Reading for emotional intelligence

Reading literary fiction develops empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence, according to a new study reported in the New York Times.

Understanding others’ mental states, known as “Theory of Mind” (ToM), is a critical social skill, researchers write. People who read a short piece of literature did better on ToM tests than those who read excerpts of popular fiction, nonfiction or nothing at all.

“Literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity,” researchers believe.

 “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.”

“Thank God the research didn’t find that novels increased tooth decay or blocked up your arteries,” she added.

The study could give ammunition to critics of the Common Core standards, which call for students to read more nonfiction. Inevitably, that means less time reading literature.

Participants were tested on their ability to decode emotions or predict a person’s expectations or beliefs. For example, in one test, they studied 36 photographs of pairs of eyes and chose which of four adjectives best described the emotion shown.

Is the woman with the smoky eyes aghast or doubtful? Is the man whose gaze has slivered to a squint suspicious or indecisive? Is she interested or irritated, flirtatious or hostile? Is he fantasizing or guilty, dominant or horrified?

Popular fiction tends to be focused on plot, says researcher Emanuele Castano, professor of psychology at The New School for Social Research. “You know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy.”

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  1. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I think the test may be flawed. I took it, and noticed that the vocab used to describe the expressions was actually pretty sophisticated. Does reading good literature really improve empathy? Or did it just improve the ability to understand the vocabulary used in the test?

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    Oooookay. So we’re up to eighty-two hours in a school day.
    Clearly, it depends on WHICH fiction. For heaven’s sake, who wouldn’t know that?
    The late Sydney Harris, author and journalist, once remarked that you could understand all of human nature, up, down, sideways, right, wrong, if you understood Shakespeare.
    Easy for him to say. First you need some historical context, some knowledge of Greco/Roman mythology or at least names, archaic vocab, complicated sentence structure, and do so reading that which was meant to be watched.
    Once saw an actor doing the bit from, iirc, Falstaff in which a professional soldier, seeing a boy killed, begins talking about the laws of war. On paper, you could go any number of ways. The actor combined sarcasm, irony, outrage, and grief and he really nailed it. It was exactly right for the situation. Get that from paper?
    You could learn empathy from biographies, and from practically any non-fiction having to do with people. Hershey’s Hiroshima, and another of his book about people escaping catastrophes. Gets inside people.
    This is nuts.
    In addition, schools teaching emotional issues is getting inside a kid’s head and that is not the business of the State. That’s what parents are for, churches, friends and family.
    And the folks who choose the fiction are more likely to resemble Bill Ayers than, say, David Drake, or Newt Gingrich. Take that to the bank.

  3. Linda Seebach says:

    Mark Liberman at Language Log demolished this so-called study, which was evidently designed to produce the results the researchers had decided in advance they would find.
    Suppose you heard about a study “showing” that Ivy League students are more socially sensitive than students at public universities or students at private colleges not among the Ancient Eight. You’d be skeptical, I hope.
    . . .
    The paper compares “literary fiction” to “popular fiction” and non-fiction, not the Ivy League students to students at public universities and less prestigious private colleges; and it compares short-term priming effects on readers, not the abilities of group members; but it does base its conclusions on experiments that compared three hand-selected examplars of each general category.