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Reading Literary Fiction Can Make You Less Racist

• March 10, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: Thinglass/Shutterstock)

New research finds a compelling narrative can help us sidestep stereotypes.

The benefits of reading literary fiction are many, ranging from making us more comfortable with ambiguity to honing our ability to pick up on the emotional states of others. Newly published research adds yet another positive outcome to that list: It can make us at least a little less racist.

A research team from Washington and Lee University reports that, in an experiment, reading a snippet of a novel about a Muslim woman produced two welcome results. Readers were more likely to categorized people as mixed-race, rather than forcing them into specific racial categories. They were also less likely to associate angry faces with disliked outsider groups.

Recent research has found that when we observe perceived outsiders, our brains do less of the mental mirroring associated with empathy. As a result, we feel less connected to them than we do to members of our own tribe.

“There is growing evidence that reading a story engages many of the same neural networks involved in empathy.”

“Perhaps narrative fiction can bridge this empathy gap,” the researchers, led by psychologist Dan Johnson, write in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

Johnson and his colleagues describe two experiments that incorporated a 3,000-word extract from Shaila Abdullah’s 2009 novel Saffron Dreams. It revolves around “an educated and strong-willed Muslim woman, Arissa, who is assaulted in a New York City subway station,” the researchers write. The excerpt features “significant inner monologue that accentuates the protagonist’s strength of character while providing exposure to Muslim culture.”

Participants in the first experiment (68 Americans recruited online) read either the aforementioned excerpt, or a 500-word synopsis of the same scene. In the synopsis, “the descriptive language, monologue, and dialogue were removed to reduce the narrative quality,” the researchers note.

They then viewed a series of ambiguous-race faces, and rated them on a four-point scale: (1) Arab, (2) mixed, more Arab than Caucasian, (3) mixed, more Caucasian than Arab, or (4) Caucasian.

Those who read the rich, detailed narrative “made significantly fewer categorical race judgments” compared to those who simply read the synopsis. They also “reported significantly higher genetic overlap between Arabs and Caucasians,” which suggested their racial boundary lines were less rigid and distinct.

The second experiment featured 110 people similarly recruited online. They read either the aforementioned excerpt from the novel, the brief synopsis thereof, or an unrelated piece, “a brief history of the automobile.”

Afterwards, all examined 12 images of the ambiguous Arab-Caucasian faces “with varying levels of anger expression.” They were instructed to classify them on the same four-point scale.

Expressions of high-intensity anger led participants who read either the synopsis, or the history of the car, to “disproportionately categorize faces as Arab,” the researchers report. But this bias was absent among those who read Abdullah’s narrative.

“Narrative fiction offers a rich context in which exposure to out-group culture and (a process of emotional) merging can occur,” the researchers conclude. “Supporting this notion, there is growing evidence that reading a story engages many of the same neural networks involved in empathy.”

It all suggests there’s something about well-written, sensitive fiction that draws us in and lets us identify with the characters—even if they’re from a foreign culture. This, in turn, short-circuits our tendency to stereotype.

It will be interesting to learn whether watching, say, a foreign film would have a similar impact. But since so few of those are getting distributed in the U.S. at the moment, literature might be our best way into the minds and hearts of people from other cultures.

In the process of doing so, our own hearts and minds apparently open a little wider.

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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