Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Literariness and Empathy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342, 377-380.
Koopman, E. M. E. (2016). Effects of "literariness" on emotions and on empathy and reflection after reading. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 10, 82-98.
Kuzmičová, A., Mangen, A., Støle, H., & Begnum, A. C. (2017). Literature and readers’ empathy: A qualitative text manipulation study. Language and Literature, 26, 137-152.
Mansfield, K. (1922). "The fly." In D. M. Davin (Ed.), Katherine Mansfield: Selected stories (pp. 353-358). Oxford: Oxford University Press (current edition 1981).
Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J. B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694-712.
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Monday, 15 May 2017

Modes of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Friday, 5 May 2017

Happy Birthday to Us!


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

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

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Monday, 1 May 2017

Research Bulletin: Role Playing Videogames and Complex Emotions Like Guilt

Have you ever felt so caught up in a narrative experience that it had a strong emotional impact on you? A recent study by Chad Mahood and Michael Hanus (2017) attempted to better understand this phenomenon, known as narrative transportation, and how it relates to videogames. Specifically, they wondered whether transportation into a role-playing videogame can lead to feelings of guilt, when players play an immoral character. Two major predictions were made: (1) playing an immoral character should lead to stronger feelings of guilt compared to playing a moral character, and (2) transportation should lead to stronger emotions. The researchers were also interested in whether playing an immoral character would promote more aggressive tendencies, compared to playing a moral character. 

In this study, participants watched a short backstory depicting an immoral or moral character whom they then got to play after receiving instructions to imitate that character or no such instructions. Measures of emotion, transportation, aggression, and perceptions of violence were collected from participants after they played the game as this character. The researchers reported two major findings: (1) participants felt guiltiest when instructed to play as an immoral character, and (2) participants experienced feelings of guilt only if they were transported into the game. Playing as an immoral character also produced aggressive thoughts, such as reporting an inclination toward rudeness, threatening behavior, and using physical force.

The results of this study provide pioneering support for the claim that videogames can create feelings of guilt. It also supports the established connection between videogame violence and aggressive tendencies. There are, however, limitations to this study that must be considered. For example, receiving instructions on how to play a character is not how videogames are actually played. Moreover, the results reported were not large in magnitude and it is not clear to what degree they would reflect real world effects. Despite these limitations, videogames appear to have the potential to produce feelings of guilt, and this study is a useful stepping stone toward further research.

Posted by Sean Morse

References

Mahood, C., & Hanus, M. (2017). Role-playing video games and emotion: How transportation into the narrative mediates the relationship between immoral actions and feelings of guilt. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 6(1), 61-73. doi:10.1037/ppm0000084

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

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Monday, 10 April 2017

Research Bulletin: Videogames May Enhance Cognitive Abilities, But Only For Those Who Play a Lot

Studies on whether playing videogames improves cognitive abilities have often found conflicting results. Nash Unsworth (Oregon) and his colleagues (2015) point out several methodological and statistical limitations in past studies showing that videogame players have better cognitive abilities than non-videogame players. For example, many of these studies compare the most experienced videogame players with non-videogame players, ignoring those in-between. By excluding those with moderate levels of experience, very small sample sizes are left and this can cause all kinds of problems. 

To improve on past work, Unsworth and his colleagues (2015) did two studies based on large samples, using many different cognitive measures, and examining both extreme groups (experienced versus non-gamers) and the full range of videogame experience. In Study 1, 198 participants completed various measures of cognitive abilities along with a videogame experience questionnaire. The extreme-groups analysis, which included only 47 participants, found that gamers outperformed non-gamers on many of the cognitive ability measures. These results are consistent with other studies that use this same method. However, when looking at the full range of participants, very few associations were found between videogame playing and cognitive abilities. In a second study, 466 participants completed very similar measures to those used in Study 1 and a similar result was observed: there were few associations between videogame playing and cognitive abilities.

These studies provide important insight into the question of whether videogames can improve cognitive abilities. It may be that associations between videogame playing experience and cognitive abilities only occurs for those who play very frequently. In addition, it may be that the genre or type of videogame is important. Future research will hopefully help to clarify these issues. 

Posted by Riana Fisher

References

Unsworth, N., Redick, T. S., Mcmillan, B. D., Hambrick, D. Z., Kane, M. J., & Engle, R. W. (2015). Is Playing Video Games Related to Cognitive Abilities? Psychological Science, 26, 759-774. doi:10.1177/0956797615570367

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

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Monday, 3 April 2017

Research Bulletin: Spoiler Alert! Not all Spoilers Reduce Enjoyment of Short Stories

Leavitt and Christenfeld (2011) led a study that analyzed whether spoiling the ending of a story would increase or decrease its enjoyment. Surprisingly, readers enjoyed short stories more when they were spoiled (i.e., given a preview of the story that gave away the ending). Recently, William H. Levine (University of Arkansas), Michelle Betzner (University of Arkansas), and Kevin S. Autry (Grand Valley State University) attempted to replicate this previous study in order to see if the results were reliable. 

