Reading literary fiction improves 'mind-reading' skills, research shows

Oct 03, 2013

Heated debates about the quantifiable value of arts and literature are a common feature of American social discourse. Now, two researchers from The New School for Social Research have published a paper in Science demonstrating that reading literary fiction enhances a set of skills and thought processes fundamental to complex social relationships—and functional societies.

Ph.D. candidate David Comer Kidd and his advisor, professor of psychology Emanuele Castano performed five experiments to measure the effect of reading literary fiction on participants' Theory of Mind (ToM), the complex social skill of "mind-reading" to understand others' mental states. Their paper, which appears in the Oct. 3 issue of Science is entitled "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind."

To choose texts for their study, Kidd and Castano relied on expert evaluations to define three types of writing: literary fiction, popular fiction, and nonfiction. Literary fiction works were represented by excerpts from recent National Book Award finalists or winners of the 2012 PEN/O. Henry Prize for short fiction; popular fiction works were drawn from Amazon.com bestsellers or an anthology of recent popular fiction; and non-fiction works were selected from Smithsonian Magazine.

After participants read texts from one of the three genres, Kidd and Castano tested their ToM capabilities using several well-established measures. One of these measures is the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" test, which asks participants to look at black-and-white photographs of actors' eyes and indicate the emotion expressed by that actor (see Figure 1 below). Another one is the Yoni test, which includes both affective trials and cognitive ones (see Figure 2 below). "We used several measures of ToM to make sure the effects were not specific to one type of measure, thus accumulating converging evidence for our hypothesis, " the researchers said.

Across the five experiments, Kidd and Castano found that participants who were assigned to read literary fiction performed significantly better on the ToM tests than did participants assigned to the other experimental groups, who did not differ from one another.

The study shows that not just any fiction is effective in fostering ToM, rather the literary quality of the fiction is the determining factor. The literary texts used in the experiments had vastly different content and subject matter, but all produced similarly high ToM results.

"Experiment One showed that reading literary fiction, relative to nonfiction improves performance on an affective ToM task. Experiments Two through Five showed that this effect is specific to literary fiction," the paper reports.

Kidd and Castano suggest that the reason for literary fiction's impact on ToM is a direct result of the ways in which it involves the reader. Unlike popular fiction, literary fiction requires intellectual engagement and creative thought from their readers. "Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of […] stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers," Kidd and Castano write. "Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration."

"We see this research as a step towards better understanding the interplay between a specific cultural artifact, literary fiction, and affective and cognitive processes," Kidd and Castano say.

Explore further: Researchers find a way of avoiding overhead aversion in charity donations

More information: "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind," by D.C. Kidd et al. Science, 2013.

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User comments : 6

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wealthychef
2.4 / 5 (5) Oct 03, 2013
As a self-development geek who could use better ToM skillz, I'd love a reading list here. :-)
Epic_Rebellius
5 / 5 (1) Oct 03, 2013
Which actually proves the evident: the more socially engaged we are, however bookish that might be, the more socially receptive we'll become.
The real question is: how much do our readings affect our social life in general, and skills in particular, since our reading choices and habits converge at some point?
RoMiSo
1 / 5 (4) Oct 04, 2013
The authors 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 do
RoMiSo
1 / 5 (4) Oct 04, 2013
Finishing the last comment:
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.

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.

The main weakness? The groups weren't calibrated. And the samples too small to be free of artifacts
PsycheOne
1 / 5 (5) Oct 04, 2013
Results that satisfy statistical requirements of significance are not necessarily significant in the practical sense. I would like to know just how much difference was found. At that point one might weigh the cost vs the benefit and decide on a behavior change.

Perhaps a person loves non-fiction and hates fiction but might open War and Peace if it helped, let's say, pick up girls.
alfie_null
not rated yet Oct 05, 2013
The process they used to categorize fiction seems arbitrary. So the results don't tell us as much as they might. How can one reliably measure the quality of fiction? Is there a S.I. unit?

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