Monday 19 January 2009

Synopsis of our Results

At the start of the year, we thought we might give a brief synopsis of our findings on effects of fiction, accompanied by putting into the archives three articles that present summaries and discussions of this work in different formats: a magazine article "The science of fiction," in New Scientist, (Oatley, 2008a, which you can access by clicking here), an article addressed to psychologists, "The Mind's Flight Simulator" in The Psychologist (Oatley 2008b, which you can access by clicking here), and a longer discussion in an edited volume (Mar, Djikic & Oatley, 2008, which you can access by clicking here).

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.


Anonymous said...

I very much enjoyed the Oatley' et al. article in the collection in honour of Van Peer's 60th birthday. I realize now as a graduate student how lucky I was to have taken a course on empirical studies with David Miall and participated in REDES workshops with Willie Van Peer.

As for the article. This is a wonderful synopsis of the work you've been doing. I've followed up on most of its references and, in my MA thesis, I want to link these insights from psychology, scholarship on foregrounding (Miall, Van Peer, etc.), and the work of Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) in the US.

Actually, the CLTL annual conference is Feb 26th in Boston. I'm heading for my second year in a row and I'm sure anyone interested in this topic would be welcome. The conference is a day-long conference featuring panel discussion and then updates from programs across the US.

To my knowledge, CLTL hasn't had any scholars look at their work from an empirical perspective in over a decade. I hope to bridge this gap in my thesis.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much, Allan, for this comment. I am glad you found our research worthwhile and, as you say, David Miall and Willie van Peer are very good people to work with. Thanks also for the information about the Changing Lives Through Literature Conference. I hope the conference will be good and, as you say, it would be excellent to hear from you about your empirical work on the CLTL program.

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