Books Can Change Lives, According to Recent Research

A book can change lives if the story it tells is related to what we are and what we do. That's the conclusion a group of scientists reached when they decided to investigate to what extent reading modifies behavior.
Books Can Change Lives, According to Recent Research

Last update: 17 June, 2022

Reading can enrich us in many ways. For example, it helps us develop intellectual skills, provides pleasure, and increases our knowledge. Furthermore, a recent study claims that the consequences can go even further. In fact, books can change lives.

This research highlights the fact that, occasionally, the reading experience is extremely intense. In principle, it changes people’s behavior. However, it seems that it can even change lives in the long run.

Why does this happen? To put it simply, there are times when we strongly identify with the characters in a story. In fact, the story is so absorbing that we feel as if we’re living it. That’s how books can change lives.

Let’s take a closer look.

An open book is a talking brain, if closed it is a waiting friend; forgotten, a forgiving soul; destroyed, a heart that cries.” 

-Hindu proverb-

person reading a book
Reading helps you develop more critical thinking.

Books can change lives

A study on the impact of reading on life was conducted by experts from the University of Ohio, led by Dr. Lisa Libby. The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. She claimed that some texts generate a phenomenon called ‘experience taking’. It’s as if the reader finds themselves, effectively, ‘living’ in the narrative. This has effects on them in real life.

Several experiments were conducted for this study. In one of the most interesting, they worked with 82 volunteers. They were divided into four groups and each group was given a short fictional story to read about a student who encountered several obstacles on the morning of Election Day.

It should be noted that this experiment was carried out a few days before the presidential elections in the United States. One of the groups was given a story written in the first person. A second group was given one written in the third person. A third group was given a story in which the protagonist was a student at the same university as the participants. The last group was given one in which the protagonist was from another university.

After the experiment

After the volunteers read their assigned stories, they answered a series of questions. They were asked about the degree to which each of them had identified with the narrative or, in other words, had taken the experience of the character as their own.

The researchers found that volunteers who’d read the first-person version of a student from their own university showed a greater degree of identification with the character. From that group, 65 percent went on to vote in the actual presidential elections, even though some of them hadn’t considered doing so before.

In a similar experiment, the researchers found another interesting reality. 70 male heterosexuals were asked to read a story about a day in the life of another student. There were three versions of the story. In one, the character was revealed to be gay early in the story, one late in the story, and in one the student was heterosexual. Those that read the story where the character was identified as gay later in the story were found to be more empathic with homosexuals after reading the book.

woman reading a book
Reading fiction encourages empathy.

The conclusions of the study

The research confirmed that books can change lives. The scientists established that, when people find points of connection with characters in a story, it’s easy for them to end up experiencing those characters’ feelings as their own. In effect, it’s as if they lived the same experience.

It seems readers appropriate the experience narrated in the story and turn it into learning, just as if they’d had the experience themselves. It’s a process in which life itself merges with what’s being read, while the line that separates one from the other gradually blurs.

Study director, Lisa Libby, noted that there’s a difference between experience-taking and perspective-taking from reading. In the first case, the reader experiences a deep rapport with the narrative. That’s when books change lives. In the second case, no such identification occurs, and, while there’s a change in point of view, there isn’t in behavior.

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  • Geoff F. Kaufman, Lisa K. Libby. Cambio de creencias y comportamiento a través de la adquisición de experiencias. Revista de Personalidad y Psicología Social, 2012; DOI: 10.1037/a0027525.