulness, in which in the "vacuum" one lets thoughts just come into one's mind. I think this is the mode in which Murakami may write his books. It is the mode in which I write mine. It's the mode one enters when one takes up a literary novel or short story, and lets it in. One puts aside one's mundane concerns and goals, and opens one's mind to whatever may occur.

Whereas in the East, a kind of meditation has grown up in which one concentrates on one particular thing, perhaps one's breathing, and allows other thoughts that enter the mind just to drift out of it without paying attention to them, this kind of mode is an opposite. It is a welcoming of all the thoughts that come into the mind, an allowing of them to move around in there, to make associations with other thoughts, with memories, with ideas. It's on these kinds of associations, when they are meaningful to us, that we may concentrate, whether we are writing or reading.

We have featured Murakami's short stories before in OnFiction (click here). In some of these he starts by depicting what seems to be an ordinary world. Then, one finds that growing out of it, or growing alongside it, is an extra-ordinary world, something like a dream world. This idea is developed further in Colorless Tsukuru Tasaki. Just as, in A midsummer-night's dream, Shakespeare was able to present us with a dream world, in order to see our day-to-day world more clearly, so too is Murakami. The dream-world is something like the unconscious. It's composed of inward meanings. Moving between the two—the ordinary world and a dream world—is part of this novel. By means of such movements Tsukuro, and we, are able to think about ourselves, and each other, and our relationships with others, in new and clarifying ways. In life, or as one makes one's own pilgrimage through this book, in the vacuum that one may create in the mind, thoughts and memories can connect with each other and, by means of associations between and among them, we can change from the sometimes colourless, to the more colourful. That is to say that among our thoughts, memories, and reflections, we can choose what is important for us, and understand it more deeply.

Murakami, H. (2014). Colorless Tsukuru Tasaki and his years of pilgrimage (P. Garbriel, Trans.). Toronto: Anchor Canada.

Shakespeare, W. (1600). A midsummer night's dream. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1995).

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Monday, 24 October 2016

A Single Brush with Fiction Does Not Improve Mental-State Inferencing Ability

A paper published in 2013 entitled Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind by David Kidd and Emanuele Castano may not have as simple a story behind it as its title would seem to imply. The results of the paper, which were widely reported in mainstream media, showed that reading a short piece of literary fiction immediately alters the reader’s ability to infer the mental states of others, or theory-of-mind ability. However, a recent paper attempting to replicate the findings of Kidd and Castano failed to find any such effect of reading literary fiction. 
The replication attempt, Does Reading a Single Passage of Literary Fiction Really Improve Theory of Mind? An Attempt at Replication (2016) by Maria Panero and her colleagues, is a combined analysis of three separate studies that each sought to replicate Kidd and Castano’s findings. All three studies asked one group of participants to read literary fiction and compared performance on a subsequent mental-state inference task to that for those who read other things (popular fiction, non-fiction) or nothing at all. All of the replication attempts used the same texts as in the original Kidd and Castano study. 
The studies reported by Panero and colleagues found no significant difference in mental-state inferencing ability after reading literary fiction compared to other kinds of texts or nothing at all. However, what they did find was a consistent replication of a correlation between lifelong exposure to fiction and performance on the theory-of-mind task, reported previously by others (e.g., Mar et al., 2006). In light of these results, Panero and colleagues advise against jumping to the conclusion that a brief exposure to literary fiction results in immediate gains in mental-state inferencing ability. 

Posted by Krithika Sukumar

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

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.

Panero, M. E., Weisberg, D. S., Black, J., Goldstein, T. R., Barnes, J. L., Brownell, H., & Winner, E. (2016, September 19). Does Reading a Single Passage of Literary Fiction Really Improve Theory of Mind? An Attempt at Replication. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

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Monday, 10 October 2016

Long-Term Potential or Just Another Bad Storyteller?

Could the best pick up line be, “I have to tell you what happened to my friend last weekend”? According to findings by Donahue and Green (2016), this very well may be the case as it seems that being a great storyteller can have impactful consequences on one’s relationships. 

Donahue and Green (2016) conducted three studies in which they examined the effect of storytelling ability on perceptions of an individual’s attractiveness, examining both short-term and long-term romantic relationships. In the first study, undergraduate students were given a picture of someone of the opposite gender and a biographical sketch. The sketch included neutral background information as well as the person’s story telling ability: good, moderate, poor, or no information. Participants then rated the individual’s physical attractiveness and attractiveness in terms of a casual date, long-term partner, or friend. They found that boasting good storytelling abilities made men more attractive to women, but only in terms of a long-term partner. In other words, men who are skilled in storytelling appear to have an advantage in attracting long-term partners. 

One limitation of the first study was that participants were simply told of the quality of the storyteller rather than experiencing the story being told. In the second study, with a new set of participants, half of the individuals read an effectively-told story and the other half read an ineffectively told account. Also, the degree to which participants felt transported or engaged by the story was measured. The results of this study were consistent with the first: women rated skilled male storytellers as more attractive than poor storytellers, with respect to a long-term relationship. For the other measures (e.g. physical attractiveness, casual date, and friend), the quality of the storyteller did not impact women’s ratings of attractiveness. In terms of men’s attraction to women, a female’s storytelling ability was irrelevant to men for all measures of attractiveness. In addition, attractiveness was not influenced by engagement with the story.  

