A meta-analysis looks at the relationship between reading and social ability.
As the founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas, I, and my colleagues, use the humanities and the social and behavioral sciences to teach people in workplaces about people.
Within the humanities, literature plays a significant role in what we teach. Reading literature has many potential benefits, including being able to experience things within a work of fiction that you might not have a chance to experience in real life. In addition, by showing you the world through the eyes of other people, literature can give you a window into others’ thoughts or feelings.
Does that experience create increased empathy and ability to understand others?
Psychologists have begun to explore this question by asking whether reading fiction improves individuals’ sensitivity to other people’s beliefs or emotions compared to either not reading or to reading nonfiction. A paper by David Dodell-Feder and Diana Tamir in the November 2018 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General looked across 14 studies using a technique called meta-analysis to determine whether there is reason to think that reading fiction improves social abilities.
These studies generally had some groups read fiction passages. Most studies had a control group in which people read nonfiction. A few of them had a control group in which the people did not read anything. A few studies compared reading fiction to both a nonfiction and a no-reading control.
Several different measures of social ability were used. Studies looked at people’s ability to read other people’s emotions, to judge their beliefs — and false beliefs, to take other people’s perspectives, and to guess the emotions people would experience in different situations. Some of the measures were self-report measures (“How often do you…”), while others reflected performance in a task.
The authors looked at these studies but also tried to make guesses about how many unpublished studies there are likely to be in which researchers tried to get an effect of reading and failed and thus chose not to submit their paper. When researchers choose not to submit papers that have no effect of a variable, that is called the “file drawer problem.”
Overall, the authors conclude that reading fiction does appear to influence social ability: The effect is small but reliable. In addition, measures of actual performance lead to bigger effects than self-report measures.
If the effects are small, though, are they really worth paying attention to? The authors suggest (and I agree) that they are, for a few reasons:
- First, if there really is a reliable influence of reading fiction on social ability, then this opens up a productive area for further research. It is hard to recommend to researchers that they explore a phenomenon if the studies are unlikely to work.
- Second, most of these studies ask participants to read for a short period of time and then demonstrate an influence soon after. Over time, though, people who read a lot of fiction are likely to develop habits to pay attention to the kinds of information that fiction leads them to consider. So, the effects of reading over the long term are likely to be even stronger than what is observed in these studies (though that is something that future research should tackle).
For now, though, keep a good fiction book around and make reading part of your regular routine.
Dodell-Feder, D. & Tamir, D.I. (2018). Fiction reading has a small positive impact on social cognition: A meta-analysis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(11), 1713-1727.
Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.