So lately, I’ve heard a lot of young people (online and IRL) discussing the impact books, TV shows and movies have on them. And not just in the “wow, the ending of Avatar: The Last Airbender made me *feel* things” way either. One person said that, after watching Gossip Girl, she found herself embodying the characters and it created more drama in her life—you can imagine the dangers of living life thinking you’re Blaire Waldorf!
I even found this meme, pictured below—that received over 92k reactions in just a fortnight!—about changing your personality to align with a movie. On TikTok, creators are going viral with painfully relatable videos referencing changing up their whole personality as the credits roll in a movie theatre. So what is this mirroring phenomenon, and is it something we should be worried about?
Researchers at Ohio State University have explored the mirroring phenomenon, dubbing it “experience-taking” and, good news, you aren’t alone in feeling it! Curious about the phenomenon, they tested how the emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and internal responses of characters can be adopted by people and what impacts it. Humans turn to entertainment media—books, TV shows, movies—to experience a life different from their own, to escape from reality. When we lose ourselves in the narrative, sometimes experience-taking or mirroring occurs.
However, reminders of our own existence can interrupt the experience-taking process. For example, in one of the Ohio State experiments, the researchers found that most participants didn’t undergo experience-taking if they were reading in front of a mirror.
“The more you’re reminded of your own personal identity, the less likely you’ll be able to take on a character’s identity,” lead researcher Geoff Kaufman said.
On the other hand, when we fully immerse ourselves in a story that features characters we empathise with, we’re more likely to adopt traits from them. In another experiment, the researchers found that first-person perspectives are also more likely to trigger experience-taking.
“When you share a group membership with a character from a story told in first-person, you’re much more likely to feel like you’re experiencing his or her life events. And when you undergo this experience-taking, it can affect your behaviour for days afterwards,” co-author Lisa Libby said.
Another experiment in the experience-taking study tested 70 male heterosexual college students. Knowing that humans tend to relate to characters they share similarities with, the researchers wanted to test the impact of revealing character traits later in the story. In this case, sexuality was the variable used.
Each participant consumed one of three stories, all of which followed a day in the life of another male student; the first revealed the protagonist was gay early in the story, the second identified the character’s homosexuality later in the narrative, and the third featured a heterosexual character. Each student filled out a questionnaire after reading the story, gauging their level of experience-taking.
Participants who read the story where the character was identified as gay later in the narrative reported higher levels of experience-taking than those who found out his sexuality earlier on. Libby explained that, by choosing not to disclose the character’s sexuality until after the reader had gotten to know them, they were able to relate and more fully-immerse themselves as the protagonist.
“If they learned late about the character’s homosexuality, they were just as likely to lose themselves in the character as the people who read about a heterosexual student,” shared Libby.
The version of the story participants read even changed their perspectives on gay people. Those who consumed the gay-late narrative reported significantly more favourable attitudes toward queer people. They walked away from the experiment more accepting of homosexuality than the readers of both the “gay-early” and heterosexual narratives.
The characters who read the “gay-late” narrative were also found to stereotype queer men less. While the “gay-early” consumers believed the character was emotional and feminine, the gay-late characters did not. Similar results were found in an experiment where white students read about a Black student, who was identified as Black either early or late in the narrative.
It can be argued that, with these results, unconscious bias plays a role. The participants were quick to judge a protagonist they couldn’t relate to, but those who had already seen similarities in the character were more empathetic. Media allows us to see and experience alternative lifestyles, and it’s from here our understanding grows.
One major takeaway from this experience-taking research is the weight of entertainment media. The books, TV shows and movies we consume have a bigger impact on us than we might realise. It’s for this reason we need to continue to push for inclusivity in all media forms—from more Black superheroes in comic books, to more female leads in films.
Libby explained that experience-taking or mirroring is different from perspective-taking. In perspective-taking, we try to understand what another person is going through without losing sight of our own identity.
“Experience-taking is much more immersive—you’ve replaced yourself with the other,” she said. When the media creates multi-faceted characters and avoids stereotypes and tokenism, people are exposed to new insights. It’s human nature to relate to one another, and experience-taking might be the most effective form of empathy that we can feel daily.
Libby also says that experience-taking is spontaneous; you don’t direct people to do it, it happens naturally under the right circumstances. That’s why it’s so important for inclusivity in entertainment media to become the norm. How can we expect people to grow and learn when the narratives they consume don’t reflect different perspectives?
Lead image via Reddit.