Yes, Reading About Edward Cullen Will Make You Sparkle

Every once in a while I present some tools in the writer’s arsenal for taking over the world. We've talked about writers as brain manipulators, and storytelling as Vulcan mind meld. Today, I will show you how Stephanie Meyer and JK Rowling are actually Borg queens, assimilating all unsuspecting readers in their path.

Reading assimilation is a common experience. Perhaps you're walking to work after reading Harry Potter and find yourself wishing for a broomstick. Or you step into the sun after reading Twilight and half-expect your skin to sparkle. Psychologists Shira Gabriel and Ariana Young have coined the term narrative-collective assimilation for the idea that reading a story will cause the reader to assimilate into the “collective”, or people-groups, described in the narrative. And now they have experimental evidence.

The study they ran was a fun one for bookworms. Gabriel had 140 undergraduates read a passage from either Twilight (Chapter 13, Confessions), or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Chapter 7, The Sorting Hat, and Chapter 8, The Potions Master). They predicted that people who read Harry Potter would identify more with wizards after reading, and that people who read Twilight would identify more with vampires. After the participants read the passage, they took several tests to measure how much they had assimilated.

The first test was called the Implicit Association Test. It's a bit confusing, but I'll do my best to explain it. The task was to categorize words at a computer. For example, they see a display like this:

WIZARDS                                         VAMPIRES


The top line is just a reminder to press the left button for words having to do with wizards, and press the right button for words having to do with vampires. Then, words like "wand" appear underneath, and in this case, the correct answer would be to press the left button to categorize it as a wizard word.

Okay so far?  Then, the participants do the same task with different categories. For example, a display like this:

ME                                                  NOT ME

This time, they press the left button for words having to do with “me” (myself, mine, etc.), and the right button for “not me” words (they, there's, etc.).

Now comes the important part. They do both categorization tasks at once. For example:

WIZARDS                                     VAMPIRES
ME                                                 NOT ME


They get  vampire, wizard, “me,” or “not me” words on the screen, and they have to categorize it to the correct side. They key is this: if the participant self-identifies as a vampire, they will be faster if the vampire words and  the "me" words are on the same side.  On the other hand, participants who self-identify with wizards will be faster if the “me” words are on the same side as the wizard words.

So by swapping whether the "me" words are on the same side as the vampires or the wizards, psychologists can get a measure of whether a participant identifies more with vampires or wizards. As predicted, Harry Potter readers identified more with wizards, and Twilight readers identified more with vampires.

The implicit association task is a strange one though, because it's very artificial. It's hard to take some data about reaction time differences for categorizing words and drawing any strong conclusions about what it actually means. So it's nice that the experimenters also rounded out their study with an explicit measure. They gave participants a questionnaire called  The Twilight/Harry Potter Narrative Collective Assimilation Scale (Ah, I love psychology). Mixed in amongst filler questions were some key questions like “How sharp are your teeth?”(vampire), “How British do you feel?” (Harry Potter), and “Do you think, if you tried really hard, you might be able to make an object moved just using the power of your mind?” (Accio horcrux!). Again, Twilight readers rated more highly for the vampire questions and Harry Potter readers rated more highly for the Wizard questions.

Not all participants were equally likely to be assimilated into the "collective". Participants were also tested on a scale that measured their tendency to fulfill their social needs by fitting into groups, with questions like "When I join a group, I usually develop a strong sense of identification with that group.” It turns out that the people who were more likely to assimilate into groups in real life were also more likely to assimilate into the books they read.

So writers, go forth and assimilate your readers into your respective narrative worlds. Resistance is futile.  

In the meantime, tell me. Have you ever read a book that made you want to jump in and become one of the characters?

Gabriel S, & Young AF (2011). Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective-Assimilation Hypothesis. Psychological science PMID: 21750250

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  1. This is a really interesting study! The best books are the ones that make me want to jump in and become one of the characters. The first book I read that had that effect on me was Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffery. I wanted to be a dragon rider so bad!

  2. In the books that I find myself invested the most in, I sometimes imagine even characters I've created in my books becoming part of them. Is that really weird?

