Literary Fiction Enhances Empathy in Readers

Literary fiction, not popular fiction, can make people better understand one another according to a new study. Because literary fiction (i.e. books not for sale at airports) focuses on the psychology and inner life of the characters it gives people a window into the thoughts of others that aren’t covered elsewhere.

On average, people who read parts of more literary books like The Round House by Louise Erdrich did better on those tests than people who read either nothing, read nonfiction or read best-selling popular thrillers like The Sins of the Mother by Danielle Steel.

For example, folks who were assigned to read highbrow literary works did better on a test called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” which required them to look at black-and-white photographs of actors’ eyes and decide what emotion the actors were expressing.

This is the first time scientists have demonstrated the short-term effects of reading on people’s social abilities, says Raymond Mar, a psychology researcher at York University in Toronto. He has investigated the effects of reading in the past but did not work on this study.

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