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Monday, August 29, 2016

Literary Fiction and Emotional Intelligence

On August 15, I blogged about how research has shown that readers live longer (  Now a study has shown that people who regularly read literary fiction possess more emotional intelligence in that they understand others’ emotions better.

Researchers David Kidd and Emanuele Castano from the New School for Social Research in New York recently published their findings in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.  They found that those who were more familiar with literary fiction authors were better at inferring others’ feelings, a faculty known as theory of mind.

In their paper entitled “Different Stories: How Levels of Familiarity With Literary and Genre Fiction Relate to Mentalising,” genre fiction is defined “by its focus on a particular topic and reliance on relatively formulaic plots”, while literary fiction is defined “more by its aesthetic qualities and character development than its focus on plot or a particular set of topics and themes”.

“Results indicate that exposure to literary but not genre fiction positively predicts performance on a test of theory of mind, even when accounting for demographic variables including age, gender, educational attainment, undergraduate major … and self-reported empathy,” they write in the paper.  “We propose that these findings emerge because the implied (rather than explicit) socio-cognitive complexity, or roundness of characters, in literary fiction prompts readers to make, adjust, and consider multiple interpretations of characters’ mental states.”

“The academics are keen to stress that they are not claiming a superiority for literary fiction. ‘What we are saying is that there are different ways of telling a story, and they have different impacts on the way we perceive social reality,’ said Castano. . . . ‘This is not to say that reading popular genre fiction cannot be enjoyable or beneficial for other reasons – we suspect it is,” agreed Kidd. . . . ‘Instead, it suggests that the broad distinction between relatively complex literary and relatively formulaic genre fiction can help us better understand how engaging with fiction affects how we think’” (

When I was a teacher, I often discussed the differences between what I called escapist and interpretive fiction.  I argued that interpretive fiction was better because it required the reader to think and analyze more, though escapist literature had its role.  My point was that a steady diet of only escapist literature was the equivalent of a steady diet of fast food.  I wish I’d had this study to reference because it suggests what I was arguing for years!