A paper published in 2013 entitled Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind by David Kidd and Emanuele Castano may not have as simple a story behind it as its title would seem to imply. The results of the paper, which were widely reported in mainstream media, showed that reading a short piece of literary fiction immediately alters the reader’s ability to infer the mental states of others, or theory-of-mind ability. However, a recent paper attempting to replicate the findings of Kidd and Castano failed to find any such effect of reading literary fiction.
The replication attempt, Does Reading a Single Passage of Literary Fiction Really Improve Theory of Mind? An Attempt at Replication (2016) by Maria Panero and her colleagues, is a combined analysis of three separate studies that each sought to replicate Kidd and Castano’s findings. All three studies asked one group of participants to read literary fiction and compared performance on a subsequent mental-state inference task to that for those who read other things (popular fiction, non-fiction) or nothing at all. All of the replication attempts used the same texts as in the original Kidd and Castano study.
The studies reported by Panero and colleagues found no significant difference in mental-state inferencing ability after reading literary fiction compared to other kinds of texts or nothing at all. However, what they did find was a consistent replication of a correlation between lifelong exposure to fiction and performance on the theory-of-mind task, reported previously by others (e.g., Mar et al., 2006). In light of these results, Panero and colleagues advise against jumping to the conclusion that a brief exposure to literary fiction results in immediate gains in mental-state inferencing ability.
Posted by Krithika Sukumar
* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail).
Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342, 377-380.
Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J. B. (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.
Panero, M. E., Weisberg, D. S., Black, J., Goldstein, T. R., Barnes, J. L., Brownell, H., & Winner, E. (2016, September 19). Does Reading a Single Passage of Literary Fiction Really Improve Theory of Mind? An Attempt at Replication. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000064