Category: Reading

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. Continue reading “Three labs just failed to replicate the finding that a quick read of literary fiction boosts your empathy”

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. Continue reading “More evidence that literary, but not pop, fiction boosts readers’ emotional skills”

You hear a voice in your head when you’re reading, right?

As you’re reading this blog post silently to yourself, do you hear an inner voice speaking the words in your head? A new paper published in Psychosis suggests that most people do hear an internal voice when they’re reading. But as this is one of the first ever investigations into the question, and it used an unconventional methodology, it’s fair to say the results are far from conclusive.

Ruvanee Vilhauer at New York University took advantage of questions about the phenomenon posted on Yahoo! Answers, the largest English language Q&A website in the world (where people post questions and members of the community chip in with their answers). She found 24 relevant questions posed between 2006 and 2014, and 136 answers in which people described their own experiences when reading.

Vilhauer analysed all the relevant content and looked for recurring themes and insights. Overall, the vast majority (82.5 per cent) of contributors said that they did hear an inner voice when reading to themselves, 10.6 per cent said they didn’t, and the status of the remaining contributors was unclear. Of those who said they heard an inner voice, 13 per cent said they did so only sometimes, with various factors tending to increase the likelihood of this happening, such as their interest in the text.

Among the contributors with an internal reading voice, another key theme was whether or not they only ever heard the same voice (this was true for about half of them) or a range of different voices. For those who heard different inner voices, these tended to vary based on the voice of the character who was speaking in a story, or if it was a text message or email, on the voice of the sender. For people who only ever heard the same internal reading voice, this was usually their own voice, but it was often different in some way from their speaking voice, for example in terms of pitch or emotional tone. Some contributors described or implied that their inner reading voice was just the same as the inner voice they used for thoughts.

Nearly all those who said they had an inner reading voice or voices referred to it being “audible” in some way, for example they spoke of its volume or depth or accent. Another issue that came up was the controllability of the inner reading voice. Some contributors spoke of the voice as distracting or even scary, while others said they deliberately chose the voice they used. You can see why this paper was published in the journal Psychosis. Indeed, Vilhauer said that the insights from her analysis provided some support for theories that say auditory hallucinations are inner voices that are incorrectly identified as not belonging to the self.

Why has this topic been largely overlooked before now (although check out these studies from 2011, and Charles Fernyhough’s forthcoming book The Voices Within)? Vilhauer’s study hints at an answer because she found that many people assumed that their inner experiences when reading were shared by everyone. This worked both ways, so some of the people who had an inner reading voice were convinced of its normality: “We all hear our voices in our heads at times – even those of others we know – especially while reading,” said one Yahoo contributor. Yet others who claimed to have no inner voice felt they were the normal ones. For example, in response to a question posted on the site about whether anyone else hears an inner voice while reading, one responder said “Nooo. You should get that checked out” and another wrote, in capitals: “NO, I’M NOT A FREAK”.

Vilhauer speculates that perhaps psychologists have failed to study this question because they’ve simply assumed, like many of the Yahoo contributors, that there’s no variability in this and everyone has the same reading experience as they do.


Vilhauer, R. (2016). Inner reading voices: An overlooked form of inner speech Psychosis, 8 (1), 37-47 DOI: 10.1080/17522439.2015.1028972

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

further reading
The science of how we talk to ourselves in our heads
A preliminary taxonomy of the voices inside your head
‘Don’t do it!’ – how your inner voice really does aid self-control

Our free fortnightly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!

How do you prove that reading boosts IQ?

By guest blogger Stuart Ritchie.

A recent study on whether reading boosts intelligence attracted global media attention: “Reading at a young age makes you smarter,” announced the Daily Mail. “Early reading boosts health and intelligence,” said The Australian.

In the race for eye-catching headlines, this mainstream media coverage arguably missed the more fascinating story of the hunt for cause and effect. Here lead author Dr Stuart Ritchie explains the science:

“Causality, it turns out, is really difficult to prove. Correlational studies, while interesting, don’t give us information about causation one way or another. The randomised controlled trial is the ‘gold standard’ method of telling whether a manipulation has an effect on an outcome. But what if a randomised experiment isn’t possible, for practical or ethical reasons? Thankfully, there is an entire toolkit of study designs that go beyond correlation, and can be used to take steps up the ladder closer to causation.

