Lose Yourself – Becoming the Characters You Read

As a lover of books, I believe that you cannot open a book — any book — without learning something. New research now shows that, in addition to just learning about other people, places, and things, readers actually take on the experiences and beliefs of the characters in books.

In a study published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers at Ohio State University report the results of six experiments that tested the degree to which people found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, behaviors, goals, and traits of the characters in fictional stories. Overall, the authors report that this phenomenon, called “experience-taking,” can lead to real changes in the lives of the readers, albeit temporary.

The first three experiments demonstrated that people must be able to let go of their own identity while reading in order to undergo significant experience-taking. For example, readers who read in a cubicle with a mirror were less likely to take on the identity of the fictional characters. The second three experiments evaluated the characteristics of the writing that allowed for more or less experience-taking.

One experiment involved 82 undergraduate students who were asked to read a short story about a student who overcame obstacles to vote. Several versions of the story — written in first-person and written in third-person, and featuring a student at the same university as the participants and featuring a different university — were read among the group. After reading, the readers completed a questionnaire about how much they adopted the perspective of the character. The researchers also tracked whether or not the students voted in the November 2008 Presidential election, which took place only a few days after the experiment.

Students who read the story in first-person about a student at their own university showed the highest level of experience-taking, and 65% of these students reported voting on Election Day. Only 29% of students who read a first-person account from a different university reported voting.

Another experiment involved 70 heterosexual college students who read a day-in-the-life story of another student. There were three distinct versions of the story: one in which the student was revealed as homosexual early in the story, one in which his homosexuality was revealed late, and one in which the student was heterosexual. Students reported more experience-taking when the homosexuality was not revealed until late in the story, compared to when the homosexuality was revealed early. Also, readers of the late-reveal version expressed more favorable, and less judgmental, attitudes toward homosexuals after reading the story than readers of the other two versions. A similar experiment was conducted, with similar results, using versions of a story in which a student was revealed to be African American early or late in the narrative that were read by non-African American students.

Overall, the authors concluded that a reader can immerse himself in a book when he can identify with the character and forget about his own identity. The changes in self-judgment, attitude, and behavior that accompany this immersion into a character’s life can lead to real-world changes or actions, but the duration of effect is not clear.

People acquire knowledge from books, and the knowledge and perspective gained from fictional narratives may be true or false, depending on the story. Readers learn more than what is simply stated in black and white on a page; they use references to the real world — and their own lives — to integrate the story into their own knowledge base. The true worth of a book is measured by what a reader takes away from it.

So many books, so little time.


Butler AC, Dennis NA, & Marsh EJ (2012). Inferring facts from fiction: Reading correct and incorrect information affects memory for related information. Memory (Hove, England) PMID: 22640369

Kaufman GF, & Libby LK (2012). Changing Beliefs and Behavior Through Experience-Taking. Journal of personality and social psychology PMID: 22448888

Image via Falconia / Shutterstock.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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