A new study has suggested that when you "lose yourself" inside the world of a fictional character while reading a story, you may actually end up changing your own behaviour and thoughts to match that of the character.
Researchers at Ohio State University examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own - a phenomenon the researchers call "experience-taking."
They found that, in the right situations, experience-taking may lead to real changes, if only temporary, in the lives of readers.
In one experiment, for example, the researchers found that people who strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote were significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days later.
"Experience-taking can be a powerful way to change our behaviour and thoughts in meaningful and beneficial ways," said Lisa Libby, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University.
There are many ways experience-taking can affect readers.
In another experiment, people who went through this experience-taking process while reading about a character who was revealed to be of a different race or sexual orientation showed more favourable attitudes toward the other group and were less likely to stereotype.
"Experience-taking changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about, which can lead to good outcomes," said Geoff Kaufman, who led the study as a graduate student at Ohio State.
He is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Tiltfactor Laboratory at Dartmouth College.
Experience-taking doesn't happen all the time. It only occurs when people are able, in a sense, to forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity while reading, Kaufman said.
In one experiment, for example, the researchers found that most college students were unable to undergo experience-taking if they were reading in a cubicle with a mirror.
"The more you're reminded of your own personal identity, the less likely you'll be able to take on a character's identity," Kaufman said.
"You have to be able to take yourself out of the picture, and really lose yourself in the book in order to have this authentic experience of taking on a character's identity," he explained.