  3. yet another interesting post. To answer your question, I've read a lot of stories that made me wish I was a character within. Harry Potter is one of them, others include Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar and Elemental Masters series, and Piers Anthony's Xanth series, among others.

  4. This is quite intriguing! I didn't completely understand how the test works, but I think I get the gist of it. I agree with the thought that you feel part of the story, though - I read Harry Potter when I was about nine, and for a little while I was actually expecting to get a Hogwarts letter when I turned eleven. For serious.
    And then reality set in ...

  5. I do believe my collective assimilation with characters is very often on high, depending upon the skill of the storyteller. There was an instance, however, when the setting grabbed me so fully - in Annie Proulx's The Shipping News - that I had to visit Newfoundland. And I did. Another remarkable example of being full involved was one I observed - I was reading a picture book to my two-year-old granddaughter when she took the book, laid it on the floor, and put herself onto the page, a little like Alice going through the looking glass.

  6. Heather -- I loved Pern! But I wanted to be a dragon :-)

    Matt -- when I was reading Graceling, I kept on reading Katsa (the main character's name) as Kyra (my main character's name)

    musesings -- Thanks for reminding me about the Valdemar series. I'm a little rusty on their magic system, but I wanted one of those talking horses...

    Mercy -- I was a bit older when I read harry potter, but my freshman dining hall in college had an uncanny resemblance to the Hogwarts dining hall.

    Sarah -- Haha, that's awesome about jumping onto the book. I guess that's what we'd all be doing if we were young enough not to be self concious.

  7. Sarah, that is a very sweet story about your granddaughter. As a child, I loved books that dealt in magic (way pre-Harry Potter). I remember going into my father's wardrobe, hoping against hope that I would brush up against fur coats, and then, snowy pine branches as in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

    I loved the E. Nesbit books, and Edward Eager's Nesbit "tribute" books, also Alison Uttley's A Traveler in Time. At 10, on a visit to Westminster Abbey, I became convinced that a magic sixpence in my pocket had just carried me back in time--in fact, my wish on the coin had been foolproof. I wished it would allow me to time-travel, even if I didn't remember a thing about it afterward. Sure enough, a few seconds later had a lurching feeling, and I could have sworn I was standing just a few feet away from where I'd just been in the dark church.

    Who knows? Maybe it actually did happen.

    This collective assimilation thing is one of the great pleasures of reading. Even if the scientists call it something that makes it sound like some kind of fascist movement.

  8. Very interesting!

    It caught me a bit off guard that those likely to be assimilated in real life were likely to be assimilated into novels as well--there goes the stereotypical image of the reclusive bookworm.

  9. So, team Harry vs team Edward, this time? ;)
    I wonder if the assimilation, as tested above, has any lasting implications: if they tested them a week or month later, in a diff environment, would the results be the same. Itd be fun to play with variables here, give some of the Harry set the Twilight passage before the second test, and so on.

  10. Helen -- ha! You're totally right about the fascist thing. (And I think you were right about the penny too :-P)

    cplangord -- that's a really good point about the stereotypical bookworm. You're right. I would've expected the bookworm to be more into the story. Food for thought…

    Jesse -- yeah, and I would also be interested in seeing whether personality or enjoyment of the story has any effect on how long the assimilation lasts.

  11. Jesse poses some great questions. What I would also like to know is whether there is differing assimilation between first-person narratives (like Twilight) and third-person narratives (with or without limited omniscience, like Harry Potter).

    Great post, Livia.

  12. VDGriesdoom -- Yes! I so want to do that experiment. And it's interesting cuz Twilight is not told from a vampire's point of view, it's told from Bella's.

  13. Yeah when I read the Count of Monte Cristo I wanted to be the count. Basically I wanted to be extremely rich, badass, smarter than everyone, and working with a vendetta that is completely justified.

    and I also wanted to be like those twilight vampires, rich, badass, run really fast, live forever, be sick at the piano...the list goes on

  14. I would love to be a part of Harry Potter's world (post the demise of Voldemort, of course). I can also remember wanting to be part of Enid Blyton's Magic Far-Away Tree when I was little.