I’ve always been interested in psychology, and definitely always had an interest in books. So when the two combine into one lovable study of how great characters impact our behavior, well, the researchers had me at hello.
The researchers were from Tiltfactor Laboratories at Dartmouth College. Two of the researchers, Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby, wanted to gain a better understanding of this very question. What they found in a recent study surprised them.
It’s called “experience taking,” a phenomenon where a reader identifies closely with a character and thus take on the same emotions, beliefs, thoughts, and even actions of that character.
“Experience taking can be a powerful way to change our behavior and thoughts in meaningful and beneficial ways,” said Libby.
For example, in one experiment, researchers found that readers who identified with a character who overcame great obstacles in order to vote were more likely to vote in a real election only days later. Other experiments produced similar results, proving that a great character will do more than entertain us, or even influence our opinions. A great character can change our behavior.
So for anyone interested in middle grade books, why does this matter? Because scientists also say that the ages when children are most impressionable are in the middle reader years. If an adult whose behaviors are relatively formed can be impacted, then what about a third, fourth, or fifth grader, who is still deciding who he or she will become?
But Kaufman and Libby warn the influence can go both ways. While Harry Potter is heroic, he is certainly also a rule breaker. A reader may not imitate the behavior and also break important rules, but, according to Kaufman, he “may try to understand or justify the actions [the character] is committing.”
This isn’t to say that children should only be exposed to characters who never make mistakes, never have flaws, and never fail. In fact, a character who has to overcome his weaknesses or fix her errors might help the reader anticipate the consequences of their own actions. Children may avoid certain pitfalls if they can vicariously learn from the mistakes of their favorite characters.
But this study does suggest that parents of middle school readers should know what their children are reading, because it can have an impact on who they become. And authors of middle grade books should remember that their characters might do more than entertain for an afternoon. They can change lives.