Monday, July 25, 2011

Research Bulletin: You Are What You Read

We are frequently warned to be cautious of our diet with the phrase “you are what you eat.” Well, is it also possible that “you are what you read”? Would reading about a person who is more intelligent, more worldly, and more debonair help to transfer these qualities to yourself? A fascinating study by Markus Appel (University of Linz) has demonstrated that reading about a character who has certain traits can prime or activate these same traits in our own self. Dr. Appel asked individuals to read a short movie script that described a couple days in the life of an ignorant, drunken, soccer hooligan. A second group of individuals read a script of similar length, but with more typical content that never referenced the intelligence of the characters (the control script). Both groups were then asked to complete a test of general knowledge (e.g., What is the capital city of Libya?). Those who read the control script got around 36% of the questions correct. In contrast, those who read about the soccer hooligan got around 30% correct. In other words, reading about an unintelligent story character with poor memory activated this quality in the minds of reader, resulting in poorer performance on this test. Keith Oatley has been known to caution that one should choose one’s books as carefully as one chooses one’s friends; it appears there may be some real truth to this advice!

Appel, M. (2011). A story about a stupid person can make you act supid (or smart): Behavioral assimilation (and contrast) as narrative impact. Media Psychology, 14, 144-167.

(The full article describes more complex effects, in which reading about a stupid person can also make you act smarter when a proper mindset is in place. Please contact RM if you wish to receive a copy of this article [e-mail in profile].)

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Learning recklessness and embodied skill

At a recent reading by Per Petterson, my husband I are were the only two people in a large auditorium who had not read the novel Out Stealing Horses; having now read it myself apparently that much later than everyone else, I'm assuming there aren't that many people for whom I risk spoiling the book's plot--for those who are concerned, the theme of most interest to me reveals rather little in the way of traditional plot, even if it represents a central thread of the book's trajectory.

In this story, about the nominally central themes of which I will say nothing else, Petterson does a very nice job attending to the centrality of material practice in human interaction.

In three measured passages (at the opening, a third of the way into the story, and again two-thirds of the way through), Out Stealing Horses presents a particular strategy of an inward-turned person who explores the world--in both its domain of symbolic meaning and also its physical manifestation--by mimicking the actions of others, and then figuring out what those actions reveal about what needs to be done.

In the first passage (p. 18), the narrator describes the revelation of the world that had come through one of his most significant boyhood friendships:

What he had taught me was to be reckless, taught me that if I let myself go, did not slow myself down by thinking too much beforehand I could achieve many things I would never have dreamt possible.

This theme is picked up again twice, with one event marking each of the narrator's two other central relationships in the book. As part of the extended reminisce about his father that structures the story, the narrator reveals the way his father's approach to the world has structured his own, even if he is sure that the world does not reveal itself to him in the same easy way, except for what he can glean through the mediation of these memories of his father
(page 69):

What I do, which I have never let anyone know, is I close my eyes every time I have to do something practical apart from the daily chores everyone has, and then I picture how my father would have done it or how he actually did do it while I was watching him, and then I copy that until I fall into the proper rhythm, and the task reveals itself and grows visible, and that’s what I have done for as long as I can remember, as if the secret lies in how the body behaves towards the task at hand, in a certain balance when you start, like hitting the board in a long jump and the early calculation of how much you need, or how little, and the mechanism that is always there in every kind of job; first one thing and then the other, in a context that is buried in each piece of work, in fact as if what you are going to do already exists in its finished form, and what the body has to do when it starts to move is to draw aside the veil so it all can be read by the person observing. And the person observing is me, and the man I am watching, his movements and skills, is a man of barely forty...
And again, on page 141, the narrator describes using his body in a way mediated through the bodily movements of another:

I like watching Lars work. I would not call him brisk, but he is systematic and moves more elegantly up to the birch trunk with the heavy saw in his grasp than he does out on the road with Poker. His style infects my style, and that is how it usually is for me; the movement first and then the comprehension, for gradually I realize that the way he bends and moves and sometimes twists around and leans is a logical way of balancing against the supple line between the body's weight and the tug of the chain as it takes hold of the trunk, and all this to give the saw easiest access to the goal with the least possible damage to human body, exposed as it is; one moment strong and unassailable, and then a crash, and suddenly ripped to shreds like a doll can be, and then everything is gone and ruined forever, and I do not know whether he thinks like this, Lars, as he wields the chainsaw with such aplomb.

