Monday, November 24, 2014

A storied life

Boyhood is an unusual film by Richard Linklater. It’s about a boy growing up from age six to age eighteen. It is a fiction film, but the scenes were shot at intervals over a 12-year period with the same principal characters, played by the same principal actors. The focus of the film is on a boy whose name is Mason. He has an older sister, Samantha, and parents who love their children but are divorced.

In the film's first half the scenes are not linked by a plot. They are about events, in almost haphazard order, of a kind that might happen to a young American boy as he grows up. So we see Mason with his mother and sister, the two children being looked after by their father when it is his turn for custody, Mason at school, Mason having to adapt to his mother’s new partner, and so on. Only in its second part does the film take on a structure that is easily recognizable as a narrative and—the film maker has this right—the narrative starts in Mason’s adolescence. It’s only in adolescence that people start to experience themselves in terms of a narrative in which they are the protagonist. The research on which this idea is based is by Dan McAdams (e.g. 1988). He proposed that people take on an identity by constructing a life story. Before adolescence, although children can remember events in their lives, and although they can talk of themselves in terms of their likes and dislikes, their cognitive systems have not yet developed so that they can relate remembered events to preferences and plans in a narrative sequence. 

McAdams and McLean (2013) have proposed that people choose and develop their life-stories principally in conversations with others. In the film’s second half, we see Mason making choices, and relating them to himself and others in conversations. The choices people make generally involve selections from themes that are easily available in a culture. In American culture such themes include choosing a sexual partner and being successful in a career of some sort. Also, of course, people can choose counter-cultural themes such as being a druggie, being hard-done-by, being a drop-out. In the film, we are aware of such counter-cultural themes in the background. But Mason doesn’t choose from them.
Mason starts the narrative sequence of his life when he is given a camera and takes up photography. It’s his first step towards developing a purpose in life. We see him becoming fascinated by photographs and working in a darkroom. He has started on his story of becoming a photographer. He has chosen the inviting theme of becoming a famous artist.

It is rare that a fiction film depicts so successfully a piece of psychological research. In this case, the film and the research by McAdams develop an important idea in the psychology of fiction.

McAdams, D. P. (1988). Power, intimacy, and the life story: Personological inquiries into identity. New York: Guilford.

McAdams, D. P., & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 233-238.
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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Smell of Books

Many of us who love books love everything about them, including that wonderful scent that accompanies a brand new novel. There seems to be nothing quite like it! But what is that smell, exactly?
Over at Compound Interest, they have created a fantastic visualization explaining what is responsible for the smell of new books, as well as why old books smell the way that they do. You can read the full post here, and download a copy of their infographic here.
Just goes to show that the science of books isn't limited to the realm of psychological science. Of course, the interdisciplinary question is what thoughts and emotions the smell of new books elicits in readers, what sorts of readers experience these effects, and why they occur.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Research Bulletin: Confusing Actors for their Characters

Although not explicitly focused on written narratives, Tal-Or and Papirman (2007) were intrigued by the concept of media consumers confusing events in a fictional universe with facts from the real world. For instance, one interesting aspect of watching a movie is how viewers perceive the actors portraying the various characters. Very often, fans of a TV show can come to confuse the traits of the character with those of the actor playing that character. Actors who play doctors on TV frequently get asked medical advice and those who play villains on soap operas often receive very negative reactions from fans in real life.  In real-life interactions, people tend to attribute others’ behaviour to their personality rather than their situation, making the fundamental attribution error (FAE) (Ross, 1977).  In two studies, Tal-Or and Papirman tested the theory that individuals would also make this error when evaluating actors, by improperly ascribing a fictional character’s traits to the actor’s personality, despite knowing the character is scripted and the actor is in a situation wherby he or she must behave a certain way.

In the first study, after reading a description of a male actor that included some accurate biographical information, participants were assigned to view a ten-minute scene from a movie in which this actor was either playing a positive character who was sympathetic and kind, or a negative character who was ruthless and brutal.  Afterward they rated the actor’s personality.  As predicted, participants who saw the actor playing the positive character rated him higher on positive traits than those who saw him playing the negative character.  There were no effects of participants’ gender or previous knowledge of the actor.

