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].)
I don’t suppose this is so different to mimicking a particular accent when surrounded by people who talk differently or acting, for example, in a more macho way when in the company of men who display overtly masculine traits.
I agree that this is probably related. Tonya Chartrand and John Bargh (among others) have done some fascinating work on "nonconscious mimicry," when people inadvertently copy the behaviours of others. The authors of the current study don't interpret their results in this way, but I can certainly see how they can also be seen as evidence of mimicry (but for a fictional person). What makes their findings more than a case of simple mimicry, however, is the condition in which people act in a manner quite opposite to that of the soccer hooligan. I didn't mention these findings in my summary, but they are described in the actual paper.
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