Want to read other people’s thoughts? Try reading literary fiction: Shots

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Would spending time with Anton Chekov, famous for his subtle and flawed characters, make you a better judge of human nature?

Archives Hulton/Getty Images


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Archives Hulton/Getty Images


Would spending time with Anton Chekov, famous for his subtle and flawed characters, make you a better judge of human nature?

Archives Hulton/Getty Images

Your ability to “read” other people’s thoughts and feelings could be affected by the type of fiction you read.

This is the conclusion of a study in the journal Science which gave social perception tests to people who were randomly assigned to read excerpts from literary fiction, popular fiction, or non-fiction.

On average, people who read parts of more literary books like The round house by Louise Erdrich did better on these tests than people who read nothing, read non-fiction, or read popular bestselling thrillers like The sins of the mother by Danielle Steel.

For example, people tasked with reading scholarly works of literature did better on a test called “Reading the Mind in Eyes,” which required them to look at black-and-white photographs of actors’ eyes and decide on emotion. actors. Express.

This is the first time that scientists have demonstrated the short-term effects of reading on people’s social abilities, says Raymond Mar, a psychology researcher at York University in Toronto. He has studied the effects of reading in the past but did not work on this study.

“I think it’s a really interesting paper,” says Mar. “It seems to be largely consistent with this growing body of work showing that what we read and our exposure to storytelling has a very interesting impact on our abilities. and our ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling.”

People who read excerpts from books by National Book Award finalists like Louise Erdrich scored higher on social perception tests.

Harper Collins


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Harper Collins

The scientists who carried out the study admit that it is difficult to precisely define “literary” fiction, but say there is some consensus on how it differs from “popular fiction”.

Popular fiction tends to focus on plot, says Emanuele Castano, professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York, and the characters are rather formulaic. “You open a book of what we call popular fiction and you know right off the bat who’s going to be the good guy and the bad guy.”

Literary fiction, on the other hand, focuses on the psychology and inner lives of characters, he says. And above all, the characters of literary fiction are left somewhat incomplete. Readers should watch what they do and infer what they think and feel.

“It’s really the same process that we engage in when we try to guess other people’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and read their minds in day-to-day life,” Castano explains.

Castano says he doesn’t want people to think this study is a critique of popular fiction, because there are plenty of good reasons to read it too. “But it’s unlikely to train you to read other people’s minds.”

This study could be a first step toward a better understanding of how the arts influence the way we think, says David Comer Kidd, a graduate student who co-authored the study with Castano.

“We have a lot of debates right now about the value of the arts, the value of the humanities,” Kidd says. “Municipalities are facing budget cuts and people wonder why we support these libraries. And one thing that’s noticeably missing from a lot of these debates is empirical evidence.”

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