Monday 7 October 2013

Research Bulletin: Literary Fiction, but not Popular Fiction, Causes Increases in Empathy

We have discussed the relation between understanding characters in fiction and understanding what real people are thinking and feeling quite often here at OnFiction. A set of studies recently published in the journal Science adds additional evidence, and nuance, to this association. David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, both at the New School in New York, conducted 5 studies in which people were randomly assigned to read short texts of various genres, or nothing at all. In their first study, people read either fiction (e.g., Chameleon by Anton Chekov) or nonfiction (Bamboo Steps Up by Cathie Gandel), and then completed measures of theory-of-mind (i.e., the ability to infer the mental states of others). Those who were assigned to read fiction out-performed those who read nonfiction. In a series of 4 follow-up studies, the researchers contrasted the reading of award-winning “literary fiction” (e.g., The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obrecht) with “popular fiction” (e.g., Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn) or reading nothing at all. In general, what they found was that reading literary fiction lead to better performance on a variety of theory-of-mind measures relative to reading popular fiction or nothing at all. One of the most notable things about this paper is that it was published in one of the top journals in science and has subsequently been covered extensively by mainstream media (e.g., the New York Times, Scientific American). It appears that the questions of interest to narrative researchers are also of substantial interest to the public, which bodes well for the growth of research in this area and the potential for this research to influence public policy. 

Kidd, D. C. & Castano, E. (in press). Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science.

* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile). A list of the texts employed in this research also appears below.

The Runner by Don DeLillo
Blind Date by Lydia Davis
Chameleon by Anton Chekhov
The Round House (excerpt) by Louise Erdrich
The Tiger’s Wife (excerpt) by Téa Obreht
Salvage the Bones (excerpt) by Jesmyn Ward
Corrie by Alice Munroe
Leak by Sam Ruddick
Nothing Living Lives Alone by Wendell Berry
Uncle Rock by Dagoberto Gilb
The Vandercook by Alice Mattinson

How the Potato Changed the World by Charles C. Mann
Bamboo Steps Up by Cathie Gandel
The Story of the Most Common Bird in the World by Rob Dunn

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
The Sins of the Mother by Danielle Steel
Cross Roads by W. Paul Young
Space Jockey by Robert Heinlein
Too Many Have Lived by Dashiell Hammett
Lalla by Rosamunde Pilcher
Jane by Mary Jane Rinehart

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