Friday, August 5, 2011

And So the Lion Fell in Love with the Muggle

When you see an academic, peer reviewed, published paper with the title "Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten" you stop, you read, you blog.

To say that most people like being parts of groups would, in my opinion, be stating the obvious. Think about your own life for a minute. You probably belong to all kinds of groups. Maybe it's sports, a hobby, a social group. We are driven by a need for social connection. We can even assimilate into a group where we do not belong by adopting its behaviors, attitudes, and traits. This type of assimilation is the topic of today's post, except this paper tests it in a unique and entertaining way.

Let's combine the idea of reading a good book, getting caught up in the story and the idea of assimilation. The idea that experiencing a story, a narrative, leads to psychological assimilation with the group described in the story is what the authors of the paper are calling the narrative collective-assimilation hypothesis. Now, studies have shown that people experience a sense of belonging when they read a story, or that familiar narratives can alleviate loneliness. Some people may identify with certain characters which may lead to a merging of self with those characters. If you took a look at the brains of readers you would notice that the regions that are activated when they read are very similar to the regions activated when they imagine and actually engage in the activities.

The study tested this hypothesis by having people read a passage from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to see if it would lead them to "become" wizards or a passage from Twilight to see if they would "become" vampires. The researchers recruited 140 volunteers and had them go through a series of steps.

Step 1: The participants completed the Collective and Rational Self-Construal Scale to gauge their "tendency to fulfill the need to belong through collective and relational bonds." Basically, the more a person needs to fulfill a social need through identifying with a group the more they will exhibit this narrative collective assimilation.

Step 2: They read. If you are like me then you want to know which sections of the books were picked. From Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone the participants read chapters 7 ("The Sorting Hat") and chapter 8 ("The Potions Master") in which Harry and his wizard friends are sorted into their school houses and Harry first encounters Professor Snape. From Twilight the participants read chapter 13 ("Confessions") where Edward describes to Bella what it is like to be a vampire.

Step 3: The participants answered the Implicit Association Test that asked them questions about their implicit identification with vampires relative to wizards. For example, they were asked to categorize "me" words (myself, mine) and "wizard" words (wand, broomstick, spells, potions) or "not me" words (they, theirs) and "vampire" words (blood, undead, fangs, bitten).

Step 4: The participants completed the Twilight/Harry Potter Narrative Collective-Assimilation Scale. As names for tests go this one is right up there with the best. The questions were designed to measure collective assimilation of Twilight vampires ("Compared to the average person, how high do you think you could jump?" "How long could you go without sleep?" and "How sharp are your teeth?") and of Harry Potter wizards ("How British do you feel?" "Do you think, if you tried really hard, you might be able to make an object move just using the power of your mind?" and "Do you think you might ever be able to make yourself disappear and reappear somewhere else?"). The British one is my favorite.

Step 5: The participants completed the Transportation Scale, that measured their level of absorption into the story, the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule, that measured mood, a life satisfaction measure, and questions about their reading habits.

That's a whole lot of surveys!

After scoring all the answers to all those surveys the researchers found support for their narrative collective-assimilation hypothesis. People who read Harry Potter associated themselves with wizards. People who read Twilight associated themselves with vampires. This association was moderated by the degree to which these people fulfilled their belongingness needs with stories. People also reported positive affect and increased life satisfaction. You can't, and the authors didn't, ignore the fact that people like to affiliate with symbolic groups (like celebrities). They suggest that the mechanism demonstrated in their paper also may help to explain the affiliation people like with these groups.

So next time you pick up your favorite Harry Potter book (mine is Azkaban) or read your Twilight books for the million-and-oneth time think to yourself, "How British am I?" or "Am I sparkling?" Or you could just enjoy your favorite read. Right now I'm reading A Game of Thrones and think I might like to get a direwolf.

Here's the paper:
Gabriel, Shira and Ariana F. Young (2011) Becoming a vampire without being bitten: The narrative collection-assimilation hypothesis. Psychological Science: published online 12 July. (DOI:

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