Ever wondered whether fiction has the power to influence real-world behavior? One study that tested participants’ willingness to help pick up pens suggests that the answer is yes.
If you’re a creative writer, you’ve probably felt the power of good fiction. There’s something about a tale of courage and compassion that makes you want to get up and act, emulating those traits in your own life. One study has affirmed these feelings and shown that transportive fiction really can influence both a reader’s empathy and their likelihood of acting on that empathy.
In his article “Transportation into a Story Increases Empathy, Prosocial Behavior, and Perceptual Bias Toward Fearful Expressions,” Dan R. Johnson (2012) presents evidence that reading transportive fiction can have real-world effects not only on empathy levels but also on actions. Researchers conducted an experiment to determine how fiction affected participants’ empathy, mood, and prosocial behavior (behavior that will benefit society).
The participant group comprised 30 men and 32 women, with the median age being 21. Participants were administered a series of control questions regarding their perceived dispositional levels of empathy and of tendency to be transported into a story. The participants then read a short fiction piece written specifically for the study. Afterward, they answered questions about how the story had influenced their emotions, how empathetic the participants felt toward the characters in the story, and how the story both involved and transported the participants. Researchers then tested participants’ real-world propensity toward prosocial behavior by “accidentally” dropping pens in front of participants and recording whether they helped pick them up.
As researchers hypothesized, those who reported higher levels of immersion and affective empathy after reading the short story were more likely to help pick up the pens, which indicated that the story did affect real-world behavior. Furthermore, since one of the main characters in the story exhibited prosocial behavior, the study participants may have modeled the character’s behavior when they exhibited their own prosocial behavior by volunteering to help pick up the pens (Johnson 2012, 152).
The findings of this study have important implications for the writing world: stories of hope, bravery, and compassion not only encourage those feelings in readers but also help cultivate their desire to act on those feelings in ways that will brighten the world around them.
So, writers, your work matters! As Johnson (2012) states, “It appears that ‘curling up with a good book’ may do more than provide relaxation and entertainment.” Indeed, good fiction can truly work to break down the walls between us and help us reach out to one another in compassion and love. Transportive stories just might have the power to inspire your readers to action: donating to a charitable organization, reaching out to serve someone who is struggling, or joining an important cause.
To learn more about the real-world influence of transportive fiction, read the full article:
Johnson, Dan R. 2012. “Transportation into a Story Increases Empathy, Prosocial Behavior, and Perceptual Bias toward Fearful Expressions.” Personality and Individual Differences 52, no. 2 (January): 150–55. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2011.10.005.
—Karly Lay, Editing Research
FEATURE IMAGE BY YLANITE KOPPENS
Find more research
Check out Kassidy Acker’s Editing Research article for a deeper dive into how transportive fiction builds empathy: “The Secret to Evoking Empathy from Fiction Readers.”
Read Taylor Lash’s Editing Research article to learn more about how climate fiction can help heal our world: “Can Fiction Really Change the World?”
Take a look at Dora Byrd Rowe’s (2018) research article for Virginia Libraries to learn more about how fiction builds empathy: “The ‘Novel’ Approach: Using Fiction to Increase Empathy.”