Say you wanted to find interventions that cause intelligence to increase. Since childhood intelligence test scores are so powerfully predictive of later educational success, as well as health and wealth, it’s of great importance to find out how they might be improved. All sorts of nutritional supplements and training programmes have been tried, but all have failed (so far) to reliably show benefits for IQ. However, one factor that has been convincingly shown to cause improvements in intelligence test scores is education. It wouldn’t exactly be ethical to remove some children from school at random and see how they do in comparison to their educated peers. But in a step up the aforementioned causal ladder, researchers in 2012 used a ‘natural experiment’ in the Norwegian education system (where compulsory years of education were increased in some areas but not others) to show that each year’s worth of extra education added 3.6 IQ points.

What is it about education that’s driving these effects? Could it be that a very basic process like learning to read is causing the improvements in IQ? Keith Stanovich and colleagues showed, in a number of studies in the 1990s, that earlier levels of reading interest (though not ability) were predictive of later levels of verbal intelligence, even after controlling for children’s initial verbal intelligence. In a 1998 review, they concluded that “reading will make [children] smarter”.

On the ladder of causation, a control for pre-existing ability in a non-experimental design is important, but problems remain. For instance, since we know that common genes contribute to reading and intelligence, any study that fails to measure or control for genetic influences can’t rule out that the possibility that the early reading advantage and the later intelligence benefit are due simply to a shared genetic basis that is, say, expressed at different times in different areas of the brain. If only there were a way of cloning children – comparing one “baseline” version of each child against a second version with improved reading ability, and then seeing if the better reading translated to higher intelligence later in development…

This sounds like a far-fetched fantasy experiment. But in a recent study, my colleagues and I did just that, though we left it to nature to do the cloning. Tim Bates, Robert Plomin, and I analysed data from 1,890 pairs of identical twins who were part of the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS). The twins had their reading ability and intelligence tested on multiple measures (averaged into a composite) at ages 7, 9, 10, 12, and 16. For each twin pair at each age, we calculated the difference between one twin and the other on both variables. Since each pair was near-100 per cent identical genetically, and was brought up in the same family, these differences must have been caused purely by the ‘non-shared environment’ (that is, environmental influences experienced by one twin but not the other).

We found that twins who had an advantage over their co-twin on reading at earlier points in their development had higher intelligence test scores later on. Because this analysis controls for initial IQ differences, as well as genetics and socioeconomic circumstances, it is considerably more compelling than previous results that used less well-controlled designs. It’s important to note that we found associations between earlier reading ability and later nonverbal intelligence, as well as later verbal intelligence. So, beyond the not-particularly-surprising finding that being better at reading might help with a child’s vocabulary, we made the pretty-surprising finding that it might also help with a child’s problem solving and reasoning ability. Why?

We now enter the realm of speculation. It might be that reading allows children to practise the skills of assimilating information and abstract thought that are useful when completing IQ tests. The process of training in reading may also help teach children to concentrate on tasks—like IQ tests—that they’re asked to complete. Our research doesn’t shed light on these mechanisms, but we hope future studies will.

One should not give our study a criticism-free ride just because it tells a cheery, ‘good news’ story. A step up toward causation is not causation. Could there have been alternative explanations for our findings? Certainly. It is possible that, for instance, teachers spot a child with a reading advantage and give them additional attention, raising their intelligence ‘without’, as we say in the paper, ‘reading doing the causal “work”‘. It may also have been that our controls were inadequate – as I said above, identical twins are nearly genetically identical, but a small number of unique genetic mutations might occur within each pair. The largest lacuna in our study, though, was the cause of the initial within-pair reading differences. Whether these were caused by teaching, peers, pure luck, or some other process, we couldn’t tell, and it’s of great interest to find out.

We hope that our study encourages researchers in three ways. First, in the eternal quest for intelligence-boosters, instead of looking to flashy new brain-training games or the like, they might wish to examine, and maximise, the potentially IQ-improving effects of ‘everyday’ education. Second, they could attempt to answer the questions raised by our study. Why do identical twins differ in reading, and are the reasons under a teacher’s control? What are the specific mechanisms that might lead from literacy to intelligence? Third, and more generally, we hope it will inspire them to consider new methods, including the twin-differences design, that edge further up the causal ladder, away from the basic correlational study. The data are, of course, far harder to collect, but the stronger inferences found there are well worth the climb.”


Ritchie, S., Bates, T., & Plomin, R. (2014). Does Learning to Read Improve Intelligence? A Longitudinal Multivariate Analysis in Identical Twins From Age 7 to 16 Child Development DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12272

Post written by Stuart J. Ritchie, a Research Fellow in the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter: @StuartJRitchie

Reading literary (but not pop) fiction boosts our understanding of other people’s minds

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. 

