Readers of Literary Fiction Better Understand Other People’s Emotions, Study Finds | fiction


Literary fiction by Salman Rushdie, Harper Lee and Toni Morrison helps improve readers’ understanding of other people’s emotions, according to new research – but not genre writing, from authors like Danielle Steel and Clive Cussler.

Academics David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, of the New School for Social Research in New York, took more than 1,000 participants in the “author recognition test,” which measured exposure to fiction by asking respondents to identify writers they recognized from a list. The list included both authors and non-authors, and ranged from writers identified as literary, such as Rushdie and Morrison, to those such as Cussler and Steel who are considered genre authors. Participants then took the ‘read the mind’s eye’ test, in which they were asked to select which of the four emotion terms most closely matched a person’s expression in a photograph.

In an article which has just been published in the journal Psychology of aesthetics, creativity and the arts, academics reveal that those who recognized more literary fiction writers on the list were better able to infer the feelings of others, a faculty known as theory of mind. Genre fiction is defined in the article “by its emphasis on a particular subject and its use of relatively stereotypical plots”, while literary fiction is defined “more by its aesthetic qualities and character development than by its character. emphasis on the plot or a particular set of subjects and themes. ”.

“The results indicate that exposure to literary fiction but not genre fiction positively predicted performance on a theory of mind test, even taking into account demographic variables such as age, sex, education level, undergraduate major… and self-reported empathy, ”they write in the paper, Different Stories: How Familiarity With Literature And Genre Fiction Relates To Mentalization. “We propose that these results emerge because the implicit (rather than explicit) socio-cognitive complexity, or roundness of the characters, in literary fiction prompts readers to make, adjust, and consider multiple interpretations of the characters’ mental states.”

Castano and Kidd had previously conducted research in which they gave participants snippets of literary or genre novels to read, and then assessed how well they could recognize emotions in others, finding that those who read the snippets of literary fiction had the highest scores. Their latest research aimed to examine the emotional recognition responses of those who choose to read literary or genre novels in their daily lives.

“We thought it was important to try to measure a lifetime’s exposure to fiction, and how that affects those processes,” Castano said.

“In these 2013 experiments, we focused on the question of causation: can reading fiction improve theory of mind, at least in the immediate context of reading? We found some evidence that this is possible, but this effect was only seen when we assigned participants to read literary fiction. It didn’t show up when asked to read popular genre fiction, ”Kidd said.

This time, Kidd said, they did something new. “We looked at the patterns of author recognition in two large independent samples (each over 850) using a technique called factor analysis, and we found evidence from two sets of authors that could be classified as generally literary or generally popular genre writers. ” noted. “We then tested how the levels of familiarity with each type of fiction related to the performance of theory of mind… The results on three independent samples consistently showed that familiarity with literary fiction, but not genre fiction, reliably predicts better theory of mind performance. “

Their latest evidence, Kidd said, shows that “not all fictions rely on the same psychological processes in the same way” and that over time the usual reading of literary fiction is associated with differences in interpersonal perception that is not associated with regular reading. genre fiction ”.

Academics are keen to stress that they are not claiming superiority for literary fiction. “What we’re saying is that there are different ways of telling a story and they have different impacts on how we perceive social reality. Literary fiction, we say, tends to challenge social categories – characters resist categories… Popular fiction, on the other hand, uses types of characters that help us immediately understand what’s going on. This is how we discover the social world – how we build our national and cultural identities, ”Castano said.

“That’s not to say that reading popular genre novels can’t be enjoyable or beneficial for other reasons – we think it is,” Kidd agreed. “Current evidence also does not indicate a clear and consistent distinction between literary and popular genre fiction. Instead, it suggests that the broad distinction between relatively complex literary genre fiction and relatively stereotypical genre fiction may help us better understand how engagement in fiction affects the way we think.

The academics hope their findings will have implications for studying and teaching literature, as well as helping to improve theory of mind in those without it. “It doesn’t mean that you can give Don DeLillo to a child with autism and that he will be fine, but it can help us understand how theory of mind works.”[es] could be favored in people with known deficits, ”Castano said.


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