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Better Parenting Through Literature

reading to kids, childrens literature

How literature can shape behavior.

You know how the TV is a pretty awesome partner in parenting? Well, literature can be too. Whereas the TV-mom is best used as anesthetic for getting your kids to zone out while you take a shower, books — stories! — can help in those more complicated parenting things like moral development and making good choices.

A new study to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has found that if a book is absorbing enough for its reader, the characters on a page can actually change future behaviors of the reader.

But only if the books are good. And only if your reader can identify with the main characters.

Researchers at Ohio State University looked at what happened to those participants in the study who reported that while reading a piece of fiction, they found themselves “feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own.” The researchers call this particular reaction “experience-taking.” It’s know among avid readers as “losing yourself in a good book.”

In one study, participants who achieved “experience-taking” after reading a book about overcoming obstacles to voting reported a higher rate of voting in an election that occurred just a few days later.

Another study, experience-taking participants who had read about a gay or non-white character reported greater sympathies for those groups in real life.

In a press release about the forthcoming article, one of the researchers explains the findings.

“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.

But don’t count on shaping attitudes and behaviors simply by handing someone a book. It has to actually be good. And the reader needs the right mindset and environment in order to become completely engrossed. Participants who read the books in a cubicle with a mirror didn’t show the same behavioral shifts.

“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.”

Researchers also noticed that, in the case of the books featuring a gay character, the later the protagonist’s sexual identity was revealed, the more a group of fraternity boys in the study reported “experience-taking” and the accompanying sympathetic views.

Interesting! I’d love to see the study that tests whether bad behaviors and attitudes can also be manipulated if experience-taking is achieved in less positive fiction.

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