Reading literary fiction may not improve a person’s social abilities, according to a new study that contradicts previous research. A 2013 study concluded that reading literary fiction for as few as 20 minutes could improve a person’s social abilities.
However, when researchers tried to replicate the findings using the original study materials and methodology, the results did not hold up.
“Reading a short piece of literary fiction does not seem to boost theory of mind,” said Deena Weisberg, from the University of Pennsylvania in the US, referring to the notion that describes a person’s ability to understand the mental states of others. “Literary fiction did not do any better than popular fiction, expository non-fiction and not any better than reading nothing at all,” she said.
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Initially, Weisberg and Thalia Goldstein from Pace University in the US wanted to repeat the original study, conducted at the New School for Social Research, to better understand how such a minimal intervention and a specific storytelling type alone could result in this response.
They used the stories and materials from the original work, applying the same measures and design, including a theory of mind measure called the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET) in the hopes of drawing the same conclusion.
They worked closely with New School researchers to ensure accuracy. Results in hand, they began speaking with other institutions, learning that Boston College and University of Oklahoma scientists had attempted and failed to replicate these results as well.
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This particular outcome not only shines a light on problems with the conclusions drawn in one study but also reinforces a broader issue with which the field has been grappling. Weisberg does not discount the idea that exposure to fiction can positively affect a person’s social cognition.
In fact, she and her collaborators additionally administered the Author Recognition Test, which measures lifetime exposure to all genres of fiction from a list of 130 names some real authors, some foils participants were asked to select all real writers they knew with certainty.
They were penalised for guessing and for incorrect answers. The researchers then tested for relations between this measure and social cognition, once again using the RMET, which offers an image of eyes and asks participants to choose the best description of the emotion the eyes convey.
In this case, they noted a strong relationship, the more authors participants knew, the better they scored on the social cognition measure.
“One brief exposure to fiction won’t have an effect, but perhaps a protracted engagement with fictional stories such that you boost your skills can have,” Weisberg said.
“It is also possible the causality is the other way around. It could be people who are already good at a theory of mind read a lot,” she said. The new research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.