Need an excuse to catch up on some reading? Literary fiction, in particular? Don’t put it off any longer. A new study finds that reading more literary fiction has an effect on how we empathize with others.
This study, which was conducted by The New School in New York City, found that people who read literary fiction have a better idea of what others are feeling. The focus of the researchers was on children. They wanted to determine how important reading is to kids in terms of socialization.
A social psychologist, Emanuele Castano, and a PhD candidate, David Kidd, are the researchers who conducted this study. They gave groups of people of various sizes reading material from either popular fiction, literary fiction or non-fiction. Some people in the group received no reading material. When the participants were done reading their excerpt, a test was administered which asked questions involving people’s thoughts and feelings. To the researchers’ surprise, there was a measurable difference in test results from those that read a popular fiction piece to those that read one from literary fiction.
Don’t plan on brushing up on non-fiction if you’re trying to gain a better understanding of people. Castano and Kidd found that those that were given excerpts from non-fiction pieces did not score well on the test. Additionally, those that read nothing at all didn’t score high on the test, either. So, while reading non-fiction is arguably better than reading nothing, neither will truly help you understand others.
Don’t puff your chest out too much, though, if you’re an avid reader of popular fiction. Participants in the study who were given pieces from popular fiction (think Danielle Steel), didn’t have high scores on the test, either. As you have probably guessed by now, the only people who scored well on the test were those that read literary fiction. A better score on the test means, of course, that the person had a higher chance of being empathetic to others. Oh, if you’re looking to improve your empathy skills, excerpts from Louise Erdrich’s “The Round House” is an example of what lead test scorers read.
For years, literary criticisms have published what this study pointed out. Popular fiction often has plot lines that are like a rollercoaster, which makes them very fun to read, but not very believable. Likewise, in this type of fiction, characters are mostly predictable. This predictability lends readers to believe that the majority of people are the same way. This assumption is what makes popular fiction readers less empathetic than literary fiction readers.
On the other hand, literary fiction focuses on the complexity of what a character is thinking and how that affects their relationships. Many times, the authors of this type of fiction are not blatantly spelling out what a character is thinking. It is up to the reader to infer and provide the internal dialogue a character may be having with himself. This not only makes reading a more complex work of literature more engaging and mentally stimulating, but also makes readers of this genre more empathetic. The same skills we use to analyze fictional characters can be used to interact with real people and show them empathy.