Mentally Simulating Narrative Perspective Is Not Universal or Necessary for Language Comprehension

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Abstract

Readers differentially adopt an agent’s perspective as a function of pronouns encountered during reading. The present study assessed the reliability of this effect across narrative contexts and self-reported variation in levels of engagement during reading. Experiment 1 used an extended sample (N = 263) and replicated an interactive influence of pronouns on perspectives adopted during reading simple action sentences (e.g., You are peeling the cucumber.), with You promoting an agent’s perspective, and He promoting an onlooker’s external perspective. The magnitude of this effect was partially accounted for by individual differences in the tendency to get actively engaged during reading. Specifically, readers who self-reported greater empathic engagement during reading also showed a higher likelihood to adopt an agent’s perspective when sentences used the pronoun You or I. Experiment 2 (N = 217) examined whether these influences of pronouns and individual differences would emerge with relatively realistic, extended narratives; effects were generally less robust than with single sentence scenarios, though empathic engagement still predicted adopting an agent’s perspective with the pronoun You or I. Furthermore, even in the absence of perspective modulation in response to pronouns, comprehension was maintained. These results demonstrate that differentially adopting perspectives as a function of pronouns is not universal or necessary for comprehension, but rather influenced by narrative context and individuals’ propensity to find themselves immersed in described events. Results are considered within the framework of embodied cognition, representational pluralism, individual differences, and high-powered replication projects.

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