Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Research Bulletin: Pronouns & Perspective-taking

We have often discussed the idea of engagement of narrative as a cognitive and emotional simulation, arguing that readers take the perspective of a story’s protagonist. But what do we mean by this, exactly? There has been some debate in the field regarding whether readers really see through a character’s eyes, or assume an omniscient third-person perspective. A recent article to be published in Psychological Science by Tad Brunyé, Tali Ditman and colleagues (in press) provides an interesting examination of this question. These researchers had participants read sentences that varied in their pronoun use (i.e. “I,” “He,” or “You”) and then asked them to indicate whether a subsequent picture depicted the action they had just read. These pictures were taken from either a first-person/internal perspective (with the camera looking out through a person’s eyes) or a third-person/external perspective (with the camera pointed at the person). Reaction times were recorded, with the assumption that if reading an action sentence with a certain pronoun naturally entails taking a certain perspective, people would be quicker to identify the depicted action when the perspective of the photograph matched their own mental perspective. In Study 1, Brunyé, Ditman and colleagues found that people tend to take a protagonist’s perspective when the pronoun “You” or “I” is used, but take a more third-person/external perspective when “He” is employed. In Study 2, however, adding a bit of narrative context before the target sentence led to a shift in the results. The pronoun “I” now resulted in a third-person perspective. This means that in more realistic circumstances, when reading a novel for example, use of the pronoun “I” does not necessarily mean that readers are looking out through that character’s eyes. Instead, it appears that adding a narrative context allows readers to see that character as a person “in the world.” This does not mean, of course, that we don’t still empathize and take the perspective of characters. Just that this perspective-taking is likely to be more complicated than simply assuming their visual-spatial position in the fictive world.

This article is a great example of how solid empirical research can inform our understanding of the reader experience. Moreover, these two studies illustrate quite nicely how research in this area must begin to incorporate more realistic narratives as stimuli. The results of Study 1 and Study 2 differ quite dramatically, with the only difference being the inclusion of a richer narrative context preceding the target sentence. If the researchers had stopped at Study 1, assuming that research on sentence comprehension would generalize to discourse comprehension, we would be left with a mistaken idea of how pronoun use influences perspective-taking during reading.

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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great article! informs the growing distinction between single-sentence and discourse comprehension.

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