Towards a cognitive science of literary style: Perspective-taking in processing omniscient versus objective voice


What are the consequences of narrative style for the cognitive operations that comprehenders perform? Third person narratives can adopt different voices. Omniscient voice has access to the mental states of characters, while objective voice only describes how characters would appear to an observer. It’s currently unknown what cognitive consequences different voices have for people processing third person language. We hypothesize that in building representations of described scenes, omniscient voice may make comprehenders more likely to adopt the internal perspectives of characters than objective voice. We tested this prediction in a narrative-image matching study. Participants read short passages describing a third person character in either omniscient or objective voice. They then saw an image that either depicted the described scene or not, and which depicted the event from the perspective of the character or not. Their task was to decide as quickly as possible whether the image matched the narrative. In cases where the narrative and image matched, participants were significantly faster to indicate the correct decision when the narrative voice and the image perspective matched—that is, an image from the character’s perspective after an omniscient narration or an image from a different perspective after an objective narration. This finding provides the first evidence that narrative voice affects the perspective from which comprehenders represent described scenes.

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