Our empirical results on effects of fiction are of two kinds. One kind is correlational. We have used a measure of lifetime reading that tells us whether people read predominantly fiction or predominantly non-fiction. The finding by Mar et al. (2006, which you can access by clicking here) was that as compared with those who predominantly read non-fiction, people who predominantly read fiction are better at empathy, or theory-of-mind. We also found a smaller association between reading fiction and being able to tell what went on in video clips of social interactions. These results were not due to the preferences for fiction in people who were more socially skilled. Our explanation is that fiction is a set of simulations of goings on in the social world, so that people who spend time with fiction become more socially skilled just as people who spend time in a flight simulator become better pilots that those who do not.
The second kind of result is experimental. In one study, by Mar (see e.g. the magazine article in New Scientist above) people read either a fiction or a non-fiction piece from the New Yorker. Immediately after reading, as compared with those who read the non-fiction piece, those who read the fiction piece were better at social reasoning but not at analytical reasoning. We think that fiction primes readers to think about people and what they are up to in their interactions. In a different kind of experiment, Djikic et al. (2009a) asked people to read either a Chekhov short story, or a version of the story in a non-fiction format, which was the same length, the same reading difficulty, and just as interesting. Readers of Chekhov's story (as compared with the version in non-fiction format) experienced changes in personality. These changes were small, and in different directions, particular to each reader. In a companion study, Djikic et al. (2009b) found that people who routinely avoid emotions in ordinary life experienced larger emotion changes as a result of reading the Chekhov story than those who did not usually avoid their emotions. We interpret these studies as indicating that fiction can be an occasion for transforming the self, albeit in small ways, and can also be a way of reaching those who tend to cut themselves off from their emotions.
Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley, Sara Zoeterman & Jordan Peterson (2009a). On being moved by art: How reading fiction transforms the self. Creativity Research Journal, 21 (in press).
Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley, Sara Zoeterman & Jordan Peterson (2009b). Defenceless against art? Impact of reading fiction emotion in avoidantly attached individuals. Journal of Research in Personality, 43 (in press).
Raymond Mar, Maja Djikic & Keith Oatley (2008). Effects of reading on knowledge, social abilities, and selfhood. In S. Zyngier, M. Bortolussi, A. Chesnokova & J. Auracher (Eds.), Directions in empirical literary studies: In honor of Willie van Peer (pp. 127-137). Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Raymond Mar, Keith Oatley, Jacob Hirsh, Jennifer dela Paz & Jordan Peterson (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694-712.
Keith Oatley (2008a). The science of fiction. New Scientist, 25 June, 42-43.
Keith Oatley (2008b). The mind's flight simulator. The Psychologist, 21, 1030-1032.