Consumer Psychology

What Do the Things You Read Say About You?

If it is true that you are what you eat, then what else are you?

Here’s a riddle: if it is true that you are what you eat, then what else are you? The short-list of answers to the idiom “you are what you ___” fall accordingly: 

  • Love

  • Need

  • Read

  • Say

  • Watch

  • Wear

In honor of National Reading Month (which is March) we’re going to take a deep dive into the statement “you are what you read” and discover what the stuff you read says about you. Dust off your bookshelves and crack open your favorite literature, because it’s time to see if you can “find yourself” in those books. 

You Are What You Read, and Then Some

NPR contributor Tania Lombrozo once wrote that “reading might not just reflect who you are, but also influence who you become.” The powerful quote exemplifies the possibility that book choice is in part telling of one’s own personality. It also explores the potential for the book’s content to shape your identity. The idea that a book can change your life might seem grandiose, but some of the world’s most successful people have attributed a particular book to a shift in their worldview.

For example, in a Thrive Global survey, popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson claimed that Sir Isaac Newton was his muse, “Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1687). It’s where I realized how deeply a member of my own species—another human being—can be plugged into the operations of nature, leading to his discovery that the world is a knowable place, via universal laws” (Falk, 2017). It seems fitting that the would-be planetary scientist was drawn to the writings of perhaps the world's most influential scientist.

If you had to answer “why” deGrasse Tyson chose to read Newton, how would you answer that question? (supposing that you cannot ask him directly) What if you had to guess what else is on his book shelf, or what books he might buy in the future?

A psychologist might turn to personality, and examine whether or not there really are any connections between a person’s choice of literature and their traits. By building a psychological profile of a person’s literature preferences, a researcher can compare their choices with measures of personality to see if patterns emerge. 

Let’s turn to a few research examples and see what traces of psychological makeup are found in books. 

Personality Traits 

A trait is a consistent, stable habit of behavior, emotions, and thought across time. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of personality traits, check out our blog on the same topic here

Traits are commonly measured experimentally through surveys, each containing different facets that make up a single personality trait. A person can score high or low (relatively) on a given personality trait. 

For example, let’s say your friend tends to score high on Conscientiousness, which means that they are the achievement-striving and organized type. Based on that knowledge, could you take a guess at what genre of books they read? You might guess that there are a lot of educational books. With that information alone, you could be able to identify a few of the books on their  shelf, and even eliminate others from contention. 

But by building a profile of traits, you can gain greater access to the intricacies of personal taste. Knowing whether or not they are more reserved or outgoing, more friendly or unpleasant, more secure or nervous, could tell you a lot more about the varieties (or lack thereof) of books your friend reads. 

For example, let’s add to the profile. It turns out that your friend also scores high in Openness to Experience, meaning that  they are also the curious and inventive type. At this point, you 

might feel pretty confident about those educational books, but also wonder if he might enjoy some science fiction as well. More traits build a more complex profile that enable you to make better guesses about idiosyncrasies. 

Let’s take at the following seven personality traits that have notable correlations to people’s preferences in literature: 

  • Openness to Experience is a general appreciation for experience, especially new ones. Cantador et. al., found that people who scored high on Openness to Experience generally liked poetry and science fiction, while those scoring low preferred crime and drama books (2013). The more open you are to curiosity and imagination, the more you may enjoy inventive literature. Further, research shows that people who score high in Openness to Experience have been reported to have greater appreciation for art and literature (Annalyn et. al., 2020). On the other hand, if you are more cautious and prefer consistency, crime and drama provide more clear-cut experiences. 

  • Conscientiousness describes someone who does their “due diligence.” People who scored high in organization and efficiency also reported liking educational books, while lower scorers preferred comic, fantasy, and poetry (Cantador et. al., 2013). For those hard at work, books that add growth to your professional development might be of interest. Those that score low on Conscientiousness might prefer more humorous content with merry motifs (Annalyn et. al., 2020).

  • Extraversion is a disposition to find joy in outward expression, especially with others. People who scored high in Extraversion tended to prefer comedy and scary books—an interesting juxtaposition in itself—while those that scored low preferred comics, fantasy, and science fiction (Cantador et. al., 2013, Annalyn et. al, 2020). Since extraverts enjoy experiences with others, it seems fitting that both comedy and scary books were selected, as they represent two ends of a spectrum for outward expression: laughing and screaming. Annalyn et. al., also discovered that people scoring high in Extraversion read books about relationships and the lives of other people (2020). 

  • Agreeableness is a concern with or prioritization of social connectedness and optimism. Readers who scored high on Agreeableness preferred drama and educational books, while those scoring low read crime, comics, and war (Cantador et. al., 2013).  Interestingly, Annalyn et. al., found different results for this trait: high Agreeableness readers chose books with family and religion themes, while those scoring low preferred cult classics and psychological drama (2020). It is ironic that while these two studies have findings that generally overlap for some of other traits,they have different findings for Agreeableness. Go figure. 

