08.25.2016

Science Says Reading Literary Fiction Makes You a Better Person

But we still love pop fiction too.

According to new research, literary fiction, not genre fiction (or pop fiction), boosts readers’ emotional skills. In the study, published recently by the American Psychology Association's Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, 2,000 people were asked to recognize literary fiction authors (like staring at Salman Rushdie’s mug) to gauge their literary-fiction reading levels: Did these human lab rats or did they not (probably) read literary fiction more than say, they read Danielle Steele or Agatha Christie?

Once readers were classified as literary-fiction readers, they were asked to identify actors’ faces and describe the emotion on that face. The literary fiction readers were able to recognize emotion at a much higher rate, compared to readers who were less familiar with literary fiction. So if you read literary fiction, you might just have a better shot at making it as an empathetic, intuitive being in this world filled with other humans.

Three years ago, the same researchers out of the New School in New York, tried to prove this theory by having test subjects read a few passages from literary fiction and pop fiction. Apparent flaws in that methodology include the arbitrary assignment of reading choices and not taking into account the reader's enduring preferences. This new study, based on lifelong literary fiction readers, appears to confirm what the researchers already thought: Reading is great for developing interpersonal intelligence, especially literary fiction.

Don’t worry if you aren’t a fan of reading Ulysses or Moby Dick. The research did not dive into the benefits of being a Stephen King addict or a detective novel connoisseur. The researchers think those are probably good for tons of other stuff too.

From Research Digest:

Perhaps mindful of some of the criticism levelled at their earlier research, Kidd and Castano also point out that their findings should not be taken as evidence of “the superiority of literary fiction”. Rather, they say, all types of fiction are likely to have an effect on people’s emotional understanding, but in different ways. They speculate that reading more pop fiction that’s filled with stereotypical characters might encourage the “other strategy of social perception,” which is to understand people “in terms of their social identities and roles” – an approach likely to be favoured in less individualistic cultures.

That "favoured in less individualistic cultures" applied to crap fiction readers certainly seems to presume a "superiority of literary fiction." Nice try hiding that bias, Kidd and Castano. 

An earlier study this year, from another group of researchers, said that reading can even add on years of existence to your life. So, in short, reading is good, duh. Read a fucking book for once. 

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