Friday 19 June 2009

The Indirectness of Art

Can art affect selfhood? Today, we are putting our study of the effects of reading a piece of literary art, a short story by Anton Chekhov, into our archive of academic papers (for which please click here). The study is by Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley, Sara Zoeterman and Jordan Peterson (2009).

Some kinds of communication prompt people in a specific direction. So, for instance, there is well formulated research on persuasion, in which social psychologists have shown how it is possible to act upon people by words and images to cause their beliefs and actions to change on average in a particular direction. Closely related are the psychologies of advertising and propaganda. But art—I'll offer a criterion—does not propel people to believe or act in a particular way. Søren Kierkegaard (1846/1968) put it like this:
The indirect mode of communication makes communication an art in quite a different sense than when it is conceived in the usual manner ... To stop a man on the street and stand still while talking to him, is not so difficult as to say something to a passer-by in passing, without standing still and without delaying the other, without attempting to persuade him to go the same way, but giving him instead an impulse to go precisely his own way (pp. 246-247).
What are we to say about this psychologically? In our study we asked people to read what is generally regarded as one of the world's great short stories, "The lady with the little dog," by the person generally regarded as the greatest of all short-story writers, Chekhov. The principal problem in all such studies is how to choose a control group? When, in our research group, we previously made comparisons between psychological effects of narrative prose and those of expository prose, we found a huge confound that affected our work, and had also affected many of the comparisons in the research literature. It is that narrative prose is generally easier to read than expository prose, as indicated by the usual measures such as the Flesch measure of Reading Ease that can be run in Microsoft Word's Spelling and Grammar function, to be found in the Tools menu. (The Flesch measure is performed only after the spelling and grammar checker reaches the end of the piece on which it is being run.)

Using this measure, Allan Eng (2002) studied 48 subjects who each read a 619-word passage of either narrative or expository prose, that was carefully arranged to have the same semantic content and level of reading difficulty. Subjects marked the margin whenever a memory occurred. After reading they wrote summaries of these memories. Memories of those who read the narrative, as compared with the expository piece, were significantly more vivid (p<0 .05="" a="" actor="" and="" as="" being="" br="" detailed="" in="" involve="" likely="" memories.="" more="" observer="" or="" p="" rather="" reader="" reported="" scene="" semantic="" than="" the="" to="">
Chekhov's story, "The lady with the little dog," is about two people who have an affair at a seaside resort. So, when we came to construct a control group for this story, Maja Djikic had the brilliant idea of writing a non-fiction-style courtroom report of a divorce case. We were careful to ensure it had all the same information as Chekhov's story, that it even had some of the same conversations, that it was the same length, and that was the same reading difficulty. It is a mark of Maja's skill that when we tested the control courtroom account, readers judged it to be just as interesting as Chekhov's story, though not as artistic. People were randomly assigned to read Chekhov's story or the control piece. We measured their personality traits and their emotions before and after reading, and we found that those who read Chekhov's story changed more in their personality traits and emotions than those who read the non-fiction-style control version. The changes, moreover, were mediated by the emotions that readers experienced while reading. The changes of personality that we found were small, and they were all in different directions. So we think we can say that they were in each individual's own direction.

Our view is that as one reads a piece of literary fiction—as one runs the simulation in one's mind—one is affected by it. Some people who read Chekhov's story will identify with the story's characters. Others will disapprove of them. At certain moments in Chekhov's story, personal memories will be prompted, so that perhaps readers think of themselves in different ways. People who read a lot of fiction may be able to use their fictional reading, in small ways, to imagine their selfhood into circumstances other than the usual, and thereby to extend their sense of themselves: in their own way.

Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley, Sara Zoeterman & Jordan Peterson, J. (2009). On being moved by art: How reading fiction transforms the self. Creativity Research Journal, 21, 24-29.

Allan Eng (2002). Learning and processing non-fiction narrative and expository text. PhD Thesis, University of Toronto.

Søren Kierkegaard, S. (1846). Concluding unscientific postscript (D. F. Swenson & W. Lowrie, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (This publication 1968).

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