Reading literary fiction improves empathy, study finds | fiction

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Have you ever felt that reading a good book makes you more able to connect with your fellow human beings? If so, the results of a new scientific study have your back, but only if your reading material is literary fiction – pulp fiction or non-fiction won’t cut it.

Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, from the New School for Social Research in New York, have proven that reading literary fiction improves the ability to detect and understand the emotions of others, a crucial skill for navigating social relationships. complex.

In a series of five experiments, 1,000 participants were randomly assigned texts to read, either excerpts from popular fiction such as The Sins of the Mother by Danielle Steel and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, or more literary texts, such as The Tiger’s Spouse by Téa Obreht, “The Runner” by Don DeLillo, from his collection L’ange Esmeralda, or work by Anton Chekhov.

The pair then used a variety of theory of mind techniques to measure how accurately the participants could identify emotions in others. Scores were consistently higher for those who had read literary fiction than for those who had read popular fiction or non-fiction texts.

“What great writers do is turn you into a writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of characters drives you to try to understand the minds of others,” Kidd said.

Kidd and Castano, who published their article in Science, make a distinction between “written” and “read” writing similar to that made by Roland Barthes in his book on literary theory, The Pleasure of the Text. Recognizing the difficulties in determining what is literary fiction and what is not, selected literary excerpts were selected from the anthology of 2012 PEN/O Henry Award winners and US National Book Awards finalists.

“Some writing is what you call ‘writer’, filling in the gaps and participating, and some is ‘readable’ and entertaining. We tend to see more ‘readable’ in genre fiction like adventure , romance and thrillers, where the author dictates your experience as a reader. [writerly] fiction allows you to enter a new environment and you have to find your own way,” Kidd said.

Transferring the experience of reading fiction to real-world situations was a natural leap, Kidd explained, because “the same psychological processes are used to navigate fiction and real-life relationships. Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experiment, it is a social experiment”. .”

Not all psychologists agreed with Kidd and Castano’s use of theory of mind techniques. Philip Davies, professor of psychological sciences at the University of Liverpool, whose work with the Reader Organization connects prisoners with literature, said they were “a little strange”.

“Testing people’s ability to read faces is a bit strange. The thing about novels is that they give you a view of an inner world that isn’t shown. Often what you learn from novels is to be a little confused…judging,” Davies said.

“In Great Expectations, Pip is embarrassed by Joe, because he is rude and Pip is getting on. As you read it, you wonder, what is it to be Pip and what is it? “is it to be Joe? Would I behave better than Pip? in his situation? It’s the spaces between the two characters where the empathy happens.”

The five experiments used a combination of four different theory of mind tests: the Mind-to-Eye Reading (RMET), the Nonverbal Accuracy Test (DANV) Diagnostic Analysis, the Positive Affect Negative Affect (PANAS) and the Yoni test. .

However, although Castano and Kidd have proven that literary fiction improves social empathy, at least by some measures, they weren’t ready to nail their colors to the mast when it came to using the results to determine if a writing deserved to be called literary.

“These are aesthetic and stylistic concerns that we as psychologists cannot and do not want to pass judgment on,” Kidd said. “Nor are we arguing that people should only read literary fiction; it’s just that only literary fiction seems to improve theory of mind in the short term. There are probably benefits to reading popular fiction – definitely entertainment. We just haven’t measured them.”

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