Don't Believe All You Read

 We all like a good story and when it comes stories about politics and our world in general, we love it when we can identify with the “good guys” and clamor for more of the same. Often we don’t seem to care if the story is fact or fiction, we respond.

This leads us straight to the question of how easy is it to influence us with a carefully crafted piece of prose. This doesn’t have to be intentional propaganda apparently, but just a piece of fiction in which we can identify with the protagonist. Kaufman and Libby put this to the test with groups of undergrads at Ohio State were they ran six studies which they reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1,2).

The students were given reading assignments with stories with protagonists whom they could readily associate with, and their subsequent opinions and behavior was recorded. For example, after they had mopped up a story where the protagonist had battled against all odds so that they could cast their democratic vote, the readers were all inspired to vote in the coming election at a higher rate than the students who hadn’t had the reading assignment.

On the one hand, this sounds like their awareness of their responsibilities was triggered by their reading – a good thing most of us would say. But could it be that they were a little more malleable than we would like to imagine we are?

The studies got more subtle with the last two stories. One dealt with an African-American and his hard life. It came in two versions. The first declared his ethnicity up front and the other late in the story. The readers of the latter variation were more sympathetic.

The other study used a story of a gay character, but one story delayed the discovery of his sexual preference until late and again, a greater understanding of his problems was evident with the readers than the group who were aware from the beginning of the story.

So it seems that if we get to connect with the protagonist of a story, we tend to get into character. I wait with baited breath to see a similar study with movies and see if the effect is stronger. Perhaps, though, we should just be careful and not believe all we read.

  1. G. F. Kaufman & L. K. Libby,  J. Person. Soc. Psych., 2012. DOI: 10.1037/a0027525

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