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