Here at the University of Texas, we have started a new program called the Human Dimensions of Organizations. It is an education program for people in the business world that draws from the humanities and the social and behavioral sciences to help people think like leaders. A key aspect of thinking like a leader is understanding what the people you are leading are going through.
You might wonder why the humanities are included in a program that is designed to help people in business. Why would a business leader need any training in literature, for example?
One argument that is made frequently is that literature provides people with an opportunity to experience someone else’s life. An old Caucasian man can get a sense of what it is like to be a young African American woman by reading a story.
This is a nice sentiment, but is it actually true? That is, can you really begin to identify with someone just by reading a story? This question was addressed in an interesting paper by Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby in the July, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The authors explored two main questions. First, what factors influence whether a reader will experience the world of a person who is different from themselves when reading a story? Second, are there consequences of experiencing the world of a different person?
In one study, the authors measured the strength of people’s self-consciousness. Some people are often highly focused on who they are, while others go through life without thinking often about their identity. After measuring the strength of self-consciousness, college student participants read a story about a college student written in the first person. The story described an introvert who went to a college party. After reading the story, participants rated how easy it was to identify with the main character of the story. They were also asked a number of questions about themselves, many of which asked them about the degree to which they were introverted.
People who were high in self-consciousness were less likely to identify with the main character of the story than those low in self-consciousness. That is, the more that you tend to think about your own identity, the harder it is to take on another person’s identity. The more strongly that readers identified with the main character of the story, the more introverted they rated themselves to be. That is, experiencing the world through the eyes of an introvert made people think of themselves as more introverted.
A follow-up study demonstrated that if you reduce people’s emphasis on their own identity, it makes it easier for them to identify with the main character of a story. A second follow-up study found that people are more likely to identify with a character when the story is written in the first-person than if it is written in the third-person. Presumably, this happens, because a story in the third person creates distance between the reader and the characters.
One study also found a significant relationship between identifying with a character and later behavior. In this study, students read about a college student who overcame a series of obstacles on the way to go vote in an election. The story was written either in the first person or the third person. As just described, people identified more with the main character when the story was written in the first person than in the third person. The 2008 Presidential election was held one month after the study was conducted. All participants were screened to be eligible to vote in that election. They were contacted after the election to see how many participants actually voted. Overall, 65% of the participants who read the first-person version of the story voted, but only 25% of the participants who read the third-person version of the story voted.
Two other studies in this paper found that when people are able to identify with main characters who differ from themselves in race or sexual orientation, that gives them a more favorable attitude toward those individuals and the groups they come from.
Putting all of this together, then, literature does provide a way for people to experience the world in a different way. When readers are willing to identify with a character, it can change attitudes and behavior. Readers who identify with a character will feel more favorably toward that character and may also take on goals of that character.
This research suggests that reading about different groups can be helpful for aspiring leaders. One of the greatest problems in business leadership is a failure to understand how the work environment can influence different people in different ways. A leader who has experienced other people’s lives will have a valuable perspective on the way that different people think, act, and feel.