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Literary Fiction Helps Us ‘Read’ Others

Stories featuring complex characters enhance our ability to decipher subtle verbal cues that communicate emotions.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Germán Poo-Caamaño/Flickr)

Reading Sense and Sensibility increases one’s sensitivity. That’s the implication of new research, which reports people who regularly enjoy literary fiction are better able to identify the emotional state of another when presented with a minimal visual cue.

“Habitual engagement with others’ minds — even fictional ones” can bolster the sort of awareness that is essential for empathy, write psychologists David Kidd and Emanuele Castano of the New School for Social Research. Their study is published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.

Kidd and Castano first identified this dynamic in a 2013 study in which participants were better able to pick up on subtle hints and accurately infer a stranger’s thoughts and emotions after they had read an excerpt of literary fiction, as opposed to popular or genre fiction.

However, around the same time, another set of researchers presented evidence that reading material from a romance novel had the same effect. Could it be that skimming Danielle Steele produces the same insights as devouring Dostoyevsky?

Kidd and Castano attribute these results to E.M. Forster’s distinction between “flat” characters, who are simple and predictable, and “round” ones, who are more complicated and dimensional.

To find out, Kidd and Castano designed a new set of experiments that used a similar methodology to the romance-novel study. Rather than reading excerpts, participants completed an Author Recognition Test, in which they were presented with a list of writers and asked to note which they were familiar with. (Fake names were included to discourage guessing.)

For the first experiment, 1,260 people recruited via a New York Times article took the test, which included both literary writers (such as Toni Morrison), and authors better known for genre fiction (such as Tom Clancy).

Participants also took the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, in which they viewed 36 black and white images of the eye regions of actors’ faces. For each, they were given a list of four emotions (such as “contemplative, cautious, concerned, and irritated”) and asked which best matched the feeling expressed in the photograph.

The researchers found those who were familiar with literary writers — and presumably had read their work — were better able to identify the correct emotion than those who recognized only the genre writers.

Of course, this could merely mean that more sensitive people are drawn to literary fiction. So in a follow-up study, Kidd and Castano had 307 participants complete surveys measuring their baseline level of empathy. They found the relationship between literary fiction and more sensitive readings of eyes held true even when factoring in their overall level of empathetic concern.

So now the link between reading literary fiction and this sort of sensitivity has been shown using two different methods. Kidd and Castano attribute these results to E.M. Forster’s distinction between “flat” characters, who are simple and predictable, and “round” ones, who are more complicated and dimensional.

“The implied sociocognitive complexity, or ‘roundness’ of characters, in literary fiction prompts readers to make, adjust, and consider multiple interpretations of characters’ mental states,” they write.

It appears this process helps builds a nuanced understanding of our fellow human beings, to the point where we are better able to grasp what they’re feeling — even if they haven’t spoken a word. So if your brother is a mystery to you, try picking up The Brothers Karamazov.