What psychological effects are there of reading short stories and novels? By now there has been a substantial amount of research to answer this question. The consensus seems to be that reading fiction as an individual pursuit can enable people to improve their empathy and to understand others better. The method known as meta-analysis involves collecting a number of studies on an issue such as this, and statistically estimating the size of effects. In this way "seems to be" can become "is." In a study published earlier this year, Micah Mumper and Richard Gerrig conducted a meta-analysis of studies of associations of lifetime leisure reading with social cognitive measures. The main measure of lifetime reading was the modification made by Mar et al. (2006) of the Author Recognition Test, to distinguish reading of fiction from non-fiction.
Analyses were performed for effects on empathy with data from 22 studies. The most frequently used outcome measure was the Interpersonal Reactivity Index of Davis (1983). Analyses were also performed on data from ten studies for effects on theory-of-mind (understanding others). For these, the most frequently used outcome measure was the Mind-in-the-Eyes test of Baron-Cohen et al. (2001).
To estimate the size of this effect, the Mumper and Gerrig aggregated results for empathy and theory of mind. The result was that an association was found for reading of fiction with empathy and theory of mind, which was small but significant. Reading non-fiction did not have this effect. At least one other meta-analysis, as yet unpublished, has been performed on experiments in which people were given different kinds of material to read, and short-term and medium term effects were measured. It comes to a similar conclusion.
Mumper and Gerrig say that although the effect is small it is important because of "the potential interpersonal and societal benefits of greater empathy and theory of mind" (p. 118).
Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Hill, J., Raste, Y., & Plumb, I. (2001). The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test Revised version: A study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger's syndrome or high-functioning autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 42, 241-251.
Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 113-126.
Mumper, M. J., & Gerrig, R. J. (2017). Leisure reading and social cognition: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11, 109-120.
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.