Monday 9 December 2013

Research Bulletin: Women and Men Reading

Women read more literature than men. Among the best evidence on the extent of literary reading are the surveys of readers in USA made by the National Endowment for the Arts in conjunction with the US Census Bureau. Their most recent survey was published in 2009, based on 18,000 telephone interviews with a response rate of 82%. A person was counted as a literary reader if she or he said “Yes” to the question: “During the last 12 months, did you read any (a) novels or short stories; (b) poetry; or (c) plays?”  The proportions who answered “Yes” were 58% of women and 41.9% of men (overall proportion 50.2%).

We tend to think of women as more interested in other people and the inner world, and men as more interested in things and the outer world. This might then help explain why women do more literary reading.

The findings of Ă–den Ozag, of Jacobs University in Bremen, however, indicate that some adjustments are needed to this scheme. Odag (2013) reports an experiment in which 44 women and 44 men were randomly assigned to read either a text about experience that focused on characters and their inner worlds, or a text that focused on actions in the outer world. (A brief account of the study was reported in OnFiction from a 2009 conference, click here.)

One experience text was a short story by Bernhard Schlink in which the protagonist decides to break out of his current life and start a new one. The other was a piece from the epilogue of a book based on e-mails to her husband by Ruth Pickardie, a journalist who died of cancer. The action texts were a science fiction story by Stanislav Lem, about a space shuttle crash, and a piece about Ernest Shackleton being trapped in the Antarctic for more than a year.

Odag found that women and men were very similar in their emotional engagement with texts of the experience type, and similar too in their affinity to characters. But men were more engaged than women in the action texts, and their affinity to plots.

Odag proposes that her results show that surveys that simply measure the amount of reading that people do are less informative than they might seem. She argues that it’s not just reading that is important, but what people read.

Image: Figure 1 from Odag’s study, showing the thematic focus on the four texts that were read.

National Endowment for the Arts. (2009). Reading on the rise: A new chapter in American literacy (No. 46). Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.

Odag, O. (2013). Emotional engagement during literary reception: Do men and women differ? Cognition and Emotion, 27, 856-874.
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