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Reading Fiction Impacts Aggressive Behavior

• September 07, 2011 • 2:51 PM

Researchers report that reading literature depicting aggression can impact how those readers respond to provocation.

A popular, narrative-driven form of entertainment — one that can be easily accessed via a variety of electronic devices — has been linked to aggressive behavior.

Violent video games? Well, sure. But newly published research points a finger at a much older art form: the written word.

“Reading aggression in literature can influence subsequent aggressive behavior, which tends to be specific to the type of aggression contained in the story,” a Brigham Young University research team led by Sarah M. Coyne writes in the British Journal of Social Psychology.

The study does not show that reading a fictional account of an aggressive action increases belligerent behavior, but it suggests exposure to such literature has a psychological impact on readers, affecting the way they respond to provocations.

Coyne has conducted a series of interesting studies on aggression in pop culture, including a 2010 study of reality television — which, she found, contains more acts of aggression per hour than fictional programming. She notes that most research in this area has focused on television, movies or video games, ignoring the potential impact of the written word. Her team begins to rectify that with this paper.

Coyne divides aggression into two types: physical and “relational,” which she defines as “behavior aimed at harming a person’s relationships or social standing in the group.” Slapping someone on the face is physical aggression; spreading nasty rumors about them is relational aggression.

She and her colleagues describe two experiments that use this distinction to demonstrate the impact of reading fiction.

In the first, 67 university students read a short story about a disagreement between a college freshman and her roommate. Half read a version in which the confrontation concludes with “a physical fight involving slapping, scratching, pushing and throwing objects.” The others read an alternate ending, in which the aggrieved freshman “secretly records the roommate breaking some dorm rules and threatens to post the video on YouTube.”  

While reading the story on a computer screen, participants were interrupted by their “partner” (actually a computer program), who emailed them messages reading “Can u hurry up?” and “You’re wasting my time!” After finishing the 1,200-word tale, they played a computer game with this annoying opponent, sounding a loud buzzer to indicate they had won a round.

“Participants who read the physical aggression story were more physically aggressive than those who read the relational aggression story,” Coyne and her colleagues report. Specifically, they subjected their opponent to louder noise levels and maintained those levels for longer periods of time.

In other words, those who read a fictional description of physical violence were more likely to punish an irritating stranger by making him or her physically uncomfortable.

The second study used the same method as the first, except it measured relational aggression. After reading one or the other version of the story (and getting interrupted in the process), the 90 participants played a virtual ball-throwing game with their annoying opponent and an anonymous third party.

Those who had read the alternate ending, in which the aggressive roommate was threatened with being ostracized, effectively shunned their opponents, throwing the ball their way less frequently than those who had read the violent story.

In both cases, provoked people who were given the opportunity to engage in a specific form of retaliatory violence were more likely to do so if they had just read a fictional account of similar activity.

Again, this does not show that reading fiction increases aggressiveness. For the moment, at least, no one is comparing Crime and Punishment with Grand Theft Auto.

But the research suggests having a scene in our head can impact our subsequent behavior, and that scene needn’t be conveyed in the form of eye-popping computer graphics. Descriptive prose will do quite nicely.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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