  • Neuroticism is a tendency to experience negative affect. Candator et. al. found that people who scored high in Neuroticism read crime and poetry, while lower scoring readers preferred educational, thriller, mystery, and non-fiction (2013). On the other hand, Annalyn et. al., found that readers who scored high in Neuroticism preferred literature that reflected their own emotional states. For example, books with unhappy endings. They also found that those scoring low in Neuroticism preferred non-fiction, 

  • Need For Cognition (NFC) is a person’s desire for content that promotes thinking and integration of the materials. If you do not enjoy complexity then you might score low in NFC. However, you may enjoy spoilers. Rosembaum and Johnson found that those scoring low in NFC had a preference for choosing books with spoilers (2016). Those who enjoy spoilers might better enjoy explicit messages, while those with a preference for complexity may better enjoy implicit messages that require inference (Rosenbaum and Johnson, 2016). 

  • Need For Affect (NFA) is the emotional twin to the trait Need for Cognition. Do you think that those who scored high in NFA preferred spoilers or disliked them? Both Rosenbaum and Johnson + Knobloch-Westerwick and Keplinger found that people who scored higher on NFA preferred unspoiled stories (2016, 2006). The mystery of a story’s ending can lead to more enjoyment for those with high NFA because it is more suspenseful and arousing. 

Generalizations never provide clean and perfect one to one relationships. But there is considerable evidence that personality and literature preferences have correlations. Moreover, the more information you gather, the more nuance and detail you can discover for any individual or groups. Psychological profiles enable researchers to tease out the finer details, and make better predictions. 

So there is an underlying correlation—perhaps even a truth—behind the statement you are what you read. But what about your  identity…can the stuff you read actually shape who you become? 

The Power of Fiction

Reading fiction is important because it might hold the key to improving our social selves. Yes, it’s possible to better understand others by reading your favorite novel, alone, but there are a few caveats.  

Researchers argue that fiction allows people to simulate themselves interactively, which leads to a better understanding of others and even personal change (Oatley, 2016). For example, by identifying with and relating to the characters of a novel, the reader experiences the events; exercising empathy through the recognition and response to the character's emotions. 

Fiction has the power to both transport and transform your state of mind. It’s a simple formula, the quality of transportation into a narrative guides the transformation of the mental state.

  • Transportation—the degree that a person is immersed in a narrative. 

  • Transformation—the extent that a person’s attitude and intentions change based on the quality of narrative transportation. 

While the claim that fiction can increase empathy holds truth, it’s not the entire story—in fact, reading fiction can also decrease it. A 2013 study found that fiction readers experienced increased empathy over the course of a week when highly immersed, or transported, into a story (Bal and Veltkamp). But when the same fiction readers did not connect with the narrative—when they cannot be transported into the story—showed a marked decrease in empathy. 

You might be saying, “well non-fictional stories are laden with emotions too, what about them?” Bal and Veltkamp found that despite transportation into a narrative, non-fiction readers actually experienced a decrease in empathy. The researchers attributed this finding to the possibility that high emotional engagement in non-fiction might lead to obligatory feelings of sympathy—a cognitive cost. 

It’s not necessarily the act of reading fiction that transforms you, but the degree to which your personality resonates with the content of fiction. Immersion can lead to mentalization and development, while disconnections can lead to frustration and ego-protection (Bal and Veltkamp, 2013). 

Hidden Impressions

When you engage with content you display impressions about yourself. These hidden impressions give clues about your personality. Books are one thing that reveal personality among many others—buying habits, language, social media, etc.

Inkblot’s newest psych tech (Hidden Impressions) tracks what users are engaging with online. The results track trends and show how interests change over time, along with the types of content that are moving in and out of style. If you are a marketer or researcher “in the trendy game”, unlocking Hidden Impressions is your livelihood. Check out our next blog on how to use hidden impressions and other psychographic data in your content marketing strategy.


Annalyn, N., Bos, M.W., Sigal, L., & Li, B. (2020). Predicting Personality from Book Preferences with User-Generated Content Labels. IEEE Transactions on Affective Computing, 11, 482-492.

Bal, P. M., & Veltkamp, M. (2013). How does fiction reading influence empathy? An experimental investigation on the role of emotional transportation. PloS one, 8(1), e55341.

Cantador, I., Fernández-Tobías, I., & Bellogín, A. (2013). Relating Personality Types with User Preferences in Multiple Entertainment Domains. UMAP Workshops.

Falk, G. (2017). 8 Successful People Share the Books that Changed Their Lives. Medium. Thrive Global. 

Knobloch-Westerwick, S., & Keplinger, C. (2006). Mystery Appeal: Effects of Uncertainty and Resolution on the Enjoyment of Mystery. Media Psychology, 8(3), 193–212.)

Lombrozo, T. (2013). What Does Your Summer Reading Say About You? NPR. Cosmos & Culture, 13.7. 

Oatley K. (2016). Fiction: Simulation of Social Worlds. Trends in cognitive sciences, 20(8), 618–628.

Rosenbaum, J. E., & Johnson, B. K. (2016). Who’s afraid of spoilers? Need for cognition, need for affect, and narrative selection and enjoyment. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5(3), 273–289.

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