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You Are What You Read

How the literary genres you prefer reveal—or shape—your sense of what is ethical.

While we may view them as universal, the ethical compasses that guide us can, in fact, vary enormously. As recent research has shown, actions seen as obviously wrong to one individual may be perfectly acceptable to another.

If you are sizing up a potential partner (of either the romantic or business variety), it'd be wise to establish early on whether your moral world views are compatible. Newly published research points to a surprisingly revealing clue: which genres of fiction they prefer.

The research finds fans of science fiction and fantasy, as well as literary fiction, lean toward a more permissive moral style. Romance and mystery readers, in contrast, tend to abide by a more rigid sense of right and wrong.

"The degree to which a given genre stretches the bounds of morality" varies considerably, writes University of Oklahoma psychologists Jessica Black, Stephanie Capps, and Jennifer Barnes. They argue readers gravitate toward those genres that reflect their personal ethical codes—and those codes may be shaped, at least in part, by what they read.

The study featured 253 adults recruited online through a variety of sources, including Facebook, Twitter, and "reader-focused sites such as Goodreads and Book Balloon." A majority reported reading one to four books per month for pleasure.

Participants were instructed to evaluate a series of ethical scenarios. They were asked whether it is "ever morally permissible" to perform a wide range of actions, including cheat on an exam; use illegal means to avoid paying taxes; sacrifice one innocent person to save five others; and use an American flag as a cleaning rag.

They were then given a long list of authors who write in specific genres, and asked to note how many of the names they recognized. Those who knew many authors in a specific category (such as horror, mystery/thriller, and romance) were assumed to be regular readers of that genre.

Readers gravitate toward those genres that reflect their personal ethical codes.

The researchers report those who read literary fiction, science fiction, and fantasy were more likely to consider "morally dubious scenarios" permissible. The opposite was true of regular readers of romance, as well as those who prefer mysteries and thrillers.

The fact literary fiction is linked with a less judgmental attitude is not surprising given previous research that found people who enjoy such works are unusually comfortable with ambiguity. But why would fans of Tolkien and Asimov abide by a less-rigid moral code?

Perhaps, the researchers write, reading stories "that take place in worlds distantly removed from our own may be associated with a greater willingness or ability to imagine extraordinary circumstances in which the normal rules of morality may not apply."

In other words, if your mind can stretch far enough to envision alien worlds, there's a good chance you can also imagine alternate ethical universes.

In contrast, reading romance novels, with their "clearly identified heroes and heroines," may "encourage viewers to view the world in black and white terms," the researchers add. The same is presumably true of thrillers that unmistakably differentiate between good and evil.

To reiterate: It's unclear whether these fictional worlds mold, or merely reflect and reinforce, our personal ethical codes. While that's an open question, the research makes one thing clear: If you're trying to get a sense of someone's values, there's no need to enter into a potentially awkward conversation. Rather, just check out the content of their bookshelves.