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Want to identify more with others? Reading literary — not pop — fiction may help

Only literary fiction, not popular fiction or nonfiction, the study found, enhances people’s ability to infer what others are thinking and feeling.

In a world where empathy is all too often in short supply, a new study suggests an intriguing way of encouraging people to be more understanding about what other people are feeling and experiencing.

Have them read fiction.

But not just any fiction. It has to be literary short stories and novels, like those written by National Book Award winners Alice Walker, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner and Jonathan Franzen.

For only literary fiction, not popular fiction or nonfiction, the study found, enhances people’s ability to infer what others are thinking and feeling — an ability that cognitive scientists refer to as the “theory of mind.”

Literary fiction “uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences,” explain the study’s co-authors, Ph.D. candidate David Comer Kidd and social psychologist Emanuele Castano, both of the New School for Social Research in New York City. They say:

“Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration. The worlds of fiction, though, pose fewer risks than the real world, and they present opportunities to consider the experiences of others without facing the potentially threatening consequences of that engagement.More critically, 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. Readers of literary fiction must draw on more flexible interpretive resources to infer the feelings and thoughts of characters.”

In other words, reading literary fiction helps us become more empathetic.

The same is not true, Kidd and Castano add, when we read popular fiction — works by, say, Danielle Steel, Robert Heinlein and Rosamunde Pilcher.

“Contrary to literary fiction, popular fiction, which is more readerly, tends to portray the world and characters as internally consistent and predictable,” the two researchers note. “Therefore, it may reaffirm readers’ expectations and so not promote [empathy].”

Five separate experiments

For their study, which was published online Thursday in the journal Science, Kidd and Castano conducted five separate experiments. Participants were randomly assigned to read short works (10 to 15 pages) of either literary fiction (excerpts from recent National Book Award finalists or winners of the 2012 PEN/O. Henry Prize for short fiction), popular fiction (selections chosen from the bestselling lists on, nonfiction (magazine articles from the very well-written Smithsonian magazine) or nothing at all.

The participants were then asked to perform standardized tasks designed to assess theory-of-mind abilities. One such test, for example, involves categorizing faces in photographs as happy, angry, afraid or sad. Another asks people to identify the emotion being expressed in black-and-white photos of actors’ eyes.

“We used several measures of [theory of mind] to make sure the effects were not specific to one type of measure, thus accumulating converging evidence for our hypothesis,” Kidd and Castano write.

A small but significant effect

The study revealed that participants who read literary fiction performed significantly better on the theory-of-mind tasks than those who read works in any of the other categories (or who read nothing at all). The improvement was relatively slight. On the “eye” test, for example, the participants reading literary fiction outperformed those reading popular fiction by an average of about two questions out of 36. Still, say Kidd and Castano, the difference was statistically significant.

What about literary fiction encourages empathy? Surprisingly, the researchers do not believe the content of the literary fiction was a factor. They point out that the texts contained widely varying subject matter and were too short to give the study’s participants very much knowledge about others’ lives and emotions.

Instead, they believe that the process of reading literary fiction — a process that prompts readers to play an active and  “writerly role” in filling in the emotionally ambiguous elements and meanings of a story — is what leads to the increased ability to be empathetic.

As Kidd and Castano explain in the introduction to their study, “the capacity of literary fiction to unsettle readers’ expectations and challenge their thinking” is far from a new idea. Indeed, other research has also shown, the two researchers stress, that reading fiction “may change how, not just what, people think about others,” and thus deepen people’s ability to be empathetic.

Hmmm…. Maybe we should launch a literary book drive for Congress.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/06/2013 - 06:41 pm.

    I’ll second that emotion. . .

    I think there’s a paradox in this. I’m inclined to believe that people who are already empathetic are drawn to read fiction because they are and wish to understand the complexity of other minds. Whereas those who might benefit from having greater empathy for others will not read fiction because they aren’t interested. They either fail to see any reason for knowing minds and feelings of others which they might gain through reading and feelings or they lack insight into their own lack of empathy.

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