Laura Miller in Salon:
The news of recent research documenting how readers identify with the main characters in stories has mostly been taken as confirmation of the value of literary role models. Lisa Libby, an assistant professor at Ohio State University and co-author of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, explained that subjects who read a short story in which the protagonist overcomes obstacles in order to vote were more likely to vote themselves several days later. The suggestibility of readers isn’t news. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel of a sensitive young man destroyed by unrequited love, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” inspired a rash of suicides by would-be Werthers in the late 1700s. Jack Kerouac has launched a thousand road trips. Still, this is part of science’s job: Running empirical tests on common knowledge — if for no other reason than because common knowledge (and common sense) is often wrong.
A far more unsettling finding is buried in this otherwise up-with-reading news item. The Ohio State researchers gave 70 heterosexual male readers stories about a college student much like themselves. In one version, the character was straight. In another, the character is described as gay early in the story. In a third version the character is gay, but this isn’t revealed until near the end. In each case, the readers’ “experience-taking” — the name these researchers have given to the act of immersing oneself in the perspective, thoughts and emotions of a story’s protagonist — was measured. The straight readers were far more likely to take on the experience of the main character if they weren’t told until late in the story that he was different from themselves. This, too, is not so surprising. Human beings are notorious for extending more of their sympathy to people they perceive as being of their own kind. But the researchers also found that readers of the “gay-late” story showed “significantly more favorable attitudes toward homosexuals” than the other two groups of readers, and that they were less likely to attribute stereotypically gay traits, such as effeminacy, to the main character. The “gay-late” story actually reduced their biases (conscious or not) against gays, and made them more empathetic. Similar results were found when white readers were given stories about black characters to read.