Three labs just failed to replicate the finding that a quick read of literary fiction boosts your empathy

Book charging brain concept 3d illustration on gradient backgrowBy Alex Fradera

“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” So said Joyce Carol Oates, and many more of us suspect that reading good fiction gives us insight into other people.

Past research backs this up, for example providing evidence that people with a long history of reading tend to be better at judging the mental states of others. But this work has always been open to the explanation that sensitive people are drawn to books, rather than books making people more sensitive. However in 2013 a study came along that appeared to change the game: researchers David Kidd and Emanuele Castano showed that exposure to a single passage of literary fiction actually improved readers’ ability to identify other people’s feelings.

This finding sent ripples through popular media, even prompting some to suggest strategies for everyday life like leafing through a book before you go on a date. But since then, as is the usual pattern in psychology these days, a struggle has ensued to establish the robustness of the eye-catching 2013 result.

Kidd and Castano have since published more evidence supporting their initial findings, and they emailed us recently to point out that they have a successful direct replication in press (pdf) at The Scientific Study of Literature, and that there are at least two published replications of their original finding.

But meanwhile another lab tweeted us to say that in as yet unpublished work, they failed to recapitulate the same results. Now the latest development in this contested field, published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, comes from a collaboration of three independent research groups, who aimed to provide a robust test of the replicability of the 2013 study using extremely similar methods to the original.

Led by Maria Euginia Panero, a PhD candidate at Boston College, the collaboration followed the 2013 research by looking systematically at the effects of literary fiction on performance on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, a classic test of judging mental states where participants see an actor’s facial expression, cropped to show only the eyes, and they have to pick the state (e.g. sceptical, joking) that they think applies.

The total sample size of 792 exceeded that of the original experiment, while keeping the demographics very similar – just over half women, average age 35. And in every comparison the researchers controlled for lifetime exposure to fiction, judged by ability to recognise author names from a list.

In their original 2013 study, Kidd and Castano’s comparisons uncovered a number of effects: that reading literary fiction (such as Don DeLillo and Lydia Davis) increased emotion recognition performance compared with reading non-fiction, that it had a greater benefit on performance than reading popular fiction (such as Dashiell Hammett’s detective stories), and that it was better than reading nothing at all. But using the same text passages, none of these effects were replicated in the new research – reading matter had no acute effect on the ability to read the mind in the eyes.

There was one significant finding: a greater lifetime exposure to fiction was correlated with better mind-reading performance. This tallies with the past work showing that readers are indeed better at this test, but questions the idea that a fleeting exposure to fiction really changes subtle cognitive-perceptual abilities.

Panera and her colleagues speculate that, given success in other “conceptual” replications that used slightly different methods, it’s possible that there may be unseen variables at work, such as verbal intelligence, lack of prior exposure to literary fiction, or types of reader – for example, those who tend to read deeply rather than skim – that influence whether or not a benefit occurs. In other words, there might be a real acute effect of literary fiction here … but only for certain people, at certain times of their lives, or under certain conditions.

Studies that show brief experimental manipulations to have a profound effect on our behaviour or capacities are always exciting – that’s the motor behind the popular success of social priming work and the power pose … which have since come under serious scrutiny. I don’t have any doubt that Oates is right to say that reading is in some sense a means to slip into another’s skin, but whether the experience results in quantitative shifts in technical abilities, or something more ethereal… well, we just don’t know. It seems to me that further investigations would more sensibly concentrate on effects that emerge over longer time spans, rather than scant minutes spent with a book, however magical they may feel.

Does Reading a Single Passage of Literary Fiction Really Improve Theory of Mind? An Attempt at Replication.

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

4 thoughts on “Three labs just failed to replicate the finding that a quick read of literary fiction boosts your empathy”

  1. It turns out the Panero et al.’s results aren’t to be taken seriouslyl. A commentary by Kidd and Castano, accepted for publication by the same journal that published Panero’s piece, unvails such shortcomings in the Panero’s piece that a retraction by JPSP would be in order.

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