Recent studies have shown that reading literary fiction can prompt personality changes that include improvements in abilities in empathy and theory-of-mind. We review these studies and propose a psychological conception of artistic literature as having 3 aspects that contribute to such changes. These are that literary fiction is simulation of selves with others in the social world; that taking part in this type of simulation can produce fluctuations that are precursors to personality changes; and that the changes occur in readers’ own ways, being based not on persuasion but on indirect communication.
Fluctuations in personality comparable to those that occurred in reading artistic literature have been found when people listened to music (Djikic, 2011) and looked at pieces of visual art (Djikic, Oatley, & Peterson, 2012).
We tested whether the genre of a literary text (essay as compared with short story) or its artistic merit would be primarily responsible for the variability in the self-perceived personality traits that individuals experience when they read. One hundred participants were randomly assigned to read either one of eight essays or one of eight short stories, matched for length, reading difficulty, and interest. The Big-Five personality traits were measured before and after reading. Genre did not affect variability in personality. Rather, participants who judged the text they read to be more artistic reported a greater variability in their personality trait profile after reading, independently of whether the text was an essay or a short story.
…we need to be able to change our nature and norms, to adapt to changing conditions. Yet we also want such changes to feel authentic, and not consciously or overtly done just to accommodate neighbors.
We become like metal that is forged by heat; we usually have a solid reliable shape, but we let ourselves be reshaped by the rare heat of great impressiveness.