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Study: To Improve Your Social Skills, Read Complex Fiction

(Photo: Jemimus)

Spending time in the works of Milton, Faulkner or other great fiction writers doesn't just make you more knowledgeable of literature. It may actually improve your social skills.

David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, social scientists at the New School for Social Research in New York City, evaluated how well people performed on tests of empathy and emotional and social intelligence. Subjects did better on these tests after reading literary fiction, rather than serious nonfiction or popular fiction. Pam Belluck describes the experiment in the New York Times:

People ranging in age from 18 to 75 were recruited for each of five experiments. They were paid $2 or $3 each to read for a few minutes. Some were given excerpts from award-winning literary fiction (Don DeLillo, Wendell Berry). Others were given best sellers like Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” a Rosamunde Pilcher romance or a Robert Heinlein science fiction tale.

In one experiment, some participants were given nonfiction excerpts, but we’re not talking “All the President’s Men.” To maximize the contrast, the researchers — looking for nonfiction that was well-written, but not literary or about people — turned to Smithsonian Magazine. “How the Potato Changed the World” was one selection. “Bamboo Steps Up” was another.

After reading — or in some cases reading nothing — the participants took computerized tests that measure people’s ability to decode emotions or predict a person’s expectations or beliefs in a particular scenario. In one test, called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” subjects did just that: they studied 36 photographs of pairs of eyes and chose which of four adjectives best described the emotion each showed.

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? Or annoyed that his tech stock dropped half a percent on the Nasdaq in a round of late trading after news from the Middle East? (Just kidding — that last one isn’t on the test.)

Why does literature have this effect? Kidd and Castano conclude that the complexity of literary fiction compels readers to search for subtleties of meaning and nuance--skills that are essential for gauging the emotional responses and depth of real people. Kidd explains:

In literary fiction, like Dostoyevsky, “there is no single, overarching authorial voice,” he said. “Each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.”

-via Adrienne Crezo


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