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 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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