The Impact of Books We Love

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?

If the study holds up, then a reader who identifies with Meg from A Wrinkle in Time may become more protective of others. The reader who enjoys Turtle from The Westing Gamemay become more curious. And if readers strongly identify with Harry Potter, then they may be more likely to act bravely, defend others, and behave compassionately.

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.

7 Responses to The Impact of Books We Love

  1. Wonderful post! I like to think I was shaped by the Laura Ingalls’ courage and the rebelliousness of Harriet the Spy. But this makes me wonder about the effect of Twilight…

  2. Ah yes, this is such a great reason why books can make kids more compassionate. I recently read Wonder by R. J. Palacio and I truly think reading her book from the perspective of a facially deformed child made me a better person. Love your post!

  3. I read this article a few weeks ago, too. Fascinating stuff, Jennifer. I’m glad you shared it here on MUF.

    Jennifer Nielsen Reply:

    @Kimberley Griffiths Little, This sort of things just fascinates me too. Glad you liked the post!

  4. Great post and very fascinating research. Now I can totally blame Bilbo for my eating habits.

  5. Wow, fascinating post! I’d never considered this, but now I can completely see that I did this as a child. I spied on everyone after I read Harriet. :)

    Kimberley Griffiths Little Reply:

    @Michelle Schusterman, I did the same thing, Michelle! Got a notebook and skulked around, spying on people. :-)