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In the huge range of different human cultural inclinations, one of the most widespread is a fondness for stories. We just love to get lost in a good book or movie. When we do, we tend to ignore where we are and become completely absorbed in the story. Psychologists call this “transportation,” and have conducted ingenious experiments to figure out what makes a story compelling, why people seek out transportation, and what kinds of people are more likely experience the feeling. Transportation is connected with the powerful idea of flow: that pleasurable feeling you get when you are completely absorbed in an activity, and lose track of time. Reading, it turns out, is the most common activity people pursue to get a flow experience. 

Temporarily leaving one’s reality sometimes feels very pleasing, and people will often choose to engage with particular narratives for their mood-management effects. If someone is feeling sad, they might seek out a story that will cheer them up, or perhaps make them sadder and reflective. Literary transportation is more appealing when people are feeling negatively about themselves, or if they perceive themselves to be falling short of their standards. One study found that when people in laboratory settings receive negative feedback, they spend more time watching television afterward. These findings suggest that people often seek literary transportation as a kind of escape. 

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It makes sense that if we are familiar with the setting of a story, or can better relate to the characters, we should be more easily transported. Experiments have supported this. In another experiment, people more familiar with fraternity and sorority life were more transported by a story about someone attending a fraternity reunion, and people with homosexual friends were more transported by a story with a homosexual protagonist. Even reading a winter story is more transportive when read in the winter. 

Stories of all kinds can have effects our or attitudes and beliefs about the real world, for good or ill. Even fictional stories are known to be able to cause changes in beliefs about the world. One recent study found that people are less likely to think of counterarguments to the issues raised in a story if they found themselves transported. 

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One thing stories are good at is helping understand others’ points of view. Steven Pinker has argued that the popularity of reading fiction has contributed to mutual understanding and had a hand in reducing violence in the world. Lifetime exposure to fiction predicts social skills such as perceiving what other people are thinking and feeling, according to one study. Another study even found that children who read stories with African-American characters have more positive attitudes towards the race—even more than children who actually interacted with real African-American children. 

We know that transportation can give us a reprieve, an escape from the doldrums of everyday life. Psychology research suggests that fiction can also change our minds, too. 

Jim Davies is an associate professor at the Institute of Cognitive Science at Carleton University in Ottawa, where he is director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory.

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