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The Heightened Sensitivity of Romance Readers

• September 23, 2013 • 4:00 AM


New research finds people who read romantic fiction are good at picking up subtle facial clues revealing a person’s emotional state.

Fans of romance novels: No need to slip that paperback into your purse to avoid embarrassment. It turns out that, even more than lovers of other literary genres, you possess a prized quality.

You are unusually good at sensing what others are feeling.

That’s the conclusion of a newly published study, which finds devotees of romantic fiction have a talent for reading subtle facial cues, and picking up on the emotions they express.

In the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, a York University research team led by psychologist Katrina Fong describes an experiment comparing the interpersonal sensitivity of readers of various literary genres. The 328 participants were all university undergraduates; 258 of them were women.

“It may be that the emotional experiences evoked by romance novels lead to rumination on past relationship experiences.”

To determine their choice of reading matter, they were presented with 25 names of authors in four fiction genres (domestic fiction, romance, sci-fi/fantasy, and suspense/thriller) and asked to check which ones they recognized. (Fake names were inserted to minimize cheating or guessing.)

Their sensitivity was measured by a test in which they were shown black-and-white images of actors’ faces, which were cropped to display only the area around the eyes. For each photo, they were then asked to choose one of four possible emotional states the actor was expressing.

The results: People who read more fiction (or at least recognized the names of fiction writers) were more likely to pick the correct emotion than those who preferred non-fiction. But once the researchers took into account a series of factors, including age, gender, and the degree to which they embodied the personality dimension of openness (as determined in a separate survey), only the romance genre predicted this sort of sensitivity.

The researchers could only speculate on why Nicholas Sparks devotees did better than fans of John Grisham.

“Romance is a genre of fiction that focuses on interpersonal relationships,” they note. Arguably, reading these novels “helps to maintain and improve social skills,” including the ability to read subtle facial expressions.

On the other hand, “It may be that the emotional experiences evoked by romance novels lead to rumination on past relationship experiences, perhaps encouraging readers to puzzle out the complexities of their own past romantic relationships,” they write. “This thoughtful introspection might then be usefully applied to new social interactions.”

Fong and her colleagues caution that their findings don’t prove that reading these novels leads to greater emotional insights. They note it is “entirely possible” that the opposite is true—that is, people who have a lot of sensitivity toward the feelings of others are drawn to romance novels.

More research will be needed to tease this out. But this study should give pause to anyone who looks down on fans of this less-than-respected genre. Their literary taste may not be the most refined, but they can sure read faces—including that subtle scowl of disapproval you’re aiming in their direction.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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