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Reading for Mood

Why do we read stories? How do they affect our emotions and mood? Why are we transported into a world of fantasy and why do we go willingly? What makes us seek story? Can stories help our mental health? This is what the Reading for Mood Project is about.

You can read the stories used in this project at the bottom of the page.

Photo by Michael Mouritz on Unsplash

Reading for Mood - The Project and the Findings

Thank you for participating in the study Reading for Mood. Please find the details on what the study was about and what we found. This information would not be available if it wasn’t for your highly appreciated contribution. So, once again, thank you!

About the project

This project was the source for the BSc Psychology Honours’ thesis

by Brenda M. Whitton under the guidance of Dr Darren Walker.

The aim of the project was to compare if the point of view from which the

stories were told would affect the immersion on the story, the enjoyment

of a story and how emotions and mood would be affected.

Point of view simply means who is telling the story, for example, “I saw a ghost”,

that would be first person, while “He saw a ghost”, would be third person.

Most books, novels and short stories currently use one of these two options.

To test if point of view had any impact on immersion, two different versions of each story were created, one in first person, one in third person. So, for example, the horror story had two versions, one in which the character spoke saying “What’s the secret word, Tom?” I ask, whilst the version in third person said, “What’s the secret word, Tom?” she asks.

What we did

Data was collected online between 15th July to 30th August 2022. The study consisted of reading one of 3 stories: either horror, black comedy or neutral. These genres were selected because psychological research shows that fear and suspense increase focus of attention, and this makes it more likely that people will be immersed in the story. All the stories had the same name “The Ghost Walks” and the same character names: Tom and Nettie.

188 people participated in the online study, and each was randomly assigned to one of the six conditions: horror story in first person, horror story in third person, dark comedy story in first person, dark comedy in third person, supernatural neutral story in first person and supernatural story in third person.

Participants were asked about their current mood before and after reading the story, how much they enjoyed the story, and what emotions they experienced while reading the story.

What we found

After analysing the data, we found that:

  • First person seemed to have a slightly higher capacity to immerse participants in the story, but this difference was not statistically significant. This means that being immersed in the story will be equally achievable using either first person or third person.

  • The same was found about level of enjoyment of a story. There seemed to be a marginal preference for first person, but the difference was not statistically significant, which suggests that stories in first person and stories in third person have a similar level of enjoyment.

  • Enjoyment and immersion in story did not appear to have a strong relationship with each other.

  • Reading a dark comedy story increased feelings of contentment, especially when compared to reading a horror story.

  • Reading a horror story increased feelings of fear.

  • Reading a horror story or a dark comedy story, increased feelings of sadness.

  • Reading either dark comedy or horror, had a slight negative effect on overall mood, but this was not statistically significant, which means mood was not affected even if different feelings were aroused.

  • Reading the supernatural neutral story had a slightly positive change in mood, even when participants reported the least emotional arousal. However, these findings were not statistically significant.


Why research this?

Storytelling is universal, it exists in every culture and has been part of human culture from very early on. Stories have been used as a therapeutic tool for a long time, and we seek stories in times of distress, to relax or distract ourselves. Some psychological therapies use story as therapeutic this study aimed to explore how mood and immersion might be related.

Human beings are very complex machines, running very complex “systems”. The emotional system is perhaps the most abstract, most problematic, and least understood of all. Fiction is an ancient virtual reality technology that specializes in simulating human problems, which radically alters the way information is processed; the more transported readers are in a story, the more the story changes them.

This study shone some light onto the complex relationship between mood and emotions, and the findings suggest that mood is not determined solely by emotions. Nevertheless, emotions can be manipulated with the use of narratives and storytelling techniques. Further research is required to better understand the links between emotion and mood, so that storytelling (and immersion into story in particular) can better inform the selection and creation of stories as therapeutic tools.

Winner of the giftcard:
C.B. from QLD, Australia

Versions of The Ghost Walks

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