On how fiction impacts the temporal self-concept

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Cristina Loi @CristinaLoi

:classical_building: Affiliation: University of Basel and University of Stavanger

Title: On how fiction impacts the temporal self-concept

Abstract (long version below): Reading fiction expands and shapes our sense of self (Sestir & Green, 2010; Shedlosky-Shoemaker et al., 2014; Johnson et al., 2016). This poster will present an overview of my doctoral project, which contributes to this line of research by mapping specifically which temporal dimensions of our self-concept are activated and transformed by reading fiction. This research is articulated in three main empirical studies, and it is grounded in a comprehensive panorama of contemporary reading practices: fiction books (both in print and e-books), digital fiction (e.g. hypertexts, interactive fiction, visual novels) and Wattpad (i.e., the most popular digital storytelling platform).

Loi_PosterIGEL2023.pdf (888.5 KB)

:newspaper: Long abstract

The first study (Loi et al., under review) was designed as a preliminary step aimed at identifying whether there are certain “paths” to transformation and whether they differ across reading practices. More precisely, we investigated whether why we read and what we read leads to perceived transformative effects. An online survey (N= 814) was distributed across three groups of readers (books, digital fiction and Wattpad), measuring participants’ eudaimonic and hedonic motivations for reading (Oliver & Raney, 2011), their genre preferences (Kuijpers et al., 2020) and whether a reader felt that they read a text, in the last two years, that left a lasting impact on them. Results show that eudaimonic motivations lead to perceived transformation for book readers, and to a lesser extent for digital fiction readers, but not for Wattpad readers. Furthermore, engaging frequently with drama, further described to our participants as referring to texts with a focus “on character’s inner lives and psychological insight”, seems to be the main predictor of perceived transformation across groups.

Using the data collected in the same survey, the second study (Loi et al., in preparation) focused on those participants that reported a transformative reading experience (N= 543), with the aim of mapping specifically which temporal dimensions of the self-concept are activated and transformed by reading fiction. In other words, this study investigates whether the direction of fiction’s impact points more often towards the reader’s present, past or future. To this aim, we adopted Markus and Nurius’ (1986) view of the self-concept as a dynamic network of temporal dimensions: the actual present self (enclosing various cognitive schemata), past selves, and both desired and feared possible selves.The first step of our study measured which dimensions of the self-concept are activated by reading fiction. This “activation” is defined as the emergence of a storyworld possible self (SPSs), i.e., a blend between the reader and a character in the story that resembles the readers’ present self, past self or a (desired or feared) possible self. Drawing from Martínez (2018) conceptualization of SPSs and following Alber’s (2020) call to assess this concept with empirical methods, we developed four items to retrospectively and quantitatively measure storyworld possible selves. We found that present self SPSs are the most reported by readers, shortly followed by desired possible self SPSs and then, with a sharper divide, by past self SPSs and feared SPSs. This general trend was confirmed in the second step of our study, where we identified which areas of the self-concept are transformed by reading fiction, by applying a mixed-methods content analysis on readers’ own open description of how their reading experience had an impact in their lives.

The third and final study zooms in on the role of the text in activating storyworld possible selves, testing whether certain texts tend to activate certain types of SPSs over others, while accounting for textual features that might facilitate the activation of the self-concept, and for readers’ individual differences. With an experimental between-subjects design with 4 conditions, participants will be randomly assigned to read (1) a short story about a depressed character that invites readers to generate a feared possible self SPS; (2) the same short story, but manipulated to remove the SPS linguistic nodes (Martínez, 2018) that might facilitate the projection of SPSs; (3) a short story about an positive character that invites readers to generate a desired possible self SPS; (4) the same story, manipulated to remove SPS linguistic nodes. If certain linguistic features do indeed favor the involvement of the reader’s self-concept, both manipulated stories should elicit lower scores on all types of SPSs. Controlling for readers’ personal experience with the story topic, I will test whether reading about a character in a negative situation activates more undesired possible self SPSs, and whether reading about a character in a positive situation activates more desired possible self SPSs. Moreover, I will investigate how storyworld possible selves relate to two fundamental processes of the reading experience, namely absorption and identification. Data will be collected and analyzed in time for the IGEL conference.


Alber, J. (2020). Literature as Identity Laboratory: Literature as Identity Laboratory. REAL, 36(1), 57–71. Literature as Identity Laboratory

Johnson, B. K., Slater, M. D., Silver, N. A., & Ewoldsen, D. R. (2016). Entertainment and Expanding Boundaries of the Self: Relief From the Constraints of the Everyday. Journal of Communication, 66(3), 386–408. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12228

Kuijpers, M. M., Douglas, S., & Kuiken, D. (2020). Capturing the Ways We Read. Anglistik, 31, 53–69. https://doi.org/10.33675/ANGL/2020/1/6

Loi, C., Kuijpers, M., Ensslin, A., Lauer, G. (2023). Paths to Transformation Across Contemporary Reading Practices: The Role of Motivations and Genre Preferences (under review).

Loi, C., Hakemulder, F., Kuijpers, M., Lauer, G. (2023). On how fiction activates and transforms the temporal self-concept (in preparation).

Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954–969. APA PsycNet

Martínez, M.-Á. (2018). Storyworld Possible Selves. De Gruyter. Storyworld Possible Selves

Oliver, M. B., & Raney, A. A. (2011). Entertainment as Pleasurable and Meaningful: Identifying Hedonic and Eudaimonic Motivations for Entertainment Consumption. Journal of Communication, 61(5), 984–1004. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.2011.01585.x

Sestir, M., & Green, M. C. (2010). You are who you watch: Identification and transportation effects on temporary self-concept. Social Influence, 5(4), 272–288. https://doi.org/10.1080/15534510.2010.490672

Shedlosky-Shoemaker, R., Costabile, K. A., & Arkin, R. M. (2014). Self-Expansion through Fictional Characters. Self and Identity, 13(5), 556–578. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2014.882269