UPDATE: I had forgotten that Steve Pinker talked about the link between reading fiction and becoming empathic in his book The Better Angels of our Nature (one commenter mentioned this below), but hey, the book is 800 pages long and I can’t remember everything! Pinker mentions his discussion, and his agreement that the Science paper is dicey, in a tw**t today:
I don’t think literature is a “way of knowing,” at least a nonscientific way to find out truths about the cosmos and humanity, but it may be a “way of feeling.” That is—as suggested many times before—literature may hone our empathy, making us more keenly attuned to the feelings of other people. Or it may make us realize some things about ourselves, which I suppose you could construe as a “way of knowing” in a restricted sense.
But does literature really do that? According to two social psychologists at the New School for Social Research, the answer is “yes.” The new paper in Science by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano on this topic has gotten a lot of press, including a big piece in the New York Times that’s very breathless, and largely uncritical, about the results.
The NYT piece, by Pam Bellock, starts off implying that reading literary fiction has such long-term effects on your ability to empathize with others that it can even help you get lucky:
Say you are getting ready for a blind date or a job interview. What should you do? Besides shower and shave, of course, it turns out you should read — but not just anything. Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel.
That is the conclusion of a study published Thursday in Science.
Science is, of course, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals.
But that’s bad reporting, because the new study suggests nothing of the sort. What it does suggest is this: after some literary fiction, compared to no reading, reading nonfiction, or reading “nonliterary fiction,” subjects generally score better on tests that allow them to “detect and understand others’ emotions,” which Kidd and Castano see the affective part of the Theory of Mind (our ability to enter into the subjective states of others). The effects are measured immediately, after the subjects read passages from different works, and there’s no demonstration that these effects last longer than whatever time transpired between the reading and the psychological test—presumably an hour or so.
There were five tests each, say the authors, showing a significant effect in the expected direction (literary fiction makes you more able to read other’s emotions than does reading nonliterary fiction, nonfiction, or nothing at all). But in many cases the significance levels are marginal—p values around 0.04, when the cutoff boundary is 0.05—and one value of 0.08 (sometimes psychologists use higher cutoffs like p < 0.01). Those values represent the chance of getting the observed result given that there really is no effect on empathy of reading literary stuff. In all tests the authors also assessed each reader’s previous exposure to fiction using an “Author Recognition Test” (ART), which presumably gives you an idea of how much fiction reading the subject had done in his/her earlier life.
I won’t go into the types of readings used; you can read the original paper (judicious inquiry might net you a copy), or read the NYT summary. There were five types of tests, with Test 1 comparing those who read literary fiction versus nonfiction. In that case, the ability to read others was assessed by the a “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test, whereby subjects looked at pictures of faces and were asked to judge what emotions those faces were expressing. There was a significant effect of reading literary fiction in the expected direction (more accurate reading of faces), but, significantly, there was an even larger effect of the subject’s ART. The ART effect was a general finding in the study: previous recognition of authors led to better cognitive performance, often with high significance (p < 0.001).
While one can argue that the ART effect simply reflects the longer-term results of reading fiction beyond that seen in this paper’s short-term tests, it could also show the reverse causation: those with high ART scores read fiction because they are a priori more empathic and want to explore the feelings of others in literature. But the ART test itself does not distinguish between recognizing “literary” authors like Jane Austen or “nonliterary” authors like Dan Brown. That’s important because the authors’ results show that literary fiction creates better affective scores than reading nonliterary fiction.
As a colleague noted after reading the study, looking at faces is a weird way of assessing any empathy acquired by reading:
It’s suspicious that reading fiction improves the ability to read emotion from the eyes, since that’s exactly the aspect of theory-of-mind performance for which fiction ought to provide no help whatsoever.
The colleague suggested that reading literary fiction may simply require more concentration than the other types of readings, and that paying greater attention may carry over to the psychological tests.
The other four experiments used different tests, but three of them also involved looking at faces—as well as non-visual assessments of affective behavior. These other tests also incorporated a no-reading control as well as reading nonfiction. In all cases literary fiction improved affective Theory of Mind behavior more than reading other stuff or not reading at all.
The general results, as the authors note, supported their hypothesis:
The results of five experiments support our hypothesis that reading literary fiction enhances ToM [Theory of Mind]. Existing explanations focused on the content of fiction cannot account for these results. First, the texts we used varied widely in subject matter. Second, it is unlikely that people learned much more about others by reading any of the short texts. Third, the effects were specific to literary fiction. We propose that by prompt-ing readers to take an active writerly role to form representations of characters’ subjective states, literary fiction recruits ToM. The evidence we report here is consistent with this view, but we see these findings as preliminary and much research is needed.
. . . our findings demonstrate the short-term effects of reading lit-erary fiction. However, taken together, the relation between the Author Recognition Test and ToM performance and the finding that it is specifi-cally literary fiction that facilitates ToM processes suggest that reading literary fiction may lead to stable improvements in ToM. Since the Au-thor Recognition Test does not distinguish between exposure to literary and popular fiction, additional research with refined methods is neces-sary to test this important hypothesis.
While the NYT report on this paper mentions one of my worries: that the psychological results of reading literary fiction were measured just minutes after reading the passage, it doesn’t mention the even larger results of the Author Awareness Test, which either might or might not support the authors’ theory. The TImes piece is simply worshipful, incorporating praise from evolutionary psychologists, English professors, and, of course, a “literary” author, Louise Erdrich, who said this:
“This is why I love science,” Louise Erdrich, whose novel “The Round House” was used in one of the experiments, wrote in an e-mail. The researchers, she said, “found a way to prove true the intangible benefits of literary fiction.”
Yes, we do love science when it “proves” what we want to believe, don’t we? But surely the the Times reporter could have dug deeply enough to find some criticism. After all, I’m reporting the views of two critics in this piece alone.
And indeed, in their last paragraph the authors seem to say that their results support the use of literature in existing programs designed to “promote social welfare”:
Literature has been deployed in programs intended to promote social welfare, such as those intended to promote empathy among doctors and life skills among prisoners. Literature is, of course, also a required subject throughout secondary education in the United States, but reformers have questioned its importance: A new set of education stand-ards that has been adopted by 46 U.S. states (the Common Core State Standards) controversially calls for less emphasis on fiction in secondary education. Debates over the social value of types of fiction and the arts more broadly are important, and it seems critical to supplement them with empirical research. These results show that reading literary fiction may hone adults’ ToM, a complex and critical social capacity.
As my colleague said dryly about that, “Anything that flatters highbrows (and which has an obvious political agenda, which they reveal in the last paragraph) should indeed be looked at with suspicion.” I agree. While the paper is suggestive, it’s nowhere near as conclusive as the Times reports, and I’m surprised it was published in Science. It needs replication with more types of controls, tests that don’t involve looking at faces, and, most important, more replication.
Now don’t get me wrong. I do think that reading literary fiction makes us more empathic toward our fellow humans. One example is The Death of Ivan Ilych by Tolstoy, one of my favorite stories. That novella, though psychologically wrenching, makes you ponder not only the transience and meaning of life, but, as I was told by critic James Wood, was once used in medical schools to teach students what it felt like to die. The authors of that Science paper may indeed be right, but I’d feel better if my subjective feeling was supported by stronger research.
Kidd, D. C., and E. Castano. 2013. Reading literary fiction Improves theory of mind. Science DOI: DOI:10.1126/science.1239918. Published online Oct. 3