Monday 21 May 2012

Fourth Anniversary, and Experience-taking

This month, OnFiction began its fifth year of publication. I don't know how long most blogs run for, or even how long most blogs-cum-online-magazines run for, but we feel we have become a presence on the internet with, as you can see opposite, more than 200 members, with more than 100,000 "unique" visitors in our first four years, as well as a large number of people who take OnFiction by RSS and e-mail.

We would like to thank all our readers, the people who make comments, and the people who write to us personally. Thank you! 

All this persuades us that although the psychology of fiction is a minority interest, the minority is a substantial one. We are very happy to continue what we have been doing. I hope over the next month or two, to go through our archives, book reviews and film reviews, and bring them a bit more up to date. Please, also, if there is something you think we might do, that would be useful to you and other readers, please let me know. You can find my e-mail address in my Profile.

And, to show that the psychology of fiction is reaching maturity, here's a research bulletin on a new article, published on-line in the American Psychological Association's principal journal of social psychology. It's by Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby (2012), and it draws on the theory of fiction-as-simulation, that we at OnFiction have been exploring.

Kaufman and Libby start their article with the following epigraph from Hayakawa (1990):
In a very real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to lead; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish.
Kaufman and Libby report six experiments in which they asked student participants to read short pieces of narrative, in which the protagonist was a college student, and in which information was given about the protagonist's thoughts, actions, and feelings. Their purpose was to investigate what they call experience-taking: entry into the experience of a fictional character, which is often called identification. They say that in experience-taking:
readers simulate the events of a narrative as though they were a particular character in the story world, adopting the character’s mindset and perspective as the story progresses rather than orienting themselves as an observer or evaluator of the character (p. 2 of the pre-publication paper.)
The researchers measured experience-taking from people's responses to a nine-item questionnaire that includes such items as "I could empathize with the situation of the character in the story," and "I understood the events of the story as though I were the character in the story."

Kaufman and Libby chose the term experience-taking to mean a merging with the character, a loss of the self-other distinction. It is to be compared with perspective-taking, in which one keeps one's identity and at the same time understands what another person is thinking and feeling.

In their first three experiments, Kaufman and Libby looked at the relationship between people's awareness of their own self and their level of experience-taking while reading the piece of narrative they were given. In Experiment 1, the researchers found that the higher people's scores were on a measure of consciousness of their own individual experience, the lower were their scores on experience-taking as they read the story. In Experiment 2, readers who were asked to think of themselves generically, as average students, independently of what they were studying, as compared with thinking of themselves as individuals, had higher scores on experience-taking when reading. In Experiment 3, participants who read the story in a cubicle with a mirror in it, as compared to reading in a cubicle without a mirror, had lower scores on experience-taking.

In their second group of studies, Kaufman and Libby manipulated the experimental conditions. In Experiment 4, they found that narratives told in first-person voice induced more experience-taking in readers than narratives told in third-person voice. In Experiments 5 and 6, they found that later as compared with earlier introduction into a narrative of information that indicated that a protagonist was a member of a group (respectively homosexual or African-American) of which the reader was not a member, increased experience-taking.

This paper is an important step in understanding conditions of narratives that encourage identification in terms of entering lives other than just the ones given to us by chance and circumstance.

Samuel Hayakawa (1990). Language in thought and action. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Geoff Kaufman & Lisa Libby (2012). Changing beliefs and behavior through experience-taking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027525
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Zazie said...

Congratulations on your fourth anniversary! And thanks to all of you for taking the time to write such a fascinating and informative blog.

Anonymous said...

Happy anniversary and thanks for your work!

Melanie said...

Congratulations on the fourth anniversary! Thanks to all of you for sharing your insights and keeping us up to date on the latest developments in fiction research. I look forward to many more years to come!

Keith Oatley said...

Dear Zazie, derblindehund, and Melanie, Thank you so much for your good wishes. We are delighted that you find OnFiction useful and informative. We'll do our best to keep bringing you interesting material, and we'll continue to develop the site. Kind regards, Keith

ABi said...

The epigraph from Hayakawa is so elegant and I enjoyed reading the entire post... From the beautiful mountains and meadows of fiction, moving down to the dirt of reality shows or marketing / advertising, aren't they too doing just that "experience-taking" at a level of perfection, alas, so different from the narratives and fiction at the centre of Onfiction? Parallel worlds, using same psychology?
Congratulations on the 4th anniversary!

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much ABi. Yes, I know what you mean ... there does seem to be a rather stark difference between much of what takes place on television and the kinds of fiction in which we are more interested. But I can imagine that, as you say, some of what goes on in reality shows probably does use similar kinds of psychology.

Thanks very much for your interest, and for your congratulations.

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