Background/field: Rocío’s first degree was in English Studies, followed by a Master’s in Women’s and Gender Studies and a PhD in Philology. The methods she used in the experiment we’re discussing have overlap with narrative persuasion studies in health.

Current research: Rocío’s doctoral research investigated how female readers respond to representations of eating and sports in US young adult fiction.

Research questions and measures: How does reading two works of young adult sports fiction in full, with or without a specially designed reading guide, affect female readers’ scores on the EAT-26 (a standardized measure of vulnerability to eating disorders) and on a tailored questionnaire, and how do readers reflect on the reading experience in a post-reading interview?

Hypothesis: Reading the two books will reduce vulnerability to eating disorders on both the tailored and the standardized measure, with a significantly greater reduction of vulnerability in the experimental condition (with reading guide).

Methods and findings: Rocío conducted an experiment in which 65 young women each read 2 novels by Miranda Kenneally, either with or without a reading guide designed to help readers draw positive messages from the text (e.g. by drawing their attention to how the protagonist is happily eating dessert without feeling guilty), and then took part in an optional post-reading semi-structured interview. She found a consistent but statistically non-significant trend towards reduced vulnerability on the tailored questionnaire amongst participants in the experiment group (who read with the reading guide) and the same type of trend towards increased vulnerability amongst control group participants (who read without). In both groups a non-significant trend towards increased vulnerability on the EAT-26 was observed, with the trend more pronounced in the control group. There was a statistically significant reduction in espousal of gender stereotypes about the body in the experimental group only, which is a promising result given the correlation between endorsement of these stereotypes and vulnerability to eating disorders. 45% of interviewed participants (across both groups) reported that reading the books prompted them to exercise or encouraged them to seriously consider doing so, while some participants in the experimental condition only reported developing more relaxed attitudes to eating and exercising than they had had before.

What’s next? Rocío would like to replicate these findings in a follow-up study involving a larger and more homogeneous sample (with higher levels of vulnerability to eating disorders), and streamlining the tailored questionnaire to more effectively capture the main themes. She’s also interested in options for making the reading guide construction process more transparent and robust, e.g. by involving several researchers with humanities/clinical backgrounds.

Making the case: Humanities research too often imposes unnecessary limits on itself, theoretically and methodologically. It’s intuitive to claim that “books help”, but we need to find out in what ways and contexts this is true. This experiment provides an important proof of concept for participants reading novel-length texts in their entirety, and engaging with a customized reading guide which steers their interpretive engagement as they do so.

What our conversation covered:

  • Rocío’s rationale for conducting the experiment [01:20]
  • Why she used young adult sports fiction for a study on eating disorders [02:57]
  • How she developed her methods, including her moment of inspiration on an exercise bike, and how the specific research questions arose out of the texts [6:25]
  • How she constructed the reading guide used for the experimental condition: her aim to convince readers of the positive aspects covered in the texts as she responded to them [8:24]
  • Links between this experiment and narrative persuasion studies in health [10:37]
  • What she would do if she had limitless time and money to replicate or expand this study, including the links to CBT [13:25]
  • How the reading guide content and format was designed to redirect the reading instincts of someone vulnerable; the balance struck between didactic comments versus invitations to reflect, and between enhancing positive/neutral passages and counteracting negative ones; how much the pop-up messages foregrounded food/body material within the text [29:08]
  • The readers’ interpretive filter in relation to the texts and the guides; the heterogeneity of the sample and variance in their qualitative responses to pop-ups (annoyance or not!); whether this variance is a reliable proxy for healthy eating/body habits (if you don’t need the guidance, you find it annoying?) [22:30]
  • The design of the questionnaire (in relation to the reading guides and text), the blindspots of standardized tests for eating disorders [30:40]
  • The findings and their difference from Rocío’s original hypothesis; the importance of the reading guides; the parallels with self-help bibliotherapy (pure v. guided); self-help versus fiction; and the importance of collaboration and combining methods [33:36]
  • Future options for replication and expansion; the benefits of combining qualitative and quantitative measures (but if you can do only one thing, do quant!) [41:30]
  • Rocío’s personal motivations for carrying out this experiment, including the state of humanities research and what it means to leave the traditional methods behind [49:06]

Other connections that struck me as we talked, or as I edited:

  • Given the accidental finding that reading inspired some participants to want to exercise more, could the method be adapted into an intervention for use with people who want to be doing more exercise? Could a reading guide element enhance the efficacy here, and if so, what aspects should it emphasise?
  • Given that some participants in the experimental condition reported feeling more relaxed about food (e.g. calorie counting) after taking part, could an intervention based on this method be relevant for eating disorder prevention rather than cure?
  • What is the most important type of intervention to make in addressing any specific level of eating disorder vulnerability: working with a food-centric style of reading (by shifting the negative or rigid attitudes to more flexible, constructive ones) or diverting attention away from food (to increase the salience and meaningfulness of other areas of life)?
  • What more light could research like this shed on the blindspots of current standardized tests for eating disorder vulnerability or psychopathology?

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