The second study took into account how being really absorbed with the narrative and observing the actor playing multiple roles might impact viewers’ likelihood of making the FAE.  Participants again read a description of the actor that included accurate biographical information.  Half were then randomly assigned to only view him in one scene (positive or negative), and the other half were assigned to view him in both scenes (positive and negative) with which scene was viewed first randomized.  Afterward, transportation into the narrative and perceptions of the actor’s personality were evaluated.  The results replicated those of the first study.  Additionally, participants who only viewed the negative character were more likely to make the FAE than those who only viewed the positive character.  As predicted, greater transportation into the narrative increased the FAE, whereas viewing more than one scene did not have an impact on its occurrence.  Nevertheless, the second scene participants watched had a stronger impact on how they evaluated the actor than the first scene.
These studies were able to show that the FAE might provide an account of how people perceive actors. It is an interesting finding because it highlights the strength of the FAE.  Even when viewers are aware that a character’s behaviour is scripted, they are still prone to making this error and inaccurately attributing the character’s behaviour to the actor’s personality.

Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 10 (pp. 174-200). New York: Academic Press.

Tal-Or, N., & Papirman, Y. (2007). The fundamental attribution error in attributing fictional figures’ characteristics to the actors. Media Psychology, 9, 331-345.

Guest post by Elizabeth van Monsjou.

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Monday, November 3, 2014

Personality Traits and Literature

Buried in a twelve-volume Handbook of Psychology is a chapter that addresses contemporary trait psychology and its relation to fiction (and the humanities in general). The Five-Factor Model (FFM) is the most widely accepted description of individual differences in personality traits, with five broad factors (the “Big Five”)—Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness—plus more specific traits, or facets, that represent different aspects of each factor. The chapter provides a broad introduction to the FFM and to research findings about its heritability, longitudinal stability, universality, and cross-observer validity; it also describes Five-Factor Theory, an interpretation of these findings in the form of a general theory of personality.

However, the distinctive focus of the chapter is a consideration of two questions: How can literary fiction be used by psychologists, and how might an understanding of trait psychology help in the interpretation, and perhaps the creation, of imaginative works?

The principal interface of fiction and traits is found in character. Psychological interpretations of literary figures have, of course, been proposed for decades. McCrae, Gaines, and Wellington provide an empirically-based method for assessing the personality of characters, using a validated personality inventory (the NEO-PI-3) to characterize Moliere’s Alceste (“The Misanthrope”) and Voltaire’s Candide. Profile agreement statistics are used to quantify overall agreement of judges (substantial, in these cases) and to point to occasional instances of disagreement that warrant and stimulate further discussion.

The chapter contains a table of characters who illustrate positive and negative poles of each factor—for example, Alexei Karamazov is high in Agreeableness; Antigone is high in Conscientiousness. Additions to this list, especially with more contemporary characters (perhaps from film or television) would make it more useful to teachers who want to bring the abstract concepts of traits alive to today’s students.

McCrae, R. R., Gaines, J. F., & Wellington, M. A. (2013). The Five-Factor Model in fact and fiction. In H. A. Tennen & J. M. Suls (Eds.), Handbook of psychology, Vol. 5: Personality and social psychology (2nd ed., pp. 65-91). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

(Guest post by Dr. Robert R. McCrae.)
For a copy of this chapter, please contact Dr. McCrae:

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Coping with grief

In his book, The principles of art, R.G. Collingwood (1938) proposed that art, properly so-called, is an exploration of an emotion that is not understood. The therapeutic implication is that people who are suffering from a grief that has thrown them into turmoil and confusion would come to understand it better by engaging with a piece of art that explored it.

Emy Koopman (2014) has investigated this theme empirically by approaching train-travellers, people who used a public library, and people in reading groups, to ask them about how they coped with a severe life event. The number of respondents was 198. They filled out a questionnaire about the most significant loss they had experienced through death, divorce, or separation, and whether they had used literature, or music, or both, to help them work through their grief. 

Koopman found that 32% of her respondents used neither music or literature during their period of grief, 33% used only music, 10% used only literature, and 25% used both. People whose style of coping was emotion-focused rather than problem-focused were more likely to use artistic media. Using music was more closely associated with recognition, whereas using literature was more closely associated with distraction. For those who used both media, the coping process tended to alternate between distraction and recognition. Those who reported the greatest impact of their loss were more likely to use artistic media. Among the 13 participants who used literature and who had suffered a loss during the last year, there were strong correlations between impact of their reading and insight (r = 0.53, p = 0.06), and between this impact and recognition (r = 0.56, p < 0.05).

Collingwood, R. G. (1938). The principles of art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Koopman, E. (2014). Reading in times of loss: An exploration of the functions of literature during grief. Scientific Study of Literature, 4, 68-88.
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Monday, October 20, 2014

Research Bulletin: Harry Potter and the Reduction of Prejudice

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

Posted by Tonia Relkov.

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

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