We often speak colloquially about how a piece of fiction can be life-changing, but what exactly do we mean by this? In many cases we mean that reading a particular book has permanently altered the way we see the world. A book that vividly describes the life of impoverished and homeless youth might make us view street people in a new light, for example. In addition to changing our perspective on the world, books might also change how we see ourselves. Tobias Richter (University of Kassel) and his colleagues examined just this question. More specifically, they were interested in whether women would perceive themselves as more or less feminine after reading a first-person narrative describing the life of a young mother. By way of comparison, a second control text was read by a different group of women. This control text described from a first-person perspective life in an urban context and made no reference to the gender of the protagonist. The researchers hypothesized that readers randomly assigned to read about the young mother, a protagonist with a more traditional female gender role, might come to view themselves as more feminine by way of identification with the character. In contrast, those who read the control text should show no such change in self-concept. This was largely what they found. Women who read about a young mother tended to rate themselves higher in femininity on a self-report questionnaire than those who read the control story, but only for those who were highly engaged in the story. Interestingly enough, across conditions, women who were parents in real life did not rate themselves higher in femininity and these parents also did not appear to be influenced by the story of the young parent. It was only women who were not parents, and who were deeply engaged by the story, who rated themselves as more feminine in response to the story of the young mother, compared to those who read the control story. This finding demonstrates that exposure to short narratives can change how we perceive ourselves along important dimensions.
Richter, T., Appel, M. & Calio, F. (2014). Stories can change the self-concept. Social Influence, 9, 172-188.
Is there any research looking at whether reading widely fosters tolerance, empathy, curiosity, and a greater willingness to reflect before reaching judgements?
There is indeed a great deal of research on at least some of these topics. With respect to empathy, we have summarized a number of such studies on this site:
Betsy Levy Paluck also has done some excellent work on how exposure to narratives can reduce inter-group conflict:
In particular, the supplementary table to her Annual Review paper lists a number of successful interventions involving books to improve cross-race attitudes (Paluck & Green, 2009).
As far as curiosity and greater reflection goes, I'm not aware of any research that specifically addresses these issues but would be interested to hear of any from those more knowledgeable.
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