“‘Oh! it is only a novel!’ or, in short, only some work in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusion of wit and humour are to be conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.” From Northanger Abbey (1818) by Jane Austen.
The more fiction a person reads, the more empathy they have and the better they perform on tests of social understanding and awareness. By contrast, reading more non-fiction, fact-based books shows the opposite association. That’s according to Raymond Mar and colleagues who say their finding could have implications for educating children and adults about understanding others.
Finding out how much people read is always difficult because it’s socially desirable for people to report that they read a lot. Mar and colleagues avoided this by asking 94 participants to identify the names of fiction and non-fiction authors embedded in a long list of names that also included non-authors. Prior research has shown this test correlates well with how much people actually read. Among the authors listed were Matt Ridley, Naomi Wolf (non-fiction), Toni Morrison and PD James (fiction).
The more authors of fiction that a participant recognised, the higher they tended to score on measures of social awareness and tests of empathy – for example being able to recognise a person’s emotions from a picture showing their eyes only, or being able to take another person’s perspective. Recognising more non-fiction authors showed the opposite association.
The researchers surmised that reading fiction could improve people’s social awareness via at least two routes – by exposing them to concrete social knowledge concerning the way people behave, and by allowing them to practise inferring people’s intentions and monitoring people’s relationships. Non-fiction readers, by contrast, “fail to simulate such experiences, and may accrue a social deficit in social skills as a result of removing themselves from the actual social world”.
However, a weakness of the study is that the direction of causation has not been established – it might simply be that more empathic people prefer reading novels.
Mar, R.A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J. & Peterson, J.B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694-712.