Researchers from The New School for Social Research have demonstrated that reading literary fiction, such as Anton Chekhov, Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, enhances a set of skills and thought processes fundamental to complex social relationships and functional societies.
David Comer Kidd and his adviser, professor of psychology Emanuele Castano performed five experiments to measure the effect of reading literary fiction on participants' Theory of Mind (ToM) - the complex social skill of ‘mind-reading’ to understand others' mental states.
Kidd and Castano relied on expert evaluations to define three types of writing: literary fiction, popular fiction, and nonfiction.
After participants read texts from one of the three genres, Kidd and Castano tested their ToM capabilities using several well-established measures.
One of these measures is the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ test, which asks participants to look at black-and-white photographs of actors' eyes and indicate the emotion expressed by that actor.
Another one is the Yoni test, which includes both affective trials and cognitive ones.
Across the five experiments, participants who were assigned to read literary fiction performed significantly better on the ToM tests than did participants assigned to the other experimental groups, who did not differ from one another.
The study shows that not just any fiction is effective in fostering ToM, rather the literary quality of the fiction is the determining factor.
The literary texts used in the experiments had vastly different content and subject matter, but all produced similarly high ToM results.
"Experiment One showed that reading literary fiction, relative to nonfiction improves performance on an affective ToM task. Experiments Two through Five showed that this effect is specific to literary fiction," researchers said.
Kidd and Castano suggest that the reason for literary fiction's impact on ToM is a direct result of the ways in which it involves the reader. Unlike popular fiction, literary fiction requires intellectual engagement and creative thought from their readers.
"Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarises its readers," said researchers.

The study was published in the journal Science.


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