People read fiction to travel to fictional worlds, where one's responsibilities are few and one's experiences are many. But fiction also enables us to change our personality. Maja Djikic and I, together with Sara Zoeterman and Jordan Peterson (2009), showed that when people read one of the world's great short stories, changes occurred in their personality.
The story we asked people to read was Anton Chekhov's "The lady with the little dog." It's about a man and a woman who have an affair at a seaside resort, and find that their love for each other affects them far more profoundly than they had imagined. When we came to construct a control group for this study, Maja Djikic had the idea of writing a non-fiction-style courtroom report of a divorce case. We were careful to ensure it had all the same information as Chekhov's story, the same characters, the same events, the same conversations. It was exactly the same length, and the same level of reading difficulty. When we tested them, readers judged the courtroom account to be just as interesting as Chekhov's story, though not as artistic. You can download the whole study from the Archive section of www.onfiction.ca (click here).
People were randomly assigned to read either Chekhov's story or the courtroom account. Before and after reading we measured their personality using a standard measure of the Big Five traits, Extraversion, Neuroticism, Openness, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, as well as the intensities of a set of emotions. Those who read Chekhov's story changed significantly more in their personality traits and emotions than those who read the non-fiction-style courtroom report. The changes in personality were small but measurable, and they were mediated by their emotions: the more emotion people felt when reading, the larger the change in personality. The changes that we found were all in different directions. We think we can say that they were in each individual's own direction.
The explanation, we think, is that as people read Chekhov's story some tended to identify with one both of the story's characters, imagining themselves into the roles of the characters. Some readers many have disapproved of the characters' actions. In other studies we have found that in reading short stories, though not non-fictional pieces, people find that personal memories come to mind, so they think of some aspect of their lives in the context of the story. This is more likely to have occurred in this study while reading Chekhov's story than in reading the courtroom account.
So fiction enables people to imagine their selfhood into circumstances other than the usual. Thereby they extend their sense of themselves. This is not persuasion. It does not occur in a particular direction dictated by the writer of the story. As readers loosen up their own personality, perhaps to become more like a character in a story, or as they mentally enter situations other than those they are normally in, they change to become more themselves.
Anton Chekhov (1899). The lady with the little dog, In Anton Chekhov: Stories (R. Pevear & L. Volokhonsky, Trans.). New York: Bantam (current edition 2000).
Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley, Sara Zoeterman & Jordan Peterson, J. (2009). On being moved by art: How reading fiction transforms the self. Creativity Research Journal, 21, 24-29.
Image: Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper on honeymoon. Anton met Olga not long after writing the story discussed here; his marriage to her was a big change from his previous bachelor state.