If your reading material consists only of Chick Lit and Amazon bestsellers, you’re probably not a very empathetic person. A new study by psychologists at The New School of New York, published this week in the journal Science, finds that people who read literary fiction have the ability to navigate complex social relationships, identify and understand the subjective states of others and form empathic responses to them. .
Literary fiction is a loaded term. Some see it as a marker of social class, a snobby title used for lofty books that offer only narrowly accessible content. Others, such as literary theorist Roland Barthes, define it as “written text” that creatively engages readers, as opposed to genre fiction, which passively entertains readers. The study’s authors, psychology professor Emanuele Castano and doctoral candidate David Comer Kidd, agree with the latter view.
The authors conducted five experiments. In each, they randomly assigned participants a work of literary fiction or a work of nonfiction, genre fiction, or nothing at all. To avoid accusations of bias, they made their selection of books for their experience from prestigious book awards and bestseller lists. The participants were then put through commonly used tests that measure how accurately they responded to the emotions of others. The “mind-to-eye-reading” test, for example, presents participants with a photo of a pair of eyes and asks them to identify the emotion they see. In another test, they had to rely on minimal linguistic and visual cues to infer a character’s thoughts and emotions.
The study found that “participants in the literary fiction condition performed with greater accuracy on all…trials than those in the popular fiction condition.” The findings could help us understand the impact of literature and the arts more broadly. They could also help guide high school curricula, reading programs for prisoners, and research on people with autism. Readers of literary publications like The Paris Review can now feel even more satisfied, even if they probably won’t show it; they are too empathetic.