A total of 215 psychology students participated in their study. Participants were randomly assigned to read 1 of 3 possible short stories: (1) stories without a spoiler, (2) stories with a preceding spoiler, (3) and stories that included a spoiler of the ending mid-way through the story. Participants then reported how much they enjoyed the story. The researchers found that spoilers presented before the stories reduced enjoyment of these stories, relative to unspoiled stories. This was the exact opposite of what the past study found. Spoilers presented mid-way through a story had no effect on enjoyment. 

Although this study failed to replicate the past study, it also differed in some ways from this past work. More specifically, the current researchers used different stories, different spoilers, and the study was completed on a computer instead of on paper.

In conclusion, different studies using different methods have produced conflicting findings. Some studies find that spoiling a story can increase the reader’s enjoyment while other studies have found the exact opposite. Until further research is done, we cannot conclude that spoilers increase or decrease enjoyment. 

Posted by Elina Gama Fila

References

Leavitt, J. D., & Christenfeld, N. S. (2011). Story spoilers don’t spoil stories. Psychological Science, 22, 1152–1154.

Levine, W. H., Betzner, M., & Autry, K. S. (2016). The effect of spoilers on the enjoyment of
short stories. Discourse Processes, 53, 513–531.

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

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Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Arts and Empathy: Update

I previously wrote about my participation in a fascinating panel discussion regarding the arts and empathy, organized by the Roots of Empathy foundation. Thanks to my fellow panelists, Cameron Bailey (Artistic Director, Toronto International Film Festival) and Martha Durbin (Chair, Board of Trustees for the Royal Ontario Museum), as well as the moderator (Mary Ito, CBC), we had a very stimulating discussion of how exposure to all formats of artistic expression might relate to empathy and understanding. The full video of this discussion can now be viewed on the Roots of Empathy website. I would be happy to elaborate or clarify any of my comments from this discussion, just post your questions below in the Comments section.

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Monday, 20 February 2017

Black Box → Illuminating Experience: Beginning to Uncover How Video Game Players Transform Negative Emotions into Valued Experiences

Julia Bopp, Elisa Mekler and Klaus Opwis (University of Basel) conducted an exploratory study on video-game player experience. The authors explored emotionally moving experiences, noting how little research has been done on seemingly negative, but still valued, emotional experiences along with those characterized by mixed emotions. A total of 121 participants, of whom 23.1% were female, were recruited from various online gaming forums. Participants were asked to describe an “emotionally moving experience [they] had with a digital game” (p. 2998), and to make attributions as to its cause. They were then asked to rate the features of this experience, divided broadly into enjoyment, appreciation, emotion, and need-fulfillment. 
Sadness was prominent in these moving experiences, with sad emotions predicting a participant’s level of both appreciation and enjoyment of the experience. Appreciation is tied to an acknowledgement that there is some deeper meaning behind something. The researchers thus concluded that a part of players’ appreciation and enjoyment derives from feelings of sadness, as can be seen in one participant’s account of their experience: “‘Never has a video game presented the story of the hero, who sacrifices himself, this beautifully and this touching. I will never forget this moment!’” (p. 3001). These kinds of positive responses to sad situations are perhaps driven by players’ need to experience emotions. 
Another interesting result was the paradoxical role of loss of agency, or loss of direct control within a game. Agency was related to enjoyment and happiness, whereas loss of agency was associated with sadness. However, sadness was also a predictor of both enjoyment and appreciation. In one case of loss of agency, a participant reports having had “…to torture that guy. I really hated it and did not want to do it but the game didn’t leave the choice to me…It was really disturbing’” (p. 3002). However, Bopp and colleagues (2016) noted that for another participant, having no choice but to bury a brother makes for a highly emotional and vivid experience (p. 3003), which participants value. Thus, choosing to take away a player’s agency during a game should endeavor to strike a delicate balance between evoking just enough sadness to enhance appreciation and enjoyment, but not so much loss of control as to erode the happy affect and enjoyment borne of autonomy.

Posted by Krithika Sukumar.

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

Bopp, J. A., Mekler, E. D., & Opwis, K. (2016). Negative Emotion, Positive Experience?
Emotionally Moving Moments in Digital Games. Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2996-3006.

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Monday, 6 February 2017

Photography and Truth

Ferdinand von Schirach is a defence lawyer who became famous with Crime, a book of cases that are fascinating. His most recent book is a novel: The Girl Who Wasn’t There.

The first third of the novel is about someone called Sebastian, who grows up without much affection, though he has fond memories of a lake near where he lived as a child. The second part of the novel is about photography, in which Sebastian becomes interested, and in which he undertakes an apprenticeship. He starts to do very well as a photographer, and is offered commissions, many of which are to take pictures of women.

He doesn’t seem to have friends, and he is not very involved with women in a romantic way until he meets Sofia. He takes photographs of her, and after they have been seeing each other for a while she says to him, “You’re never entirely with me. There’s always only part of you here.” The chapter in which this appears ends with this sentence: “All he knew was that he would hurt her.”