–Further reading–
Reading novels linked with increased empathy

The mind’s flight simulator – Keith Oatley for The Psychologist shows that fiction is not just entertainment.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Reading comprehension just as good using a Kindle as with paper

A significant milestone was passed last August when Amazon announced that sales of books on its Kindle e-reader platform outstripped print sales for the first time. There’s no question that e-readers are convenient – you can load a single device with thousands of titles. But some commentators have started to question whether digital reading has adverse effects on memory and comprehension compared with reading from print.

In 2010, a reassuring study in fact found no difference in recall after reading material electronically versus paper. Now Sara Margolin and her colleagues have looked at reading comprehension and again found no deficits in understanding of material consumed on a Kindle or a computer versus paper.

Margolin’s team invited 90 student participants (average age 19 years) to read ten short passages of text.  One third of them read on paper (A4 size, Times New Roman font), 30 of them read on a second gen. Kindle (6 inch screen), and the remainder read via a pdf reader on a computer monitor. Five of the passages were factual (biographies) and five were excerpts from literary fiction. After each passage, the students answered five to six multiple-choice comprehension questions. They could take as long as they wanted to read each passage, but there was no going back to the text once they started answering the questions.

Overall accuracy was at around 75 per cent and, crucially, there was no difference in comprehension performance across the three conditions. This was true whether reading factual or narrative passages of text. “From an educational and classroom perspective, these results are comforting,” the researchers concluded. “While new technologies have sometimes been seen as disruptive, these results indicate that students’ comprehension does not necessarily suffer, regardless of the format from which they read their text.”

Unfortunately the study didn’t look at the participants’ familiarity with e-reader devices. It remains to be seen whether the same results would hold with an older sample and/or with readers who may be less experienced with digital devices. Also the text passages were only around 500 words long. Future research needs to examine comprehension for entire chapters and books. Devices like iPads, which are back-lit and have more potentially distracting functionality, also need to be tested.


Margolin, S., Driscoll, C., Toland, M., and Kegler, J. (2013). E-readers, Computer Screens, or Paper: Does Reading Comprehension Change Across Media Platforms? Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.2930

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Txtng associated wiv superior reading skills

“It is the relentless onward march of the texters, the SMS vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.” John Humphreys, writing in the Daily Mail.

The growing use of mobile phones to send text messages, often with abbreviations and symbols (i.e. “textisms”), has been blamed by many for the alleged decline in correct English usage. But now Beverly Plester and colleagues have shown that young children who use more textisms also tend to be better readers.

Eighty-eight children aged between ten and twelve years were asked to compose text messages describing ten scenarios – for example, explaining to a friend that they’d missed the bus and would be late. Those children who used more textisms in their messages – including abbreviations like “bro”, unconventional spellings like “skool” and so-called accent stylizations like “wiv” – also tended to score more highly on a reading task.

The study also showed that girls tended to use more textisms than boys, and that the earlier a child first started using a mobile phone, the more superior their reading ability tended to be.

The researchers think greater use of textisms may be a sign of increased phonological awareness – that is, awareness of the sounds that words are made of – a skill that’s been linked with literacy for some time. However, this can’t be the whole story – greater use of textisms was associated with better reading ability even when the influence of other factors, such as age, working memory and phonological skill were taken into account. One possibility is that texting could be associated with superior reading because it exposes children to printed text, which in itself is known to be beneficial to reading.

The researchers themselves acknowledge that these findings must be interpreted with caution. This is a correlational, rather than longitudinal, study so it doesn’t prove that using textisms leads to superior reading. Also factors like socio-economic status weren’t taken into account. Children who use more textisms may do so because their parents are better off and they’ve had more chance to send instant messages on computer. Another issue is that the researchers didn’t study texts that the children had composed spontaneously in everyday life.

“As the possession of mobile phones touches younger and younger children by the year, continuing research into the ways using these phones contributes to developing linguistic competence will be very important,” the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgBeverly Plester, Clare Wood, Puja Joshi (2009). Exploring the relationship between children’s knowledge of text message abbreviations and school literacy outcomes. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27 (1), 145-161 DOI: 10.1348/026151008X320507

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Mothers’ reading style affects children’s later understanding of other people’s minds

The use of cognitive verbs like ‘think’, ‘know’, ‘remember’ and ‘believe’ by mothers when reading picture books to their children has a beneficial effect on their children’s later ability to understand other people’s mental states – what psychologists call their ‘theory of mind’.

This has been demonstrated before with young children aged between three and four years old. But now Juan Adrian and colleagues have found it also holds true with children up to seven years old, even as maternal influence might be expected to diminish.

The researchers observed the way 41 mothers read picture books to their children who were aged between three and six years. The children’s understanding of other people’s mental states was also tested, for example by showing them that a Smarties tube contained counters, not Smarties, and then asking them to predict what another child would think was inside the tube.

