Jonathan Franzen can help you read people

New research suggests reading literary fiction increases our ability to pick up on the subjective states of others

Published October 6, 2013 2:30PM (EDT)

  (David Shankbone/Wikipedia)
(David Shankbone/Wikipedia)

This piece originally appeared on Pacific Standard.

Pacific Standard Beach reading season is over, so it’s time to plunge into some serious fiction. But if the idea of plowing through a Pynchon feels a bit too much like work, here’s a piece of news that may inspire you: Doing so may help you better discern the beliefs, motivations, and emotions of those around you.

That’s the conclusion of a just-published study by two scholars from the New School for Social Research in New York. David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano report that reading literature uniquely boosts “the capacity to identify and understand others’ subjective states.”

Literary fiction, they note in the journal Science, “uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences.” Unlike most popular fiction, which “tends to portray the world and its characters as internally consistent and predictable,” these works require readers to contend with complex, sometimes contradictory characters.

According to Kidd and Castano, this sort of active engagement increases our ability to understand and appreciate the similarly complicated people we come across in real life.

The researchers provide evidence for their thesis in the form of five experiments, all of which were conducted online. In the first, the 86 participants read either a short literary work (by Chekhov, Don DeLillo, or Lydia Davis) or a non-fiction article describing some aspect of the natural world. They then completed tests to measure their ability to ascertain the mental and emotional state of another person—a valuable skill sometimes referred to as Theory of Mind.

In one, they were shown 36 images of an actor’s face, with everything blacked out except for the area immediately around his or her eyes. Participants were asked to choose which of four emotions the actor was expressing. Those who had read the fictional story scored higher than those who had read a non-fiction piece.

Another experiment, featuring 69 participants, compared scores on that same test between those who had just read a piece of literary fiction and those who had read a piece of popular fiction (either science fiction by Robert Heinlein, mystery by Dashiell Hammett, or romance by Rosamunde Pilcher). Those who had just completed reading a work of literature proved better at reading the actor’s eyes than those who had read less-challenging material.

In two additional experiments, participants took part in a “Yoni task,” in which they “must draw from minimal linguistic and visual cues to infer a character’s thoughts and emotions.” In both (one experiment featured 72 people, the other 356), participants who read a piece of literary fiction performed better than those who had read a work of popular fiction.

This study follows by a few weeks some similar research from Canada, which compared the ability of fans of different genres to discern emotional states by looking only at pair of eyes (one of the same tests performed here). In that study, readers of romance novels performed better than those of other genres, such as suspense thrillers. However, that research used a different methodology, and it did not specifically measure the impact of literary fiction.

“I don’t find these findings contradictory to our own study,” said Katrina Fong, lead author of the Canadian paper, “but see them as evidence contributing to the growing body of literature that indicates that the impacts of reading are complex. It’s entirely plausible that short-term effects of reading, such as boosts to interpersonal sensitivity, only exist for literary fiction.”

“However,” she added, “it is also possible that short-term reading effects of reading popular fiction may be limited to specific subgenres.” In other words, it’d be worthwhile to test the impact of romance novels using these same techniques.

Kidd is doubtful such an experiment would produce the same positive results. He notes that four of their five experiments included samples of romance writing as a subset of popular fiction, and they found no evidence reading such works increased understanding of others’ thoughts or feelings.

While he’s open to a long-term study of the impact of reading romantic fiction, he and Castano are more interested in examining the effect of other works of art featuring complicated characters, such as critically acclaimed plays and films. (Indeed, it seems likely that responding to complicated, ambiguous dramatic characters, from Mozart’s Don Giovanni to Mad Men’s Don Draper, involves the same sort of mental activity as engaging with fictional creations who exist on the page.)

“Whereas many of our mundane social experiences may be scripted by convention and informed by stereotypes, those presented in literary fiction often disrupt our expectations,” Kidd and Castano write. “Readers of literary fiction must draw on more flexible interpretive resources to infer the feelings and thoughts of characters.”

In honing that ability to draw insights from subtle clues, literature “may function to promote and refine interpersonal sensitivity throughout our lives,” they write. This aligns nicely with previous research that suggests reading literary fiction makes us more tolerant of ambiguity.

So if your fellow book club members are a mystery to you, you probably need to start choosing better books.

By Tom Jacobs

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Don Delillo Literary Fiction Literature Lydia Davis Pacific Standard Reading Thomas Pynchon