If you don’t have much time, you may wonder whether reading fiction is of any use and if self-development books would be a better time investment. After all, fiction is just for fun, isn’t it? Well, don’t jump to conclusions, because the benefits of leisure reading may be far more reaching than you probably expected.
Fiction reading is indeed meant for fun. Humans have always had a thing for a good story, and, in the past, books were one of the primary sources of entertainment available to the literate part of the population. Although reading is arguably one of the oldest media consumption activities, psychologists have usually ignored its impact on our social life and abilities.
However, the development of cognitive sciences at the turn of the 20th century has shifted older attitudes and allowed researchers to take a closer look at reading and its impact on our lives. And as the bulk of studies suggest, the benefits of reading fiction extend well beyond recreational ones.
Alongside with research that shows the effects of reading on our vocabulary development and creativity, one branch of research provides particularly reassuring evidence of reading benefits. Namely, it seems that people who read fiction have significantly higher levels of emotional intelligencethan non-fiction readers.
Keith Oatley, a renowned cognitive psychologist from the University of Toronto, started working on the idea that fiction may be fundamental to social relationships in the late 1990s and has been refining his theory ever since. One of his most cited pieces on the topic, co-authored with a colleague of his Raymond A. Mar, was published in 2008 and aimed to deliver a vital message: reading fiction can be one of the most beneficial activities for our social skills and emotional awareness.
The theory Oatley and Mar proposed is simple: fiction provides a safe harbor, asimulation, for us to explore and feel emotions we usually try to avoid. By creating a deep, immersive experience, this simulation prepares us for stressful situations in real life and augments our capacity for empathy and understanding of others.
Oatley’s thought-provoking simulation theory remained untested for a few years. Until one day in 2011, when Dan R. Johnson, a psychologist from Washington and Lee University, decided to put it to the test.
Armed with a set of six regular ball pens, Johnson aimed to see whether engaging with travails of literary characters would make participants of his experiment experience empathic growth, as predicted by Oatley’s theory.
The experiment ran as follows: Johnson asked the participants to read a short story written specifically for the occasion. He then asked them a series of questions: how engaged they were in the story (on a scale from 1 to 5); if they had vivid imagery; how much they felt transported to the story; and if they were emotionally moved while reading the story.
After all the formalities were over, Johnson stood up, saying that he needed to fetch something from another room and then “accidentally” dropped six pens in front of the participants. The participants — unaware this was the most crucial moment of the experiment — either helped him retrieve the pens or not. What’s interesting is that those who felt the most transported to the story were twice as likely to help with the pens. And vice versa — participants who didn’t care about the story didn’t bother to help with the pens either.
Soon after the publication of these results, cognitive scientists from various research groups started to conduct similar experiments collecting new evidence for the positive impact of fiction reading on our social skills. Perhaps, one of the most cited experiments of that period is the study by David Comer Kidd, a Ph.D. student, and his supervisor Emanuele Castano from The New School for Social Research, who published their findings in Science magazine in 2013.
Inspired by Johnson’s results, Kidd and Castano, aimed to understand what type of fiction was needed to increase emotional awareness of the participants. To that end, they selected stories from three genres: literary fiction (from National Book Award list), popular fiction (from Amazon bestsellers list), and non-fiction (from Smithsonian Magazine). Next, they asked the participants to read the texts, and immediately after reading, asked them to perform the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test.
The test consisted of showing the photos featuring the eyes of an actor and asking the participants to guess the emotion experienced by the person on a picture. The results were confusing: the participants from the group who read literary fiction performed on the test significantly better than those who read non-fiction and popular genre fiction. At the same time, the difference between those who read popular fiction and non-fiction was negligible, suggesting that popular fiction did not contribute to increased emotional intelligence.
Kidd and Castano believe the reason why literary fiction promotes emotional awareness is connected to the fact that — unlike popular fiction — it requires intellectual engagement from the reader to get into the mind of the characters. In other words, a well-written literary character has just as a complex personality as a real person. And to understand another person in real life, you often need to stop and think about how you’d feel if you were in their shoes.
This doesn’t mean, however, that reading popular fiction is useless for your social skills. In an article published three years later, Kidd and Castano admit that the distinction between literary and popular fiction is vague, and what’s important is not the genre but rather how profound and complex the characters are.
You may wonder how much literary fiction should you read to boost your social skills. Well, you shouldn’t worry — you don’t need to pore over Ulysses or War and Peace. In most of the studies, the participants only read short fiction pieces and excerpts, which still resulted in heightened levels of emotional intelligence even after one week of reading.
So, reading short stories from your favorite author or flash fiction in a literary magazine while on the morning train or before going to bed might have a positive impact on your social skills and relationships. But if you’re not afraid of long-reads, read novels. It could well be that a good book is worth ten short stories in terms of the effect on your emotional intelligence. Just make sure you put more emphasis on profound character development when choosing a novel rather than on plot development.
Whatever you read, don’t stop reading. After all, reading is a crucial part of our lives that, in addition to being fun, improves our social and emotional skills.
And that’s something that we all need more of for happy relationships.