Monday, 15 August 2011

People always talk about books changing us. Could we actually measure that?

In the competitive world of book publishing, when the going gets tough, the tough get creative. In recent years that’s mostly meant investing in digital projects like e-books and apps. But one group of researchers suggests publishers might find great new innovation in an unexpected discipline: the psychology of fiction.

Keith Oatley, professor emeritus in the Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology at the University of Toronto and a leading expert in the field, says that for far too long, scientists have “sneered” at fiction and its effects on the human psyche.

“Psychologists like methods where they can very carefully justify the conclusions that are drawn because the methods they use are statistically sophisticated and reliable, so that anybody else who would go through the same procedures would find the same results,” he explains. It was through his research on emotions and his own creative writing that Oatley, author of the novels The Case of Emily V. (Secker & Warburg, 1993), A Natural History (Penguin Canada, 1998), and Therefore Choose (Goose Lane Editions, 2010), began exploring the possibilities of scientifically studying fiction.

“People always talk about books changing us. Could we actually measure that?” he says.

As a grad student at U of T, Raymond Mar, now an assistant professor of psychology at York University and associate editor of Scientific Study of Literature, worked with Oatley on doing just that. Mar sums up the central assumption Oatley developed to frame their research: “When people are reading literary fiction, they’re creating in their mind a simulation of experience. It’s a simulation that’s cognitive as well as emotional, and has all these different components.”

From there, Mar says, it wasn’t much of a stretch to wonder: if we’re engaging in these various social interactions through fiction, might it be the case that those who read a lot of fiction are developing better social skills than those who don’t?

To test this hypothesis, Oatley and his colleagues developed experiments to measure empathy, and examine what Oatley calls the “big five personality traits” – extroversion, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. In one such experiment, the researchers randomly assigned readers one of two versions of Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Lady With the Little Dog”– a translation of the original and another comprising only basic plot points. Beforehand, researchers measured the readers’ personality traits and their emotions at the time of the experiment.

“We found the people who read the [whole] story changed a bit in their personality,” Oatley says. “What we found interesting was that they all changed in somewhat different ways.”

The observations of the researchers are significant because they differ from the psychology of persuasion, which assumes that media affects everyone in the same way. “In literary art, what you’re asking people is, ‘Alright, how does this affect you? How do you feel about this? How do you think about it?’”

Soon after starting their research, Oatley and Mar began meeting regularly with a few other psychology researchers as a creative writing group. By 2007, Oatley, Mar, Maja Djikic, and Rebecca Wells Jopling at U of T, and Kirsten Valentine Cadieux at the University of Minnesota, founded On Fiction, a blog dedicated to promoting the latest research in the field.

To Oatley, the website and the research it promotes is valuable to people interested in publishing and creative writing because, at its heart, it introduces the psychological study of creativity, which, he says, is “absolutely central” to all aspects of the industry. And if unlocking the secrets behind the creative process isn’t incentive enough, Mar says their work also provides ammunition in the fight against cuts to public funding of literary arts and libraries.

“It helps provide quantitative, empirical, scientific evidence for a lot of the benefits of reading,” he says. “For a long time we’ve been talking about the benefits of reading with respect to vocabulary, literacy, and these such things. We’re now beginning to see that there’s a much broader impact.”