Most writing seeks to influence you to think or feel how the author wants you to think or feel. The article you are reading now is no exception. We want you to think about certain things in a certain way.
But there’s another kind of influence, not typically associated with writing, that works in a different fashion. Here, you don’t try to make people think or feel in any particular way. Instead, you try to get them to be themselves.
As parents, for example, we urge our children to discover what will engage them, in a career perhaps, or in a relationship. And although we may wish that a spouse would be a bit more like this or that, we also know that the best kind of love enables someone to become his or her own true self.
Could a writer have an indirect influence of this kind, getting readers to think about themselves anew? We believe so. Indeed, in several studies over the past few years, we have found evidence that such influence is characteristic of literary art.
In one experiment, published in 2009 in the Creativity Research Journal, we and the psychologists Sara Zoeterman and Jordan B. Peterson randomly assigned participants to one of two groups: one whose members read “The Lady With the Dog,” an Anton Chekhov short story centered on marital infidelity, and another whose members read a “nonfictionalized” version of the story, written in the form of a report from a divorce court.
The nonfiction text was the same length and offered the same ease of reading as Chekhov’s story. It contained the same information, including some of the same dialogue. (Notably, though readers of this text deemed it less artistic than readers of “The Lady With the Dog” deemed their text, they found it just as interesting.)
Before they started reading, each participant took a standard test of the so-called big five personality traits: extroversion, neuroticism, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. The participants also rated how they were feeling, on a scale of 0 to 10, for 10 different emotions. Then, after reading the text they were assigned, the participants were again given the personality test and asked to rate their emotions.
The personality scores of those who read the nonfiction text remained much the same. But the personality scores of those who read the Chekhov story fluctuated. The changes were not large but they were statistically significant, and they were correlated with the intensity of emotions people experienced as they read the story. Chekhov’s story seemed to get people to start thinking about their personalities — about themselves — in new ways.
In another experiment, published in 2012 in the journal Scientific Study of Literature, we broadened the scope beyond a single Chekhov story. We and a psychology graduate student, Matthew Carland, asked participants to read one of eight short stories or one of eight essays. The stories included Frank O’Connor’s “My Oedipus Complex” and Jean Stafford’s “Night Club.” The essays included Henri Bergson’s “Why Do We Laugh?” and Rabindranath Tagore’s “East and West.” We altered the essays a bit so that their average length, ease of reading and interest to readers were the same as those of the stories.
As in our earlier experiment, we measured our participants’ personality traits and emotions before and after reading. We had expected that people who read a piece of fiction would experience the greatest fluctuation in their personality scores, but we didn’t find this. The genre of the text — fiction or nonfiction — didn’t matter much; what mattered was the degree of perceived artistry. Those who read a story or essay that they judged to be artistic changed their personality scores significantly more than did those who judged what they read to be less artistic.
Most recently, in a theoretical paper published last month in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, we drew on the studies described above, as well as on research that compared preoccupations of famous fiction writers with those of famous physicists, to outline a psychological conception of artistic literature as being based not on persuasion or instruction (as, for example, the Roman poet Horace theorized in “The Art of Poetry”) but on indirect communication.
A great deal has been written about art, but only recently has research begun in earnest about what goes on in the mind and brain when reading literature. Outside the domain of love relationships and some forms of psychotherapy, the idea of communication that has effects of a nonpersuasive yet transformative kind has rarely been considered in psychology. We hope our studies encourage others to investigate further this important kind of influence.
Keith Oatley is an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology, and Maja Djikic is a senior research associate, both at the University of Toronto.