Want to get people to vote? Write a compelling work of fiction

August 16, 2012

"Losing yourself" in a good book can actually change your behavior in real life, according to researchers at Ohio State University. The effect takes hold when people find themselves completely absorbed in a fictional character — "feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own" — and subsequently mirror that character's behavior afterward, the study finds.


Joan Dawkins, left, and Kay Jamison peruse books at Politics and Prose in the District. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

Researchers gave different versions of a short story about a student who overcame various obstacles to vote on Election Day, in a study of 82 undergraduate participants held shortly before the 2008 elections. The readers who became the most absorbed in the fictional student-voter character were significantly more likely to vote a few days later than those who did not form the same bond with the character. What prompted them to "get lost" in the story? A first-person narrative about a student who attended the same university that they did:

The results showed that participants who read a story told in first-person, about a student at their own university, had the highest level of experience-taking. And a full 65 percent of these participants reported they voted on Election Day, when they were asked later. In comparison, only 29 percent of the participants voted if they read the first-person story about a student from a different university.

Researchers did find that people can strongly identify with and "lose themselves" in fictional characters different from themselves, influencing their short-term behavior in the process. But that's most likely to happen when key differences between the fictional character and the reader (e.g. race or sexuality) are revealed late in the narrative, when the reader has already become immersed in the story.

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Brad Plumer | August 16, 2012