“The question of the psychology of fiction is one that Keith Oatley, professor emeritus in the department of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto, has been working on for 20 years. He and some colleagues started the website On Fiction in 2008 to track work related to the psychology of fiction.
“The idea was to say, ‘OK, now what really are the psychological effects of reading?’ ” Oatley says. To try and work out an answer, he and Maja Djikic put together a study to measure how personalities can be changed by literature. Participants were given either Anton Chekhov’s story “The Lady with the Little Dog” or a version of the story rewritten in a nonfiction style by Djikic, which included all the same information, was the same length and at the same reading level. Participants did personality tests before and after reading.
“The people who read the Chekhov story, their personalities all changed a bit,” Oatley says.
“We’ve talked a lot about the importance of reading with respect to language – increasing vocabulary, verbal ability, that sort of thing,” he says. “I think it’s possible that reading could also have important consequences for other realms of our life, like the social realm, our ability to understand other people, our ability to think in abstract terms, imagination, these sorts of things.”