Category: Reading

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.

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of 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.

Can physical exercise really improve reading ability?

Bouncing on a gym ball, spinning round, and other physical exercises can help improve the reading ability of children at risk of dyslexia. That’s according to David Reynolds and Roderick Nicolson, whose latest claims have attracted robust criticism from other experts in the field.

A few years ago, 35 children at risk of dyslexia (six with an actual diagnosis), aged between seven and ten years, were recruited and tested on a range of mental and physical tasks. For six months, 18 of these children then undertook 5-10 minutes of exercise therapy twice daily, every day; the remaining children acted as a control group. The exercise children subsequently showed larger improvements (relative to the average ability for their age group) in dexterity, postural stability and some aspects of reading, than did the control group.

Now Reynolds and Nicolson have published a follow-up study in which the original control group also received six months of exercise therapy (starting from the end of the first study), and with both groups then re-tested a year after that had finished. At this final testing, there were improvements (again, relative to average performance for their age) across both groups in some aspects of reading ability, but not others, as well as in dexterity and postural stability.

The researchers said the persistence of these improvements beyond the end of the exercise therapy, showed their initial findings were not down to a general feel-good effect (i.e. placebo) triggered by the exercises. They also said the fact that the initial control group have now shown improvements, undermines earlier claims that the original results were due to the initial control group having more serious reading problems than the initial exercise group.

Although the new findings don’t address the underlying processes, proponents of the exercise approach believe dyslexia may be associated with dysfunction in a region of the brain – the cerebellum – that is involved in physical coordination and learning. And they argue physical exercise may help dyslexia sufferers’ reading by improving function in this brain region.

“The research reported here confirms that the exercise treatment did indeed lead to lasting benefits, but the issue of why requires further studies”, the researchers said.

However, writing in the same journal, John Racks and colleagues said the lack of a placebo-controlled group; the paucity of children in the study actually diagnosed with dyslexia; and the misuse of statistical tests, fatally undermined the study findings. “We do not see how the current results have advanced our knowledge of the possible links between exercise-based therapies and academic achievement”, they said, also adding they had concerns about commercial involvement in the project.

Reynolds, D. & Nicolson, R.I. (2007). Follow-up of an exercise-based treatment for children with reading difficulties. Dyslexia, 13, 78-96.

Rack, J.P, Snowling, M.J., Hume, C. & Gibbs, S. (2007). No evidence that an exercise-based treatment programme (DDAT) has specific benefits for children with reading difficulties. Dyslexia, 13, 97-104.

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

Reading novels linked with increased empathy

“‘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.

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

Reading to babies gives them a head-start

Image by superhuaToddlers read to daily by their mothers from an early age have bigger vocabularies and superior cognitive skills.

Helen Raikes and colleagues asked 2,581 mothers from poor families enrolled on the Early Head Start programme in America how often they read to their child at age 14, 24 and 36 months. At each time point, children read to daily, or several times a week, had a larger vocabulary.

Of course it’s probable that parents are more likely to read to children if they have a larger vocabulary, but the researchers also found that children read to more at 24 months had a larger vocabulary at age 36 months, irrespective of how much they were read to at that later time point. Moreover, among English speaking families only, those children read to daily at the age of 14, 24 and 36 months, had superior cognitive skills when tested at the age of 36 months.

“This study shows relations between reading to children and children’s language and cognitive development begin very early and implies that parent-child bookreading and other language-oriented interventions for vulnerable children should begin much earlier than has generally been proposed”, said lead researcher Helen Raikes of Nebraska-Lincoln university.

The researchers also found first born children were more likely to be read to, as were girls, and the children of better educated mothers.

Raikes, H.H., Raikes H.A., Pan B.A., Luze, G., Tamis-LeMonda, C.S., Rodriguez, E.T., Brooks-Gunn, J., Constantine, J. & Tarullo, L.B. (2006). Mother-child bookreading in low-income families: Correlates and outcomes during the first three years of life. Child Development, In Press.

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

Against speed reading

There are at least three different types of reader, with those people who make frequent backward glances to earlier subject headings and key sentences, demonstrating the better comprehension for what they’ve just read. The two other types of reader are slow and fast ‘linear readers’, who tend to read continuously from one line to the next, making few backward glances. The finding comes from an analysis of the eye movements of 44 undergraduate students by Jukka Hyönä and Anna-Mari Nurminen at the University of Turku in Finland, who say their finding has implications for the teaching of reading.

“This finding demonstrates the usefulness and functionality of the look-back and rereading fixations”, the researchers said. Jukka Hyönä told the Digest: “Our study clearly shows that the advocates of speed reading are wrong in saying that regressions are a sign of poor reading and a bad habit. We have shown that selective looking back is in fact a sign of strategic reading”.

Hyönä and Nurminen drew their conclusions after recording the students’ eye movements as they read a 12 page on-screen text about animals in danger of extinction. They classified 16 per cent of students as ‘topic structure processors’ who spent more time rereading earlier parts of the current sentence, as well as going back to earlier subject headings and the first sentences of paragraphs. Eighteen per cent of the students were classified as fast linear readers, and 66 per cent as slow linear readers. After reading the text, the students wrote down as many of the main points as they could think of, with the readers who performed more rereading tending to produce a more comprehensive summary of the text.

A later questionnaire showed that the students had good insight into the kind of reader they were, accurately estimating how fast they read compared to other people, and how often they looked back over earlier text.

Jukka Hyena told the Digest: “The smart processing strategy that we found could easily be taught to children or adults. In fact, I understand some teachers are actually teaching something similar to our ‘topic structure processing strategy’”.

Hyona, J. & Nurminen, A-M. (2006). Do adult readers know how they read? Evidence from eye movement patterns and verbal reports. British Journal of Psychology, 97, 31-50.

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