More evidence that literary, but not pop, fiction boosts readers’ emotional skills

Image via Flickr/VisitBritain

By Christian Jarrett

Three years ago, a pair of psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York attracted worldwide interest and controversy when they reported in the prestigious journal Science that reading just a few pages of literary fiction boosted research participants’ recognition of other people’s emotions, but that reading pop fiction (also known as genre fiction) did not. Now the same researchers have returned with a new paper in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts that’s used a different approach to arrive at the same conclusion – again, reading literary fiction, but not genre fiction, appears to be associated with superior emotion recognition skills.

The research from 2013 involved online participants reading a few pages of literary fiction (including excerpts from novels by Don DeLillo, Lydia Davis or Louise Erdrich) or pop fiction (including excerpts from Danielle Steele, Rosamunde Pilcher and Gillian Flynn) and then attempting to discern people’s emotions from looking at their eyes.

One of that study’s critics was Mark Liberman. On his influential Language Log blog he expressed surprise that the study had even been accepted for publication – after all, he argued, the researchers had hand-picked just a few seemingly arbitrary examples of literary and genre fiction. It was, he said, a “breath-taking overgeneralisation” to extrapolate from the effects of these passages to say anything about lit fiction or genre fiction as a whole.

For the new research, David Kidd and Emanuele Castano tested over 2000 more people on the same “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test” they used previously (the test involves looking at just the eye regions of actors’ faces and selecting from four complex emotion words which one best describes each actor’s felt emotion). Some of the participants were recruited via a link in a New York Times article about the association between reading fiction and interpersonal sensitivity, others were recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website.

As well as completing the emotion recognition test, the participants were also shown a list of 130 names and asked to say which, if any, were the names of established authors. Sixty-five of the listed names were authors, some of them of pop fiction (such as Dick Francis, Tom Clancy and Stephen King), others of literary fiction (such as Salman Rushdie, George Orwell and Kazuo Ishiguro). Greater recognition of literary authors was interpreted as an indication that a participant had read more literary fiction.

There was a clear pattern in the findings – the more literary fiction authors that participants recognised, the better they tended to perform on the emotional recognition test, and this association held even after statistically accounting for the influence of other factors that might be connected to both emotion skills and reading more literary fiction, such as past educational attainment, gender and age.

A second study involving over 300 more participants recruited online was similar but also included a measure of participants’ self-reported empathy levels – this was to check that it’s not simply that people with more empathy are more attracted to literary fiction and also tend to do better at the emotion recognition test. Again, participants who recognised more literary fiction authors also tended to perform better on the emotion test, and this association remained even after controlling for the influence of differences in participants’ empathy levels.

Kidd and Castano said the consistency of their findings across three samples showed that the patterns they found are “robust”. They believe the apparent link between reading more literary fiction and better emotion recognition skills emerges because “the implied (rather than explicit) sociocognitive complexity, or roundness of characters, in literary fiction prompts readers to make, adjust, and consider multiple interpretations of characters’ mental states.” However, they acknowledged that “no direct evidence speaks to the precise mechanisms” by which literary fiction exerts its postulated benefits.

Perhaps mindful of some of the criticism levelled at their earlier research, Kidd and Castano also point out that their findings should not be taken as evidence of “the superiority of literary fiction”. Rather, they say, all types of fiction are likely to have an effect on people’s emotional understanding, but in different ways. They speculate that reading more pop fiction that’s filled with stereotypical characters might encourage the “other strategy of social perception”, which is to understand people “in terms of their social identities and roles” – an approach likely to be favoured in less individualistic cultures.

Critics of the new research might feel that Kidd and Castano are again extrapolating rather far from some fairly vague results – for example, it’s worth noting that the meaning of performance differences on the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test” is an area of contention in psychology where it’s been shown that performance is related to verbal IQ, not just emotional perspective taking. Others perhaps will continue to feel uncomfortable about the very enterprise of attempting to distil the benefits of reading fiction into a number on a psychometric test.

Different Stories: How Levels of Familiarity With Literary and Genre Fiction Relate to Mentalizing

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest.

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