Posted by: bluesyemre | October 4, 2022

Can Reading Fiction Make You a Better Person?

Photo: Christin Hume / Unsplash

People who read fiction may see the world differently than those who don’t

I’ve always wanted to write a film script. And like a million other would-be Charlie Kaufmans, I once bought a how-to guide to screenwriting. The Screenwriter’s Bible, by David Trottier, turned out to be a surprisingly fun read. It’s filled with insider info on Hollywood and insights on the makings of a great movie.

In the very first chapter, Trottier draws a sharp distinction between films and novels. While films are “a visual medium” that rely on physical action to carry the story along, novels are often oriented around a character’s internal thoughts and experiences. “That’s the strength of the novel form — inner conflict,” he writes.

More than any other form of media (apart from perhaps memoir), novels immerse us in the minds of others. We see the world through the characters’ eyes, but we also think the world through their thoughts. As the literary agent Dorian Karchmar has put it, “[F]or readers to understand and experience points of view that are not their own . . . is sort of the whole freaking point of fiction.”

There’s new evidence that reading fiction may change us, arguably for the better.

Considering the lurch in U.S. educational curricula away from the humanities and toward STEM subjects, it’s worth wondering what our society may be losing in the trade.

study published this month in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that adults who read a lot of literary fiction as kids possess a more complex worldview than those who didn’t.

“One of the things we repeatedly found is that reading patterns when young predicted things like greater attributional complexity, less essentialism, increased psychological richness, and increased intellectual humility,” says Nick Buttrick, PhD, first author of the study and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Some people, Buttrick explains, tend to view others through the lens of broad, overly simplistic narratives. For example, they think that a person’s political affiliation, race, nationality, or economic beliefs explain everything about them. This tendency is termed “attributional simplicity,” he says. Meanwhile, attributional complexity — the trait displayed by childhood readers of literary fiction — describes those who recognize that a lot of different factors shape each person’s beliefs and behaviors.

“People are the way they are for a number of reasons — there’s no master key that unlocks them,” he says. Those who possess attributional complexity are more likely to regard others with this in mind. Reading literary fiction, at least as a kid, seems to foster this mindset.

Meanwhile, psychological richness (another of the characteristics Buttrick’s study linked with literary fiction) describes the sense that life is filled with interesting and perspective-altering experiences — that your beliefs are always evolving based on new encounters and new information. Here again, the childhood readers tended to score much higher, he says. (More work has found that psychological richness may be an important component of “a good life,” perhaps because it keeps us engaged and curious.)

The bulk of the evidence suggests that reading fiction may teach us to regard one another with more care, more compassion, and more understanding.

You may be wondering what makes a piece of fiction “literary.” Buttrick and his colleagues relied on people to self-define whether the books they’d read as kids fit that description. But, by and large, he says genre fiction that features predictable characters and familiar plot lines — many romance or thriller novels, for example — doesn’t count. “Presenting things that are unfamiliar or complicated is a hallmark of literariness,” he says.

His study is not the only one to link fiction-reading to certain character traits.

A lot of prior work has found that people who read fiction — any fiction, not just the literary kind — tend to be more empathetic, meaning they’re better able to understand and share what others are feeling.

Some of this empathy work has documented a cause-and-effect relationship between reading and empathy. A 2013 study in PLOS ONE found that after adults read fiction that made them feel “transported” into a story, they displayed more empathy toward others when compared to a second group who read non-fiction. “The empathy finding is pretty robust,” Buttrick says. He also highlights research linking fiction-reading to improvements in social cognition, which is the ability to better anticipate and interpret another person’s thoughts and behaviors.

If only we all spent more time reading novels, the world might be a gentler, more egalitarian, and more compassionate place. That’s the grand theory that some commentators have been eager to glean from this body of work. And there may be truth to it.

However, this theory has some holes.

For one thing, a lot of the research on fiction-reading — including Buttrick’s study — is correlational. “It makes sense that reading more literary fiction leads to these things, but it may also be that these readers grow up in different sorts of households with different sorts of parents,” he says. It’s also possible that people who are naturally more empathetic, or who inherently hold a more complex world view, are also more likely to read literary fiction than those who don’t. It’s the old chicken-or-the-egg conundrum.

Also, not all the work on fiction-reading has linked it to advantages.

A 2020 study in the North American Journal of Psychology argued that avid fiction readers may be prone to “reality monitoring errors.” For example, they may feel like the world is a more just place than it really is. (In many novels, the good guy, or at least the antihero, usually comes out on top.) Readers may also develop unrealistic viewpoints based on fictional narratives or situations.

Those caveats aside, the bulk of the evidence we have suggests that reading fiction — perhaps especially literary fiction, and perhaps especially during childhood — may teach us to regard one another with more care, more compassion, and more understanding.

You can skim countless think pieces on race, or watch films or documentaries that attempt to show the realities of inequality in today’s America. But anyone who has read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison will recognize that literature, despite being “made up,” can offer a more profound immersion in another person’s world. Considering the lurch in U.S. educational curricula away from the humanities and toward STEM subjects, it’s worth wondering what we may be losing in the trade.

None of us is simple. We’re all complicated. As the great poet put it, we contain multitudes. If reading fiction can help us appreciate that, setting down our smartphones and picking up the latest Cusk or Murakami may be one way to heal some of our society’s ills.

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