As bluestockings, we know full well that reading makes us better people. But now we have scientific proof! Last week, Science magazine published this study by psychologists from The New School for Social Research which found that people who read literary fiction displayed higher levels of empathy, emotional intelligence, and social perception than those who read popular fiction or serious nonfiction.
Researchers Emanuele Costano and David Kidd set out to measure their subjects’ affective and cognitive “Theory of Mind,” defined here as the ability to “understand others’ mental states…enabl[ing] the complex social relationships that characterize human societies.” First, they asked study participants to read samples from award-winning literary fiction (such as Don DeLillo and Louise Erdrich), popular fiction (Danielle Steele and Robert Heinlein), non-fiction articles from Smithsonian Magazine, or nothing at all. Next, they administered tests designed to measure the subjects’ “ability to decode emotions or predict a person’s expectations or beliefs in a particular scenario.” The results? Those who read literary fiction scored markedly higher than those who read the popular fiction, nonfiction, or nothing at all.
In examining the study, Julianne Chiaet at Scientific American explains that, in popular fiction
although the settings and situations are grand, the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader’s expectations of others.…Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations,” Kidd says. This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.
Or more succinctly put by Zach Schonfeld at The Atlantic Wire: “By forcing you to think, empathize, and assume instead of handing you prototype characters whose actions and personalities can be squarely understood, literary fiction is literally making you a more caring and emotionally intelligent person.”
This concept of literature effecting human empathy isn’t a new one: Recent studies by Dutch and Canadian researchers have made similar assertions. However, the study outlined above is significant in that test subjects displayed such results after only a few minutes of reading. We can only imagine what a lifetime of reading could accomplish!
Listen, we’re not suggesting you read Janet Evanovich in secret or purge your bookcase of anything not written by Anton Chekhov or Alice Munro. Heck, if we did that, our shelves would be…well, pretty sad. Yes, we are devoted fans of character-rich, thought-provoking literary fiction. (If you are too, you’ll probably score pretty high on this quiz.) But we also love a good mystery thriller or a side-splitting comedy, and we’re staunch proponents of escapist reading whenever life gets too heavy. (It’s healthier than drinking, right?) And who’s to say a novel considered “popular fiction” or “genre fiction” today won’t be a revered classic in fifty years?
Ultimately, this study reinforces our belief that a well-rounded reader is the best kind of reader, one who covers all the bases: literary fiction, genre fiction, serious and not-so-serious non-fiction, and more. And it just so happens that you can finds books in each of those categories in the Bas Bleu catalog! Handy, hunh?
Now we’ll let you get back to your reading.