The book then moves into some sordid aspects, about why men like to look at photographs of unclothed women, although by the the end of the book one can see some of their purpose.

The last third of the book is about Sebastian’s trial for murder, of a young woman whose body can’t be found, of whom, perhaps, he was taking photographs.

It seems as if this novel will be a detective story (a mystery) and, indeed, the murder trial to which the book leads up seems to bear this out. But whereas the typical detective story turns out to be some version of  “it was the butler who did it,” this one is completely different. it is about the relation of photography and certain kinds of painting to truth.

When we see a photograph of a woman, we infer that although the picture might have been posed and touched up, that there was someone there whose visual likeness has been recorded. But what does a photograph or a painting tell you about the person?  And what might it tell you of yourself as you look at it?

von Schirach, Ferdinand. 2015. The girl who wasn't there. Translated by Anthea Bell. London: Little Brown.


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What Traits Allow Actors to Embody Their Character?

As you close your eyes, you begin to visualize, carry the weight, and conjure the emotion. For those who are fascinated by the ability to create seemingly real experiences from imagined ones, this particular study may catch your eye. In an attempt to gain a better understanding of how actors are able to become their character so convincingly, a group of researchers examined whether acting ability is related to traits linked to hypnotizability (Panero, Goldstein, Rosenberg, Hughes, & Winner, 2016). This connection was drawn from the fact that in both acting exercises and hypnotic induction, individuals draw on personally-experienced events. Actors draw on their emotions and experiences and then fit those events to the character they wish to play. In a hypnotic state, individuals also draw on real-life experienced that parallel the instructions delivered. For example, if the hypnotic suggestion was for an individual’s arm to feel heavy, this individual would likely draw on a time when they truly experienced their arm feeling weighed down (Panero et al., 2016). 
To examine this putative link between acting abilities and hypnotizability, this study looked at different tendencies associated with hypnotizability: imaginative suggestibility, absorption, and fantasy proneness. Imaginative suggestibility is the ability to recreate an imagine situation so that it feels real. Absorption is a state of focus completely dedicated to experiencing an object (Tellegen & Atkinson, 1974). And, lastly, a fantasy prone individual is someone who spends a great deal of time fantasizing and daydreaming (Merckelbach, 2004). The researchers found that actors did indeed score higher than musicians and nonartists on all three tendencies. So it seems that actors do indeed rate themselves higher in traits that have been linked to hypnotizability. This study provides important insight into the abilities actors may possess that allow them to become their character. 

Posted by Michelle Vinitsky

Merckelbach, H. (2004). Telling a good story: Fantasy proneness and the quality of fabricated memories.
Personality and Individual Differences, 37, 1371–1382. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2004.01.007

Panero, M. E., Goldstein, T. R., Rosenberg, R., Hughes, H., & Winner, E. (2016). Do actors possess traits
associated with high hypnotizability? Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 10(2), 233-239. doi: 10.1037/t10470-000

Tellegen, A., & Atkinson, G. (1974). Openness to absorbing and self-altering experiences (“absorption”),
a trait related to hypnotic susceptibility. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 83, 268–277. doi: 10.1037/h0036681

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Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Arts and Empathy

Last night I participated in a wonderful symposium on the relation between the arts and empathy, organized by Roots of Empathy and hosted at the Bata Shoe Museum. The panel consisted of Cameron Bailey (Artistic Director, Toronto International Film Festival) and Martha Durbin (Chair, Board of Trustees for the Royal Ontario Museum), along with myself. Dr. Ellen Winner (Boston College) was also an intended participant via Skype, but unfortunately the technology did not cooperate. Mary Ito (CBC, Roots of Empathy) did a wonderful job as moderator, guiding us through a discussion of how various forms of the arts might possibly help to foster empathy with others, particularly those who are different from ourselves and often members of vulnerable populations. So many interesting ideas got bandied about, but a few broad ideas stood out to me:

1. How might different forms of art, such as theatre, film, historical artifacts, and even non-representational/non-figurative abstract visual art potentially provoke and challenge people to take on the experiences of others who live quite different lives from our own?

2. Does art attract empathic people? Does it foster empathy in people who come to art? Or could both things be true simultaneously?

3. Why do some instances of art succeed in encouraging the audience to empathize with someone quite different from him or herself, whereas other instances of art might fail to do so?

4. How might art affect children differently from adults, with respect to the promotion or engagement of empathy?

This night was also a reminder to me of the absolutely fantastic work that Roots of Empathy does throughout the world. For those who don't know, Roots of Empathy is a program in which young schoolchildren, often those living in under-served neighbourhoods, are guided through a series of lessons centred around visits by a parent and her baby. I had the very good fortune of witnessing the program in action and I have to say it's absolutely amazing. You can read more about my take in a previous post. Please consider supporting this wonderful organization in any way you can. For those interested in making a financial contribution, it is possible to do so here.

A huge thank you to the organizers for allowing me to a part of this, Mary for her deft moderating skills, and Cameron and Martha for fostering such an interesting and entertaining discussion.

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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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