Want to understand others? Read literary fiction


If you want to understand how the people around you are feeling, put down that hard-boiled detective story and grab some Austen or Dostoyevsky.

New research published Thursday reveals that reading literary fiction, instead of popular or commercial fiction, allows people to better feel and understand the mental states of others.

In one series of experiments, participants read a short passage and then completed several tasks, including one in which they were asked to identify the facial expressions of people in photos. The results are preliminary, say the authors, but show that when subjects read excerpts from literary works, their performance improves temporarily, more than when they read popular, more commercial fiction.

The effect was not limited to the most cultured subjects either, say the researchers, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of the Department of Psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York.

“The effect was the same,” even for topics not particularly well read, says Kidd. “If they choose a work of literary fiction and read it, they will be more sensitive to the subjective states of others.”

Castano says this is largely because literary novelists tend to make readers work harder to understand the characters. “The writer doesn’t give you a consistent, comprehensive, easily understandable ‘stereotypical’ account of this person — quite the contrary,” he says. A book like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Fyodor Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment “gives you conflicting information. It shows that the person is behaving in a way that is not easily interpretable, or at least interpretable in different ways. By doing so, and not giving you the full picture, it forces you into as a reader to bring your own interpretations, to reconstruct the spirit of the character.”

Reading literary fiction asks readers not only to question their worldview, but also to take on the role of writer in some cases, filling in the gaps and searching for “meanings among a range of possible meanings” , write Kidd and Castano. In contrast, popular fiction often presents the characters in a more complete and direct way, leaving no doubt, for example, that a badass detective is a badass with a heart of gold. They say the study, appearing in the newspaper Sciencesuggests that literary fiction “can change the way people think about others, not just what they think”.

Emma Snyder, executive director of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, a Washington-based educational group that annually awards the best American literary novel, says the results will resonate with fiction writers and teachers. “It’s something that teachers certainly talk about as this intuitive truth that we all feel and know, but which is very difficult to quantify,” she says.

Kidd and Castano remain cautious about the findings, saying more research is needed. But they note that new common core learning standards being introduced in schools across the country are prompting educators to focus as much on non-fiction as fiction in English lessons. They hope the new findings “will be part of those public debates,” Kidd says. “We have these resources at our fingertips, often for free, and I think we often overlook them.”


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