Want to Identify More with Others? Reading Literary -- Not Pop -- Fiction May Help

Article excerpt

In a world where empathy is all too often in short supply, a new study suggests an intriguing way of encouraging people to be more understanding about what other people are feeling and experiencing.

Have them read fiction.

But not just any fiction. It has to be literary short stories and novels, like those written by National Book Award winners Alice Walker, Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner and Jonathan Franzen.

For only literary fiction, not popular fiction or nonfiction, the study found, enhances people's ability to infer what others are thinking and feeling -- an ability that cognitive scientists refer to as the "theory of mind."

Literary fiction "uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters' subjective experiences," explain the study's co-authors, Ph.D. candidate David Comer Kidd and social psychologist Emanuele Castano, both of the New School for Social Research in New York City. They say:

"Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration. The worlds of fiction, though, pose fewer risks than the real world, and they present opportunities to consider the experiences of others without facing the potentially threatening consequences of that engagement.More critically, whereas many of our mundane social experiences may be scripted by convention and informed by stereotypes, those presented in literary fiction often disrupt our expectations. Readers of literary fiction must draw on more flexible interpretive resources to infer the feelings and thoughts of characters."

In other words, reading literary fiction helps us become more empathetic.

The same is not true, Kidd and Castano add, when we read popular fiction -- works by, say, Danielle Steel, Robert Heinlein and Rosamunde Pilcher.

"Contrary to literary fiction, popular fiction, which is more readerly, tends to portray the world and characters as internally consistent and predictable," the two researchers note. "Therefore, it may reaffirm readers' expectations and so not promote [empathy]."

Five separate experiments

For their study, which was published online Thursday in the journal Science, Kidd and Castano conducted five separate experiments. Participants were randomly assigned to read short works (10 to 15 pages) of either literary fiction (excerpts from recent National Book Award finalists or winners of the 2012 PEN/O. …