Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kid, right, of the psychology department at the New School for Social Research in New York City.

Casey Kelbaugh, New York Times

For ‘A’ in empathy, read Chekhov

  • Article by: PAM BELLUCK
  • New York Times
  • October 4, 2013 - 2:53 PM


Reading Chekhov for a few minutes makes you better at decoding what other people are feeling. But spending the same amount of time with a potboiler by Danielle Steel does not have the same effect, scientists reported Thursday.

A striking new study found that reading literary fiction — as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction — leads people to perform better on tests that measure empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.

The authors of the study, published by the journal Science, say that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity. They theorize that reading literary fiction helps improve real-life skills like empathy and understanding the beliefs and intentions of others.

‘It’s a really important result’

They and other academic psychologists say such findings should be considered by educators designing student curriculums, particularly the Common Core standards, adopted by most states, which increase the amount of nonfiction students are assigned.

In the study, a series of five experiments conducted by social psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York City, people who read excerpts from literary fiction (Don DeLillo, Alice Munro, Wendell Berry) scored better than people who read popular fiction (Gillian Flynn, Rosamunde Pilcher, Mary Roberts Rinehart) on tests asking them to infer what people were thinking or feeling — a field that scientists call “Theory of Mind.”

People who read literary fiction also scored better than people who read nonfiction (in this case, pieces published in Smithsonian Magazine, like “How the Potato Changed the World”). Interestingly, when subjects were asked, they said they did not enjoy literary fiction as much as popular fiction.

And in two experiments, some participants read nothing at all before taking the tests, yet performed as well as the participants who read popular fiction. Both of those groups made more mistakes on the tests than literary fiction readers, reported the researchers, Dr. Emanuele Castano, a psychology professor, and David Comer Kidd, a doctoral candidate.

“It’s a really important result,” said Dr. Nicholas Humphrey, an evolutionary psychologist who has written extensively about human intelligence, and who was not involved in the research. “That they would have subjects read for three to five minutes and that they would get these results is astonishing.”

Humphrey, an emeritus professor at Darwin College, Cambridge, said, “I would have thought reading in general” would make people more empathetic and understanding. “But to separate off literary fiction, and to demonstrate that it has different effects from the other forms of reading, is remarkable. I think it’s going to generate a lot more research and I hope it’s going to generate some discussion in education.”

People can be ‘primed’

“Theory of Mind” is a relatively new field. Tests measure people’s ability to decode emotions shown in photographs of people’s faces (irritation, fear, sadness) or to predict a person’s expectations or beliefs in a particular scenario. The tests have been used in efforts to gauge empathy in children with autism, for example, or to zero in on which areas of the brain are used when people think about things from the perspective of others.

Experts who have studied the correlation between reading and “Theory of Mind” say the new study is consistent with some previous research, but is more powerful because it suggests a direct effect — quantifiable by measuring how many right and wrong answers people got — of reading literature for only a few minutes. It suggests that people can be “primed” for social skills like empathy, just as, say, watching a clip from a sad movie can make one feel more emotional.

“This really nails down the causal direction,” said Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto who was not involved in the study. “These people have done not one experiment but five and they have found the same effects.”

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