- Some still believe the myth that personality is set in stone by age 30, but research suggests reading fiction can still affect one's personality.
- Studies have shown that reading fiction promotes more empathy in people.
- Fiction affects us because it puts us in the minds of others, requires us to open up to a new experience, and invites us to judge for ourselves.
William James said it over 100 years ago: Personality is set in stone by the age of 30.
But despite a proliferation of data in the ensuing decades to counter this assertion, the myth remains firmly in place. Not only do many believe that personality is fixed by the age of 30, even some scholars maintain that your personality is pre-determined by your genetics.
All of this would be well and good, perhaps, if you like your personality just as it is. Maybe you’ve found exactly the right balance among the yin and yang of your various tendencies. However, the chances are probably pretty good that you'd like to tweak a few things. Just as many of us wish we could be more physically fit, smarter, or luckier in love, we also seek to improve our personalities.
Some personality traits make life particularly difficult. For example, being high in neuroticism, the chronic tendency to feel anxious and sad, can obviously affect your mood on a daily basis. The personality trait of introversion may have significant benefits, but introverts may also have difficulty advancing in a professional world that rewards its opposite, extraversion.
Other traits also have plusses and minuses: You may be highly agreeable, another of the basic personality qualities, making you a person that others like to have around. But if you’re too agreeable, you can find yourself pushed around by others; even people who everyone likes might need to tone their agreeableness down a bit. And if you’re cranky and cantankerous, in contrast, you might be seeking ways to be more likable.
Openness to experience is the fifth of the “Big Five” personality traits that psychologists believe make up our basic dispositions. Being high on this quality, as the term implies, can make you intellectually curious and flexible. On the other hand, if you’re too open to experiences, you may become restless and easily discontented with the status quo.
Because so many people believe in the personality-set-in-stone myth, they may appraise their own traits as ones they’ll be stuck with throughout life.
You’ll be happy to learn that there may be hope.
Research suggests reading fiction can change personality
University of Toronto researchers Maja Djikic and Keith Oatley (2014) decided to tackle the question of whether and how reading fiction can change personality. In a fascinating review of an emerging field of research, they propose that there are specific ways in which fiction can engage readers in ways that enhance important personality qualities.
One personality quality enhanced by literature is empathy, the ability to understand someone else’s point of view. Although not one of the cluster of five traits called the Big Five, empathy is tied into our basic ways of relating to others, including our intimate partners. Empathy is also related to openness to experience, in that the more open you are to your own experiences, the better you are at being able to feel and imagine the experiential world of others.
Djikic and Oatley concluded that, all other things being equal, people who read more fiction are also better at reading other people’s emotions. It’s not that empathic people read more, but that reading promotes empathy.
If you’re a “chick lit” fan (think Bridget Jones and her ilk), it turns out, you may be particularly likely to develop your empathic skills, especially compared to other types of readers. Romance novels are the most likely to promote empathy—and science fiction the least.
Correlational studies, although controlling for pre-existing personality, can’t determine cause and effect. Taking the experimental plunge, other studies have examined what happened to people’s empathy scores after reading narrative fiction. Not only did people become more empathic in terms of being able to interpret other people’s emotions, but they also acted in more altruistic ways. People low in openness to experience, specifically, also became more empathic after reading fiction but not after reading short non-fiction pieces.
Three ways fiction stories affect the reader
According to Djikic and Oatley’s analysis, there are three aspects of art in literature that can affect not only short-term but longer-range changes in personality:
- Literary fiction puts us inside the minds of others. Fiction gives us the opportunity to explore the subjective world of its characters. Reading fiction gives you social expertise, just as reading about science or history allows you to gain strengths in those areas.
- Literature can temporarily destabilize personality. The style, figurative expressions, and invitations to involve the reader all help to put readers through an emotional roller coaster similar to what they might experience if they were the protagonists. Like dance or music, well-written narrative fiction can put you in a frame of mind that allows you to open yourself up to inner experiences.
- Artistic literature is an indirect communication method. Unlike advertising, scientific writing, or propaganda, artistic literature offers cues and “invite[s] readers to draw their own inferences” (p. 502). By engaging the reader in drawing inferences about what characters in their stories are feeling, artistic literature is very much like a conversation. It’s through talking to others that we learn to understand how and why people feel the way they do; literature operates on the same principles.
If you’re already an avid fiction reader, the results of Djikic and Oatley’s analysis probably don’t surprise you. The enjoyment of exploring other people’s mental states is perhaps what drives you to be such an avid reader in the first place.
We don’t know yet whether reading fiction can directly change other personality traits in the same way it affects openness to experience. However, extrapolating from this ongoing and important area of research, it would seem plausible that the “destabilization” these researchers talk about can spread to other areas of personality beyond empathy.
Learning about the inner states of others through reading fiction may prompt us to explore our own selves and personalities and, in the process, gain insight if not instigation to change the parts of ourselves we don’t like. By becoming more open and aware of other people’s feelings, through empathy, it may also be possible to find the fulfillment you seek in your own long-term relationships.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015
Djikic, M., & Oatley, K. (2014). The art in fiction: From indirect communication to changes of the self. Psychology Of Aesthetics, Creativity, And The Arts, 8(4), 498-505. doi:10.1037/a0037999