From the depths of a bookish sensibility, it is wonderful to have such moments of bodily awareness, and such sociality of being materially in the world, with and through others.

Per Petterson (2003/2007). Out Stealing Horses. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Reading Poetry

I love my stubborn ache,
Though it spawns some insolent guesses.

Like, maybe

You read in your chair,
Examining each verse,
Looking for a clue.
Words rushing and then slowing,
Your mouth barely moving.

You may not know it,
But here, far from your book
I found a way
To hold the world still
And mouth them with you.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Flights of the Imagination

For the first issue of Scientific Studies of Literature (click here) a number of us were asked to write about the future of this field. One prospect on which I wrote (Oatley, 2011) was the contribution the psychology of fiction will make to understanding imagination, which has been less studied than other topics of comparable psychological importance. Yesterday, I looked on PsycInfo for the number of articles since the year 2001 with the word "imagination" and the number with the word "memory" in the title or abstract. I found that for each article that concerned imagination there were 18 on memory. 

An important article on imagination, by Summerfield, Hassabis and Maguire (2010), was reported recently in OnFiction (click here). A comparably important article is by Maria Dias, Antonio Roazzi, and Paul Harris (2005). The problem on which they worked was originally devised in the early 1930s by Luria (1976). He found that people in Uzbekistan who were illiterate could not reason about problems in the form of syllogisms, like this: “In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the Far North. What colour are the bears there?” By contrast people who had taken part in a very elementary literacy program, which had recently been introduced in USSR at that time, could answer questions of this kind. Luria reported a test of 15 people who had remained illiterate. Of these, only four were able to answer the question about the colour of bears. Those who could not answer it gave replies that concerned their direct experience, for instance, that they could not say what colour bears were in Novaya Zemlya because they had never been there. By contrast, all 15 of those who had attended a literacy program could answer the question correctly.

In discussing these results, Paul Harris (2000) suggested that it wasn't literacy as such that had the effect, but whether the respondents were able to use their imagination, as they had as children when they were playing. Introduction to literacy and reading, Harris argued, enabled them to do this, and thereby to start to think in terms of generalizations beyond their immediate experience.

Dias, Roazzi and Harris studied 48 adults from Recife in northeast Brazil. Of these 24 were illiterate and 24 had attended a literacy class two to three hours a week for two years. Diaz et al. used a set of syllogisms on subjects that were unfamiliar, with premises like "All leucocytes are white," and a set with premises on topics that were familiar, like "All blood is red."

Half the people in both the illiterate and literate groups were in what Dias et al. called the standard condition (as in Luria's experiment). For them, the instructions were: ‘‘I am going to read you some little stories about things that will sound funny. But let’s pretend that everything in the stories is true. Okay, now I’m going to tell you the first story …’’ the other half of the subjects were asked to imagine being on another planet. For this planet condition the instructions were: ‘‘I am going to read you some little stories about things that will sound funny. But let’s pretend that I am telling you all about another planet. Everything in that planet is different. Okay, now I’m going to tell you the first story about that planet …’’

Dias et al. found essentially what Luria found: in the standard condition the illiterate people who were asked to reason, for instance, from the premise "All blood is blue" could not do so, and tended to gave justifications from their own experience. But when Dias et al. posed the problem so that it was about another planet, significantly more people were able to reason from the words of the syllogism. In the planet condition both those who were illiterate and those who had received some literacy training did much better on the syllogisms with both unfamiliar and familiar content. The invitation to people to imagine being on another planet—the kind of invitation offered in fiction—provided a gateway to being able to reason with words, rather than needing to rely entirely on direct experience.

Although, of course, memory is important in psychology, imagination is comparably important. The psychology of fiction will help us understand it better.

Dias, M., Roazzi, A., & Harris, P. L. (2005). Reasoning from unfamiliar premises: A study with unschooled adults. Psychological Science, 16, 550-554.
Harris, P. L. (2000). The work of the imagination. Oxford: Blackwell.
Luria, A. R. (1976). Cognitive development: Its cultural and social foundations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Oatley, K. (2011). Fiction and its study as gateways to the mind. Scientific Study of Literature, 1, 153-164.
Summerfield, J. J., Hassabis, D., & Maguire, E. A. (2010). Differential engagement of brain regions within a ‘core’ network during scene construction. Neuropsychologia, 48, 1501-1509.

Image: Phaaze, an unknown planet:

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