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:
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:
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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