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Literary Fiction Helps Us ‘Read’ Others

Aug 24, 2016

Stories featuring complex characters enhance our ability to decipher subtle verbal cues that communicate emotions.

By Tom Jacobs

Reading Sense and Sensibility increases one’s sensitivity. That’s the implication of new research, which reports people who regularly enjoy literary fiction are better able to identify the emotional state of another when presented with a minimal visual cue.

“Habitual engagement with others’ minds — even fictional ones” can bolster the sort of awareness that is essential for empathy, write psychologists David Kidd and Emanuele Castano of the New School for Social Research. Their study is published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.

Kidd and Castano first identified this dynamic in a 2013 study in which participants were better able to pick up on subtle hints and accurately infer a stranger’s thoughts and emotions after they had read an excerpt of literary fiction, as opposed to popular or genre fiction.

However, around the same time, another set of researchers presented evidence that reading material from a romance novel had the same effect. Could it be that skimming Danielle Steele produces the same insights as devouring Dostoyevsky?

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