Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


reading-fiction

(PHOTO: PATPITCHAYA/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Literary Fiction Helps Us Read People

• October 03, 2013 • 11:00 AM

(PHOTO: PATPITCHAYA/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research suggests reading literature increases our ability to pick up on the subjective states of others.

Beach reading season is over, so it’s time to plunge into some serious fiction. But if the idea of plowing through a Pynchon feels a bit too much like work, here’s a piece of news that may inspire you: Doing so may help you better discern the beliefs, motivations, and emotions of those around you.

That’s the conclusion of a just-published study by two scholars from the New School for Social Research in New York. David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano report that reading literature uniquely boosts “the capacity to identify and understand others’ subjective states.”

Literary fiction, they note in the journal Science, “uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences.” Unlike most popular fiction, which “tends to portray the world and its characters as internally consistent and predictable,” these works require readers to contend with complex, sometimes contradictory characters.

According to Kidd and Castano, this sort of active engagement increases our ability to understand and appreciate the similarly complicated people we come across in real life.

“Whereas many of our mundane social experiences may be scripted by convention and informed by stereotypes, those presented in literary fiction often disrupt our expectations.”

The researchers provide evidence for their thesis in the form of five experiments, all of which were conducted online. In the first, the 86 participants read either a short literary work (by Chekhov, Dan DeLillo, or Lydia Davis) or a non-fiction article describing some aspect of the natural world. They then completed tests to measure their ability to ascertain the mental and emotional state of another person—a valuable skill sometimes referred to as Theory of Mind.

In one, they were shown 36 images of an actor’s face, with everything blacked out except for the area immediately around his or her eyes. Participants were asked to choose which of four emotions the actor was expressing. Those who had read the fictional story scored higher than those who had read a non-fiction piece.

Another experiment, featuring 69 participants, compared scores on that same test between those who had just read a piece of literary fiction and those who had read a piece of popular fiction (either science fiction by Robert Heinlein, mystery by Dashiell Hammett, or romance by Rosamunde Pilcher). Those who had just completed reading a work of literature proved better at reading the actor’s eyes than those who had read less-challenging material.

In two additional experiments, participants took part in a “Yoni task,” in which they “must draw from minimal linguistic and visual cues to infer a character’s thoughts and emotions.” In both (one experiment featured 72 people, the other 356), participants who read a piece of literary fiction performed better than those who had read a work of popular fiction.

This study follows by a few weeks some similar research from Canada, which compared the ability of fans of different genres to discern emotional states by looking only at pair of eyes (one of the same tests performed here). In that study, readers of romance novels performed better than those of other genres, such as suspense thrillers. However, that research used a different methodology, and it did not specifically measure the impact of literary fiction.

“I don’t find these findings contradictory to our own study,” said Katrina Fong, lead author of the Canadian paper, “but see them as evidence contributing to the growing body of literature that indicates that the impacts of reading are complex. It’s entirely plausible that short-term effects of reading, such as boosts to interpersonal sensitivity, only exist for literary fiction.”

“However,” she added, “it is also possible that short-term reading effects of reading popular fiction may be limited to specific subgenres.” In other words, it’d be worthwhile to test the impact of romance novels using these same techniques.

Kidd is doubtful such an experiment would produce the same positive results. He notes that four of their five experiments included samples of romance writing as a subset of popular fiction, and they found no evidence reading such works increased understanding of others’ thoughts or feelings.

While he’s open to a long-term study of the impact of reading romantic fiction, he and Castano are more interested in examining the effect of other works of art featuring complicated characters, such as critically acclaimed plays and films. (Indeed, it seems likely that responding to complicated, ambiguous dramatic characters, from Mozart’s Don Giovanni to Mad Men’s Don Draper, involves the same sort of mental activity as engaging with fictional creations who exist on the page.)

“Whereas many of our mundane social experiences may be scripted by convention and informed by stereotypes, those presented in literary fiction often disrupt our expectations,” Kidd and Castano write. “Readers of literary fiction must draw on more flexible interpretive resources to infer the feelings and thoughts of characters.”

In honing that ability to draw insights from subtle clues, literature “may function to promote and refine interpersonal sensitivity throughout our lives,” they write. This aligns nicely with previous research that suggests reading literary fiction makes us more tolerant of ambiguity.

So if your fellow book club members are a mystery to you, you probably need to start choosing better books.

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.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.



October 28 • 6:15 AM

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.


October 28 • 6:00 AM

Why Women Are Such a Minority in Elected Office

The obvious answers aren’t necessarily the most accurate. Here, five studies help clear up the gender disparity in politics.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.