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 from the New School in New York, published this week in the journal Science, concludes that people who read literary fiction have the ability to navigate complex social relationships, identify and understand others’ subjective states and form empathic responses to them.
Literary fiction is a loaded term. Some consider it a marker of social class, a snobbish title used for lofty books that boast only narrowly accessible content. Others, such as literary theorist Roland Barthes, define it as a “writerly text” that engages readers creatively as opposed to genre fiction, which entertains readers passively. The authors of the study, psychology professor Emanuele Castano and PhD candidate David Comer Kidd, subscribe to latter view.
The authors conducted five experiments. In each they randomly assigned participants a work of literary fiction or one of non-fiction, genre fiction, or nothing at all. To avoid charges of bias, they made their selection of books for their experiment from prestigious book awards and bestseller lists. Participants were then subject to commonly used tests that measure how accurately they responded to other’s emotions. The “reading the mind in the eyes test,” for example, presents participants with a photo of a set of eyes and asks them to identify the emotion they see. In another test, they had to draw from 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 results could help us understand the impact of literature and the arts more broadly. They might also help guide high school syllabi, reading programs for prison inmates and research into people with autism. Readers of literary publications like The Paris Review can now feel even smugger, though they likely won’t show it; they’re too empathetic.