Reading literary fiction can challenge us to see others in a more nuanced way


In a study recently published in PLoS A, researchers studied the effects of long-term exposure to literary and popular fiction on various aspects of social cognition. They found that reading literary fiction predicted a greater ability to understand the psychological lives of others in more complex and precise ways.

The study was led by social psychologist Emanuele Castano from the University of Trento in Italy. The authors write:

“As children we listen to (and make up) stories all day long, and as adults we end the day by reading, watching and increasingly playing stories. We love stories because they are entertaining, they teach us about the world we live in, and just like social interaction, help us build the cognitive processes needed to learn more about the world. Academic work in evolutionary theory and anthropology suggests that histories have played an important role in the evolution of human cognition. Over the past decade, research has investigated the processes involved in the mental construction of fictional worlds, the way readers are transported to such worlds, and the impact of engagement in fiction on cognition.

The authors distinguish literary fiction from popular fiction, which attracts readers for different reasons and has different socio-cognitive functions. Popular fiction is considered entertaining, an escape from everyday reality where the reader primarily follows plot-driven stories with relatively obvious meanings and themes. On the other hand, literary fiction is known to have more complex and introspective character-driven stories told from multiple perspectives. Readers are encouraged to construct their own meanings from the events of the story.

“A consequence of this emphasis on inner life is that literary fiction highlights subjectivity on the objective, uncertainty and multiplicity on certainty and singularity. Another related The consequence is that readers are urged to pay more attention to the workings of the mind. While all fiction requires understanding the integrated mental states of the characters, literary fiction[s] the reader deduces from it implicit mental states in addition (and sometimes instead of) to specify some. ‘”

The authors hypothesized that since literary fiction encourages a more complex reading of human psychology in its stories, this would translate into readers’ understanding of themselves, others, and their worlds. Previous experimental research has shown that literary fiction improves theory of mind, or the ability to think about the psychological worlds of ourselves and others.

As a result of this research, the authors set out to explore what other characteristics of social cognition might be influenced by reading the literature. They hypothesized increased attribution complexity, reduced egocentric biases, and increased accuracy of social perception in people who read literary fiction.

Attribution complexity refers to his understanding of human behavior as affected by interpersonal interactions and other external forces and motivated by a penchant for complex explanations. If readers of literary fiction are more engaged in taking perspective, they are less likely to fall prey to the false consensus effect (a egocentric bias) to overestimate how similar others are to us in the way they behave and what they enjoy. Researchers believe that by reducing egocentric biases, literary fiction can also improve our precision mental states of others (thoughts, emotions, attitudes, etc.) at the individual and social levels.

Researchers recruited a sample of 502 participants through the Mechanical Turk (MTurk) crowdsourcing platform. Of the 477 participants included in the study, they completed various measures to assess their exposure to different types of fiction (literary, popular) and those of attributional complexity. Participants also performed tasks related to egocentric biases, social and mental accuracy (Reading in the Mind Eyes Test). Finally, the researchers used multiple regressions to measure the correlation between exposure to literature and these characteristics of social cognition.

From these analyzes, the researchers reported that:

“Exposure to literary and popular fiction positively and negatively predicted attributional complexity, respectively. For both measures of egocentric bias (TFC and PCTF), Literary was a negative but only marginal predictor, while Popular was not a predictor of either measure. For measures of accuracy, exposure to literary fiction positively predicted both mental accuracy and social accuracy, while exposure to popular fiction did not predict either.

Castano and his colleagues also examined how other factors such as education level and gender might be related to these variables. For example, they found that participants with higher education were more exposed to both literary and popular fiction, had higher levels of attribution complexity and precision of mind.

Additionally, women had similar patterns with the addition of greater social precision, although no gender differences were found for egocentric biases. Controlling for these two factors, the researchers found no changes in patterns other than exposure to literary fiction being a more reliable predictor of egocentric bias.

According to the authors, these findings are important because they build on the results of previous studies that examine how fiction shapes social cognition and influences cognitive style. Furthermore, they are consistent with findings which show attribution complexity positively associated with mental / individual and social correctness, as well as a perception by peers as possessing more social wisdom and thoughtfulness.

The authors note that understanding the predictors of attributional complexity may be important in mitigating racism and shaping attitudes toward important political views.

“Yet, while this rationale is consistent with previous work of an experimental nature, due to the correlational nature of the data presented here, we caution against any strong conclusions about causation. Our view is that reading different types of fiction promotes certain socio-cognitive processes and cognitive styles over others, but we also agree that individual differences in these processes and styles can make people more inclined to gravitate. towards different types of fiction.

They mention that it is possible that the level of education, and in particular the university major, could affect their exposure to literary fiction, leading to improved socio-cognitive skills. However, the authors also caution against assuming inherent superiority in literary fiction, as attributional complexity is linked to delayed or derailed decision-making and negatively linked to mental health. In contrast, egocentric bias is positively related to mental health.

Citing the terror management theory, which suggests that many of our actions are motivated by an unconscious fear of death (i.e., existential anxiety), the authors hypothesized that the fiction literary and popular have opposite effects on this anxiety.

“One of the most important psychological mechanisms by which we keep this existential anxiety at bay are cultural worldviews: conceptions of reality that imbue life with stability, order and permanence. Cultural worldviews are developed and maintained within cultural groups through a variety of cultural artefacts, including fiction. Given the characteristics of literary and popular fiction discussed above, we will predict that exposure to popular fiction (because it confirms expectations of the world) reduces existential anxiety, while fiction literary (because it challenges such expectations) increases it.

The authors contextualize the underlying socio-cognitive processes associated with literary and popular fiction as essential to facilitate fundamental social processes of bonding with others and individuation; they suggest that being in a constant dialectic between oneself and the other helps society to flourish. Bonding facilitates the formation and maintenance of social groups through the development of social identities and the identification and implementation of social roles. Individuation directs attention inward and promotes a view of the world in terms of unique individuals.

“From this point of view, a hierarchy of fiction does not make sense because both binding and individuation are necessary not only at the societal level for human societies to function and evolve, but also, when directed inward, to satisfy intrapsychic needs.


Castano, E., Martingano, AJ and Perconti, P. (2020). The effect of exposure to fiction on attribution complexity, egocentric bias, and the correctness of social perception. PLoS A, 15 (5), e0233378. (Connect)


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