Novel Reading and Social Policy

Homeless men and women sit on Boston’s sidewalk corners, jingling cups of change as we stride heedlessly by. January brings balmy days and sunny skies and we soak in the warmth without thinking of the heating planet behind it. Our new president is working one day at a time to unravel the Affordable Care Act, cutting off health care for millions of America. Most of us are more concerned by what he posts on Twitter. These and dozens of other social issues are constantly at the edge of our awareness, unacknowledged and unchallenged. How can we hope to shake America out of its collective apathy?

According to Professor Rochefort, the answer lies in literature.

Literature is, at its core, designed to be emotionally and mentally moving. If they are any good, writers write to make us feel and think. And sometimes these feelings and thoughts stay with us long after we turn the last page. Maybe we research a topic that we found particularly interesting or horrifying. Maybe the empathy we feel for the characters translates into an empathy for real life people. Maybe reading a book can make us more informed and passionate citizens.

In high school, I delved into research about the authors of young adult literature, examining the ways in which those authors sought to impact their young readers. It was a fascinating subject (which led to a long period of introspection about my middle school reading habits) but it was not a subject that I was able to study experimentally. I was limited to academic papers, literature analysis, and author biographies. Last year, as an Honors Early Research Assistant, I was able to study how literature affects people in a tangible way.

Professor Rochefort and I spent a year examining how reading novels about various social policy issues affects participants’ knowledge of, attitude towards, and behavior regarding these issues. We measured these changes against those occurring from a factual article, as well as those occurring naturally over time, using a survey that we designed. The bulk of my job consisted of handling the outgoing surveys and incoming responses—a lot of data entry and gentle “reminder emails” to our study participants. The data that we collected had some surprising twists and turns, with novels affecting factual knowledge and articles affecting empathy in unexpectedly high levels. Overall though, the data supported our hypothesis, showing an increase in all three areas for the students in the novel-reading group.

My level of involvement in the study has given me the experience and motivation to one day conduct my own research, which I had not previously planned on pursuing. It has also driven me as a writer. Being able to see the actual data on a seemingly-unquantifiable theory has made me work even harder to express my own thoughts and ideas through creative writing. I have always known that literature can change people’s minds and affect people’s emotions—that’s obvious just from anecdotal evidence—but having the quantifiable results brings that knowledge to another level. I am grateful for this first research opportunity, and excited to see what the future holds.

Abigail Hodge, Computer Science & Linguistics