A year later, the mothers were again observed reading to their children, and again the children’s understanding of other people’s mental states was tested, this time using some more difficult tasks.

The longitudinal nature of the experiment allowed the researchers to check that mothers’ language style really had a causal role. They found that mothers’ use of more cognitive verbs at baseline predicted their child’s understanding of mental states a year later, even after controlling for children’s baseline understanding of mental states and mothers’ educational background. But the reverse wasn’t true – children’s understanding of mental states at baseline didn’t predict mothers’ later use of cognitive verbs.

A more detailed breakdown of the mothers’ reading style showed that it was particularly references to story characters’ mental states and explaining their thoughts and actions using ‘think’ terms (e.g. Mother says: “…this boy sees so many people and thinks, ‘I’ll pretend I don’t know what’s going on and I’ll push to the front of the queue’”) that was predictive of their children having a more advanced understanding of mental states a year later.

Adrian, J.E., Clemente, A. & Villanueva, L. (2007). Mothers’ use of cognitive state verbs in picture-book reading and the development of children’s understanding of mind: A longitudinal study. Child Development, 78, 1052-1067.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Reading is a team effort

Psychologists Denis Pelli and Katharine Tillman have shown that reading is a team effort in the sense that the three reading processes of letter decoding, whole world recognition, and using sentence context, each make a unique, additive contribution to reading speed.

Eleven participants read passages from the mystery novel Loves Music, Loves to Dance by Mary Higgins Clark. The researchers knocked out the contribution of the three reading processes, one at a time, or in combination, by manipulating the text, and observed the effect this had on reading speed. This is the first time all three processes have been studied at once in this way.

To knock out sentence context, they changed word order (e.g. “Contribute others. The of Reading measured”). To knock out whole word recognition, they alternated capital and lower case (e.g. “ThIs tExT AlTeRnAtEs iN CaSe”). And to knock out letter-by-letter decoding, they substituted letters in such a way that word shape was maintained (e.g. “Reading” becomes “Pcedirg”).

Letter decoding was found to account for 62 per cent of reading speed; whole word recognition 16 per cent; and sentence context 22 per cent. Crucially, while the influence of the different processes was additive, there was no redundancy. So when letter decoding was knocked out, the contribution of the other processes to reading rate didn’t increase. That is, the three processes don’t work on the same words. Speed reading proponents will be interested to note that among the faster readers, predicting words from sentence context made a bigger contribution to reading speed than among the slower readers.

“That letters, words and sentences are all involved in reading is nothing new, but finding that their contributions to reading rate is additive is startling” the researchers said.

Pelli, D.G. & Tillman, K.A. (2007). Parts, wholes, and context in reading: A triple dissociation. PloS one, 8, e680. (Open access).

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to speed reading discussion in Slate.

Brain scan helps identify children likely to have reading problems

Psychologists in America report brain scanning could help identify those children who are at greatest risk of having later reading problems.

At the start and end of a school year, John Gabrieli and colleagues tested the phonological skills of 64 children (aged between 8 and 12 years) – that is, their ability to convert letters into sounds – a skill that is known to be key to effective reading. They did this by asking the children, all of whom had been identified as poor readers, to read nonsense words aloud.

Also at the start of the year, the researchers gave the children a comprehensive battery of traditional reading tests, plus a brain scan, during which they had to say whether words rhymed with each other.

Performance on the traditional behavioural reading tests predicted 65 per cent of the variance in the children’s phonological skills at the year end, whereas patterns of activity revealed in the brain scans predicted 57 per cent of the variance. In particular, greater activation in the left temporal lobe and more right-frontal activation were both predictive of superior phonological skills.

So, used in isolation, the traditional tests beat the predictive power of the brain imaging. But the key finding is that using both the behavioural measures and brain scanning data together predicted 81 per cent of the variance in end-of-year phonological skills.

“The significantly greater predictive accuracy of the combined behavioural-neuroimaging model than either model alone shows that neuroimaging is measuring brain functions and structures relevant to reading that are not fully measured by their behavioural correlates in standardised testing,” the researchers said.

In the future, a combination of neuroimaging and behavioural measures could help target early, intensive reading interventions at those children who need it most, the researchers said.

Hoeft, F., Ueno, T., Reiss, A.L., Meyler, A., Whitfield-Gabrieli, S., Glover, G.H., Keller, T.A., Kobayashi, N., Mazaika, P., Jo, B., Just, M.A. & Gabrieli, J.D.E. (2007). Prediction of children’s reading skills using behavioural, functional, and structural neuroimaging measures. Behavioural Neuroscience, In Press.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.