Literary fiction readers understand others’ emotions better, study finds
Literary fiction by the likes of Salman Rushdie, Harper Lee and Toni Morrison helps improve readers’ understanding of other people’s emotions, according to new research – but genre writing, from authors including Danielle Steel and Clive Cussler, does not.
Academics David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, from the New School for Social Research in New York, put more than 1,000 participants through the “author recognition test”, which measured exposure to fiction by asking respondents to identify writers they recognised from a list. The list included both authors and non-authors, and ranged from writers who are identified as literary, such as Rushdie and Morrison, to those such as Cussler and Steel who are seen as genre authors. The participants then did the “reading the mind in the eyes” test, in which they were asked to select which of four emotion terms most closely matches the expression of a person in a photograph.
In a paper just published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, the academics reveal that those who had recognised more literary fiction authors in the list were better at inferring others’ feelings, a faculty known as theory of mind. Genre fiction is defined in the paper “by its focus on a particular topic and reliance on relatively formulaic plots”, while literary fiction is defined “more by its aesthetic qualities and character development than its focus on plot or a particular set of topics and themes”.
“Results indicate that exposure to literary but not genre fiction positively predicts performance on a test of theory of mind, even when accounting for demographic variables including age, gender, educational attainment, undergraduate major … and self-reported empathy,” they write in the paper, Different Stories: How Levels of Familiarity With Literary and Genre Fiction Relate to Mentalising. “We propose that these findings emerge because the implied (rather than explicit) socio-cognitive complexity, or roundness of characters, in literary fiction prompts readers to make, adjust, and consider multiple interpretations of characters’ mental states.”
Castano and Kidd had previously conducted research in which they gave participants extracts from literary or genre novels to read, and then assessed how well they could recognise emotions in others, finding that those who read the literary fiction extracts scored highest. Their latest research set out to look at the emotion-recognition responses of those who choose to read either literary or genre fiction in their daily lives.
“We thought it was important to try and measure a lifetime’s exposure to fiction, and how it affects these processes,” said Castano.
Good news, beach readers: Fiction may make you smarter, more empathetic
It’s beach reading season – that time when even infrequent readers pick up or download the latest thriller, indulge in a fine romance or take a deep dive into a literary classic.
That is time well-spent, a growing body of research suggests. And it’s not just because reading makes us smarter, though it does. Reading meaty, character-driven fiction might actually make us better, more empathetic people, studies show. Some literary evangelists go further: they say that reading the right books at the right time can ease almost any human ailment.
It’s not surprising that studies comparing avid readers to non-readers find larger vocabularies and greater knowledge among the well-read, even when comparing people with otherwise similar intelligence and educational backgrounds. But those advantages appear to be most pronounced among fiction readers, says Keith Oatley, a novelist who is professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. And, he says, fiction readers also seem to get at least a short-term boost in empathy – the ability to share the emotions and understand the minds of others.
“Recently, this whole area of research has taken off,” says Oatley, who reviewed the relevant studies in an article published this month in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
The gist, he says, is that fiction acts as “the mind’s flight simulator.” In other words, he says, “fiction allows us to live many lives,” and to experience more human interactions than are otherwise possible. As a result, he says, fiction readers may not only learn more, they may develop better social skills and more humane ways of thinking.