In the final study, the researchers investigated whether storytelling ability might reflect perception of increased status. Participants rated the degree to which the target individual exhibited characteristics such as popularity, good leadership, and admiration. These results revealed that perceived status was a substantial mediator between storytelling ability and attractiveness of a long-term mate. In other words, effective storytelling led to perceptions of higher status because this very skill is interpreted to reflect a person’s ability to gain resources. Someone who is a good storyteller may be more capable of influencing others or gaining prestigious positions. So, from an evolutionary perspective, higher status could indicate greater means and thus a better chance of survival, which would be attractive to another potential mate. 

So the next time you find yourself on the lookout for that special someone, be mindful that entertaining her with a great story could mean long-term potential in her eyes. 

Posted by Michelle Vinitsky


Donahue, J. K., Green, M. C. (2016). A good story: Men’s storytelling ability reflects their attractiveness and perceived status. Personal Relationships, 23, 199-213.

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Monday, 3 October 2016

Ibsen and the Provisional

In Henrik Ibsen and the birth of modernism, Toril Moi proposes that Ibsen was the most important playwright since Shakespeare, and that his work was critical to the coming of modernism in the West. Last month, I was pleased to give a talk at the Centre for Ibsen Studies at the University of Oslo. I wanted to explore with the people there a theme of Søren Kierkegaard's Concluding unscientific postscript and the seeming opposite, Ibsen's plays about science.

On the theme of science, Ibsen had written Ghosts, about the discovery of syphilis in a family. Following the shock provoked by that play, in 1882 he wrote An enemy of the people, about the discovery by Dr Stockmann that, in the town baths which were central to the economy of the town where he lived, the water was contaminated.

Dr Stockmann thinks at first that his discovery will benefit the town. But the town's mayor, his brother, thinks otherwise, and the local people come to think of Dr Stockmann as their enemy.

A huge concern of Ibsen's time was the spate of five cholera epidemics that swept through Europe in the nineteenth century, killing hundreds of thousands of people. In the 1850s, cholera was discovered to be spread by contaminated water, but it took years for the discovery to be accepted. It was, however, this discovery that enabled the inference that infectious diseases are spread by germs. Cholera and its implications caused great public consternation, and were discussed in newspapers much as AIDS was discussed in the 1980s, and cancer is discussed today.

A source for An enemy of the people came from a friendship with the poet, Alfred Meissner, which Ibsen had formed in the 1870s when he was living in Munich. H.G. Kohler recounts how Meissner told Ibsen that his father, Dr Eduard Meissner, had worked in Teplitz, in Bohemia. In the middle of the summer of 1832, he had diagnosed a case of cholera. The mayor of the town tried to get him to change his diagnosis, but he refused. A mob besieged his house, smashed his windows, and demanded that he leave the town. In a two-faced way, the town's mayor professed friendship with Dr Meissner, but endorsed the crowd's demands, so Dr Meissner and his family were forced to leave the town.

This conflict is replayed in An enemy of the people, with Dr Stockmann's diagnosis of contaminated water in the town's public baths. He becomes increasingly assertive, and is rejected by everyone in the town except his wife and children. The climax comes at the end when Dr Stockmann proclaims: "the strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone." 

Science is based on evidence and is provisional. At the same time one can meet scientists who believe they are absolutely right, who confront every attempt to ask questions, or to offer suggestions, with vehemence.

Søren Kierkegaard proposes the idea of indirect communication in a passage of some eight pages in Part Two of Concluding unscientific postscript. His idea is that indirect communication is a mode in which a person communicates with someone else not to persuade, not to try to get the other person to think as the person wants, not to coerce, but to enable the other to think and feel what she or she wants to think and feel. Kierkegaard links it to inwardness, which is fundamental to modernism in literature.

One implication of the idea of indirect communication is that as audience members and readers of artistic fiction we are not instructed, not persuaded what to think and feel. Instead, we are invited to think and feel for ourselves in the circumstances of a play, short story, novel, or film. And rather than being unscientific, as Kierkegaard may seem to imply from the title of his book, the idea is also at the centre of science because although a scientist offers evidence, and suggests inferences from it, science is provisional. The scientist does not stand alone. Changes of interpretation can be suggested by other people when new evidence is discovered, when new inferences are offered.

Ibsen, H. (1882). Ghosts, and A public enemy. (usual translataion An enemy of the people) In P. Watts (Trans.), Ibsen, Ghosts and other plays (pp. 101-219). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Kierkegaard, S. (1846). Concluding unscientific postscript (D. F. Swenson & W. Lowrie, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (Currrenl work published 1968).

Kohler, H. G. (1990). Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People and Eduard Meissner's expulsion from Teplitz. British Medical Journal, 300, 1123-1126.

Moi, T. (2006). Henrik Ibsen and the birth of modernism: Art, theater, philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.

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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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