Intrigued to discover how engaging with fiction might affect a reader's sense of identity, Djikic and I, working with Peterson and Sara Zoeterman, devised a new study. We randomly assigned 166 participants to read either a short story by Anton Chekhov, The Lady with the Little Dog, or a control text - a version of the story rewritten in documentary form (Creativity Research Journal, vol 20, in press). The texts were the same length and had the same characters, content and reading difficulty as well as the same level of interest for the readers.Whether the effect is always positive isn't certain; nor is it known whether narrative-based video games might produce a similar effect.
Before and after reading, our subjects completed questionnaires that assessed their personality traits and their emotions. We found that people who read the Chekhov story underwent larger changes in personality than those who read the control text - although the types of changes varied from person to person. Results from the emotions questionnaire indicated that the personality changes were mediated by the emotions experienced while reading: a person's emotional state is known to influence their scores on personality tests.
We think that readers found it easier to identify with the characters in the literary story than in the documentary version. By empathising with these characters, they became a bit more like them - but each in their own way. It seemed as though readers' personalities loosened up. Although the changes we measured were probably temporary, repeated reading of fiction may have more lasting effects.
I like to think of it this way: when I publish my novel, I'm doing humanity a favor.