Research shows reading classic literature can improve personal ethics

Feb 03, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- 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 www.epjournal.net/filestore/ep06715738.pdf .

Provided by Pennsylvania State University

Explore further: Ig Nobel winner: Using pork to stop nosebleeds

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

White House backs use of body cameras by police

19 minutes ago

Requiring police officers to wear body cameras is one potential solution for bridging deep mistrust between law enforcement and the public, the White House said, weighing in on a national debate sparked by the shooting of ...

Study urges 15-year plan for low-carbon growth

22 minutes ago

The world can save both financial and environmental costs by shifting toward a low-carbon economy over the next 15 years, a high-level panel said Tuesday ahead of a UN summit.

Recommended for you

Ig Nobel winner: Using pork to stop nosebleeds

Sep 19, 2014

There's some truth to the effectiveness of folk remedies and old wives' tales when it comes to serious medical issues, according to findings by a team from Detroit Medical Center.

History books spark latest Texas classroom battle

Sep 16, 2014

As Texas mulls new history textbooks for its 5-plus million public school students, some academics are decrying lessons they say exaggerate the influence of Christian values on America's Founding Fathers.

Flatow, 'Science Friday' settle claims over grant

Sep 16, 2014

Federal prosecutors say radio host Ira Flatow and his "Science Friday" show that airs on many National Public Radio stations have settled civil claims that they misused money from a nearly $1 million federal ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Corban
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
sheber
not rated yet Feb 04, 2009
"Righteous? Or treacherous?"
In agreement, and what about that favored book the bible?