Research shows reading classic literature can improve personal ethics

February 3, 2009

( -- A team of researchers, including John Johnson, professor of psychology at Penn State DuBois, have discovered that literature may inspire readers to be ethical members of society. "As an evolutionary psychologist," said Johnson, "I am especially interested in the impact of literature on the emotions of the reader, and in what function these emotions serve."

Johnson and fellow psychologist, Dan Kruger from the University of Michigan, teamed up with English professors Joe Carroll from the University of Missouri and John Gottschall from Washington and Jefferson College to complete this research and draft an article on their findings. Their article, "Hierarchy in the Library: Egalitarian Dynamics in Victorian Novels," appeared in the December issue of Evolutionary Psychology.

Johnson said human nature is constantly expressed in literary works. Beneath the story line there are often subtle social messages. Concentrating on 19th century British novels, the team found that readers vicariously participate in a world that resembles the social dynamics of hunter-gatherer societies. The data confirms that the protagonists in these stories exhibit good morals and behavior, while the antagonists demonstrate status-seeking and dominant behavior. Johnson and his colleagues believe the classic good guy/bad guy tales appeal to readers in specific ways.

“We were not surprised to find that protagonists evoked feelings of fondness and admiration, while protagonists aroused feelings of anger and contempt,” Johnson said. “But two deeper questions are, first, what is it about good guys and bad guys that stir up different feelings in the reader, and, second, what is the purpose of literature that arouses these feelings? Our data indicate that readers like protagonists because they have more mild-mannered personalities and are motivated by a desire to help others and build alliances. Antagonists, on the other hand, are disliked because they are more aggressive and are motivated by self-interest, by the acquisition of personal wealth, power, and prestige. We believe that the purpose of this kind of literature is to activate emotions that encourage people to engage in ethical behaviour in real life.”

To reach this conclusion, Johnson and his colleagues departed from traditional methods of literary studies and adopted a scientific approach. They gathered literary character ratings from more than 500 literary scholars, and tested specific hypothesises about Victorian novels.

Their article can be found at .

Provided by Pennsylvania State University

Explore further: Bringing a literary train to life with a 3-D printer

Related Stories

Bringing a literary train to life with a 3-D printer

February 17, 2015

When readers describe the experience of a great novel, they might say the story "leaps off the page." But for assistant professor of French Morgane Cadieu, that phrase took on new meaning last fall when she and three of her ...

First steps towards "Experimental Literature 2.0"

April 21, 2014

As part of a student's thesis, the Laboratory of Digital Humanities at EPFL has developed an application that aims at rearranging literary works by changing their chapter order. "The human simulation" a saga written by the ...

Recommended for you

The hand and foot of Homo naledi

October 6, 2015

The second set of papers related to the remarkable discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of human relative, have been published in scientific journal, Nature Communications, on Tuesday, 6 October 2015.

Who you gonna trust? How power affects our faith in others

October 6, 2015

One of the ongoing themes of the current presidential campaign is that Americans are becoming increasingly distrustful of those who walk the corridors of power – Exhibit A being the Republican presidential primary, in which ...

The dark side of Nobel prizewinning research

October 4, 2015

Think of the Nobel prizes and you think of groundbreaking research bettering mankind, but the awards have also honoured some quite unhumanitarian inventions such as chemical weapons, DDT and lobotomies.

How much for that Nobel prize in the window?

October 3, 2015

No need to make peace in the Middle East, resolve one of science's great mysteries or pen a masterpiece: the easiest way to get yourself a Nobel prize may be to buy one.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 03, 2009
Does this mean that people who watch anime or read comics will have worse ethics? After all, the line between good and bad can be blurred there. There are plenty of tales where a guy murders a crapload of people to save his family.

Righteous? Or treacherous?

Indeed, sometimes the entire point of the art is to make you question the givens in life
not rated yet Feb 04, 2009
"Righteous? Or treacherous?"
In agreement, and what about that favored book the bible?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.