Literary fiction takes the reader on a journey into other worlds, other lives, other minds. A new study shows that this has an immediate effect on the reader’s powers of empathy, as judged by simple lab tests. The same benefit was not found for popular fiction.
“Readers of literary fiction must draw on more flexible interpretative resources to infer the feelings and thoughts of characters,” said the researchers David Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School for Social Research. “That is, they must engage Theory of Mind processes [ToM refers to our ability to represent and understand other people’s thoughts and feelings].”
Across five experiments, involving hundreds of volunteers online, the researchers showed that reading a few pages of literary fiction (including works by Don DeLillo, Lydia Davis, Louise Erdrich, Alice Munroe and Dagoberto Gilb) boosted participants’ immediate ability to discern people’s emotions from pictures of their eyes or faces. In some cases, the benefit extended to superior performance on a Theory of Mind picture test that involved using visual or verbal cues to identify what a person was thinking or desiring. No such effects were found after reading non-fiction or pop fiction, including passages from Danielle Steele, Rosamunde Pilcher and Gillian Flynn.
The apparent benefits of reading literary fiction held even after controlling for a raft of other variables, including participants’ education, gender, age and mood.
This isn’t the first study to associate reading fiction with increased empathy. For example, a 2006 paper found that people who knew the names of more novelists (taken as a sign that they read more) tended to excel on lab tests of social awareness and empathy. However, such findings were possibly explained by people with greater empathy choosing to read more. By adopting an experimental design this new study avoids that problem. It also extends previous research by suggesting there is something special about literary fiction.
That the beneficial effects of reading were limited to literary fiction also poses a conundrum since the classification of fiction as literary is not entirely objective. For the present purposes the researchers drew on works that have been awarded or short-listed for literary prizes. The question remains – what is it about literary fiction, but not pop fiction, that improves readers’ ability to recognise other people’s thoughts and feelings? Comparison of the superficial linguistic characteristics of literary and pop fiction largely drew a blank, with the exception of frequency of negative emotion words.
The researchers’ belief is that the active ingredient of literary fiction is the way such books “engage their readers creatively as writers … The absence of a single authorial perspective prompts readers to enter a vibrant discourse with the author and her characters.” However, they conceded that their findings “are only preliminary and much research is needed.”
One weakness of the research is that the effects of reading literary fiction on the cognitive component of Theory of Mind (understanding/identifying another person’s thoughts) were inconsistent and sometimes elusive. No benefits were found for the so-called “false belief” test, which the researchers suggested was due to the task being too easy, such that readers in all conditions excelled. On the other hand, benefits of literary fiction were found for only the easy version of the Yoni task (participants must identify one or more people’s thoughts based on visual and verbal clues). The harder Yoni trials “may require a set of more advanced cognitive skills … that are less easily influenced,” the researchers said.
Another potential problem with the study is the way the texts were presented. It’s not clear if the identity of the passages was hidden or guessed, and related to that, we don’t know if participants developed expectations that their empathy skills would be improved after reading a piece of literary prose. Such expectations could have played a role in the observed effects.
Nonetheless, if replicated and elucidated in further research, there could be important educational and cultural implications to arise from these new findings, especially at a time when many policy-makers are calling for less emphasis on fiction in secondary education. For now however we’re a long way from knowing exactly what aspects of Theory of Mind benefit from reading literary fiction and why. It’s also not yet established how long the benefits last, and whether the effects of reading short passages (as in this study) is any different from the experience of reading an entire novel.
David Comer Kidd, and Emanuele Castano (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind Science express.
Reading novels linked with increased empathy
The mind’s flight simulator – Keith Oatley for The Psychologist shows that fiction is not just entertainment.