Menus Subscribe Search
big-book

(PHOTO: OLLYY/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Want to Learn How to Think? Read Fiction

• June 12, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: OLLYY/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New Canadian research finds reading a literary short story increases one’s comfort with ambiguity.

Are you uncomfortable with ambiguity? It’s a common condition, but a highly problematic one. The compulsion to quell that unease can inspire snap judgments, rigid thinking, and bad decision-making.

Fortunately, new research suggests a simple antidote for this affliction: Read more literary fiction.

A trio of University of Toronto scholars, led by psychologist Maja Djikic, report that people who have just read a short story have less need for what psychologists call “cognitive closure.” Compared with peers who have just read an essay, they expressed more comfort with disorder and uncertainty—attitudes that allow for both sophisticated thinking and greater creativity.

“Exposure to literature,” the researchers write in the Creativity Research Journal, “may offer a (way for people) to become more likely to open their minds.”

“The reader can simulate the thinking styles even of people he or she might personally dislike. One can think along and even feel along with Humbert Humbert in Lolita, no matter how offensive one finds this character.”

Djikic and her colleagues describe an experiment featuring 100 University of Toronto students. After arriving at the lab and providing some personal information, the students read either one of eight short stories or one of eight essays. The fictional stories were by authors including Wallace Stegner, Jean Stafford, and Paul Bowles; the non-fiction essays were by equally illustrious writers such as George Bernard Shaw and Stephen Jay Gould.

Afterwards, each participant filled out a survey measuring their emotional need for certainty and stability. They expressed their agreement or disagreement with such statements as “I don’t like situations that are uncertain” and “I dislike questions that can be answered in many different ways.”

Those who read a short story had significantly lower scores on that test than those who read an essay. Specifically, they expressed less need for order and more comfort with ambiguity. This effect was particularly pronounced among those who reported being frequent readers of either fiction or non-fiction.

So how does literature induce this ease with the unknown? Djikic and her colleagues, Keith Oatley and Mihnea Moldoveanu, have some ideas.

“The thinking a person engages in while reading fiction does not necessarily lead him or her to a decision,” they note. This, they observe, decreases the reader’s need to come to a definitive conclusion.

“Furthermore,” they add, “while reading, the reader can simulate the thinking styles even of people he or she might personally dislike. One can think along and even feel along with Humbert Humbert in Lolita, no matter how offensive one finds this character. This double release—of thinking through events without concerns for urgency and permanence, and thinking in ways that are different than one’s own—may produce effects of opening the mind.”

The researchers have no idea how long this effect might last. But their discovery that it is stronger in frequent readers suggests such people may gradually become programmed to respond in this way. “It is likely that only when experiences of this kind accumulate to reach some critical mass would they lead to long-term changes of meta-cognitive habits,” they write.

Their results should give people “pause to think about the effect of current cutbacks of education in the arts and humanities,” Djikic and her colleagues add. After all, they note, while success in most fields demands the sort of knowledge gained by reading non-fiction, it also “requires people to become insightful about others and their perspectives.”

If their conclusions are correct, that all-important knowledge can be gained by immersing yourself in a work of literature. There’s no antidote to black-or-white thinking like reading “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

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

August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


August 26 • 4:00 PM

Marching in Sync May Increase Aggression

Another danger of militarizing the police: Marching in lock step doesn’t just intimidate opponents. It impacts the mindset of the marchers.


August 26 • 3:03 PM

The Best Reporting on the Federal Push to Militarize Local Police With Riot Gear, Armored Vehicles, and Assault Rifles

A few facts you might have missed about the flow of military equipment and tactics to local law enforcement.


August 26 • 2:00 PM

How the Other 23 Percent Live

Almost one-fourth of all children in the United States are now living in poverty, an increase of three million kids since 2005.


August 26 • 12:00 PM

Why Sports Need Randomness

Noah Davis talks to David Sally, one of the authors of The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, about how uncertainty affects and enhances the games we watch.


August 26 • 10:00 AM

Honor: The Cause of—and Solution to—All of Society’s Problems

Recent research on honor culture, associated with the American South and characterized by the need to retaliate against any perceived improper conduct, goes way beyond conventional situations involving disputes and aggression.



August 26 • 8:00 AM

The Transformative Effects of Bearing Witness

How witnessing inmate executions affects those who watch, and how having an audience present can also affect capital punishment process and policy.



August 26 • 7:15 AM

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.


August 26 • 6:00 AM

Redesigning Birth Control in the Developing World

How single-use injectable contraceptives could change family planning in Africa.


August 26 • 4:15 AM

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.


August 25 • 4:00 PM

What to Look for In Dueling Autopsies of Michael Brown

The postmortem by Michael Baden is only the beginning as teams of specialists study the body of an 18-year-old African American killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.


August 25 • 2:00 PM

Thoughts That Can’t Be Thought and Ideas That Can’t Be Formed: The Promise of Smart Drugs

Are we asking the right questions about smart drugs? Marek Kohn looks at what they can do for us—and what they can’t.


August 25 • 12:00 PM

Does Randomness Actually Exist?

Our human minds are incapable of truly answering that question.


August 25 • 10:31 AM

Cesareans Are Still Best for Feet-First Babies

A new study confirms that surgery is the safest way to deliver a breech fetus.


August 25 • 10:00 AM

What Can Hurricanes Teach Us About Socioeconomic Mobility?

Hurricane Katrina wrought havoc on New Orleans but, nine years later, is there a silver lining to be found?


August 25 • 8:00 AM

How Low Voter Turnout Helps Public Employees

To a surprising degree, as voter turnout goes down, public employee compensation goes up.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.

Cesareans Are Still Best for Feet-First Babies

A new study confirms that surgery is the safest way to deliver a breech fetus.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

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