A study published this month in the journal Science points to the benefits of reading literary fiction in developing students’ ability to empathize as well as to read and understand social cues. Social psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York City relied on Amazon.com to recruit participants ranging in age from 18 to 73 from diverse backgrounds. In a set of five experiments, study participants were paid between $2 and $3 to read selected texts for several minutes. Some participants read non-fiction, others read popular fiction, and still others read literary fiction. After reading their assigned texts, study participants took computerized tests that assessed their ability to identify emotions or predict an individual’s behaviors or thinking in a given situation. Across experiments, participants who read literary fiction had better test scores than those who read non-fiction or popular fiction, or in some cases, nothing at all. And, results held even when participants said they did not enjoy reading literary fiction. Researchers reasoned that literary fiction is more open-ended than most popular fiction and non-fiction. It requires that readers be sensitive to subtleties in characters’ behavior and language and that readers use their imagination and inference skills. Although the study did not address how long results last, the study’s authors highlight the importance of findings for curriculum development, noting the movement away from literary fiction in the Common Core State Standards, which emphasizes non-fiction reading assignments.
If you are interested in participating in the study, click here.