Can Reading Literary Fiction Make You a Better Person?
The scientific answer is YES
Does what you read affect your personality?
When I was a kid, I remember going to the library and falling in love with a collection of books neatly lined up the shelf. They were all the same size with vivid-colored covers, and each told the story of a strong woman. I gobbled up the whole series, finding ferocity in the stories of Amelia Earhart, Clara Barton, Marie Curie, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Did reading those books when I was young make me braver, smarter, more diplomatic, more tolerant?
Did the fact that I read Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries at every opportunity improve my deductive reasoning and critical thinking skills?
Did my sensitive heart and sentimental brain develop because I read stories about courageous people in dire situations around the globe?
The answer is “yes.”
Reading and “experience-taking”
Research is just beginning to show how reading books can affect our personality and behavior. Scientists call it, “experience-taking,” which means absorbing a little bit of a character from reading and then having your attitudes or behaviors unintentionally changed by that experience.
It’s happened to all of us. Reading a book and connecting with a certain character changed our perceptions, permanently. In short, reading improved us, not just temporarily, but long-term.
Reading prompts us to take action
Neil Wagner, in an article in The Atlantic, recounts a study where students read a story about a person from their university voting in an election. Since the readers identified closely with the character in the story — similar in age and attending the same school as they did — they were influenced to vote. Sixty-five percent more students voted than those who read a story about a character from a different university voting in an election.
If you’ve ever read a story and been compelled to contribute to a cause, write a letter, join a group, or take action, you understand this.
The more a character has in common with you, the more you identify with them. The more we relate to a character, the more likely we are to follow a similar course of action. Reading often urges us to DO something instead of just think about it.
Reading increases empathy
The research on how reading affects our personality is in its infancy. Maja Djikic and Keith Oatley from the University of Toronto are two of the pioneers, studying how reading particular genres affect personality, particularly the ability to empathize.
Empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s feelings. It’s an ability closely tied into “openness to experience,” one of the five major components of our personality.
Their studies found that people who read fiction are better at reading other people’s emotions than people who read other genres. Between the genres, science fiction was the least likely to provoke empathy. Romance novels the most likely. Other studies have also examined the effect of fiction on personality and determined that after reading narrative fiction, people became more empathetic.
Reading literary fiction prompts the most change
A social psychologist, Emanuele Castano, and a Ph.D. candidate, David Kidd, have done numerous studies on the impact of genre reading on personality. They were surprised to learn that reading literary fiction has a significant impact on empathy levels.
Literary fiction is different than genre fiction. Mysteries, thrillers, romances, fantasy, and westerns are considered genre fiction because they follow certain plotlines and often have characters that are a bit heroic or unrealistic. Genre fiction offers an escape from reality.
Literary fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t follow prescribed plotlines. It focuses on creative storytelling and multi-layered, fully-developed characters. The goal of literary fiction is to help understand life and the human condition, to delve into reality instead of escape from it.
Why literary fiction works
If you’re a reader, this research on literary fiction makes perfect sense. If you’re a doubter, consider this.
Reading literary fiction allows us to go into other people’s worlds and experience what they experience. We see their thoughts, allowing us to understand other perspectives, increasing tolerance for others and changing attitudes.
After reading fiction, we use the experiences of the literary characters to examine ourselves. We are able to contemplate our sense of worth and open ourselves up to inner experiences based on what we’ve learned about others.
Consuming fiction allows us to see the impact of decisions on the totality of a life, not just at the present moment. Knowing how decisions impact lives is information we can use.
David Kidd, the coauthor of the studies cited above, says
“Literary fiction, … focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations… This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.”
Reading makes us sociable
I do it all the time. I’m in a coffee shop, a waiting room, an airport. Someone across the room is reading, and I strain to see what it is, squinting through narrowed eyes to decipher the title on the spine. It’s a small likelihood that with the hundreds of thousands of books published, I will have read that same one and could talk about it with them. But believe me, if I had read it, I would want to talk with them about it!
In a blog post, Clare Thomson talks about how she saw a woman reading Donna Tartt’s, The Goldfinch, on a long plane flight. The woman was sitting two rows ahead of her and was about fifty pages ahead of her. By the end of the flight, both women had finished reading. Thomas talks about the need to talk to this woman — a total stranger — because they both had inhabited the same world, known the same people, and experienced the same events.
The shared common experience of a book urges us to conversation and connection. A character in Lily King’s book, “Writers & Lovers,” says
“It’s a particular kind of pleasure, of intimacy, loving a book with someone.”
Books are read by individuals and then shared and savored with others, increasing social connections. (This is one reason why book clubs are so popular.)
Reading increases our understanding of others
If you read a lot of literary fiction, do you have a better idea of what other people are thinking? Can you often determine how they are going to react to a situation?
Diana Tamir is a psychologist at Princeton’s Social Neuroscience Lab. She’s shown that reading fiction improves social cognition by studying pictures of the brain while people are reading. Brain scans show that the area of the brain that simulates what other people are thinking light up while reading. We’re figuring out what the character in the book is thinking…a kind of mind-reading through story.
If you’re a reader of fiction, your brain is doing this, too. You’re getting inside a character’s head and predicting their behavior, an experience that makes you more socially competent in real-world situations. Reading has given you hundreds of situations, characters, and conversations in a mental database that helps your brain understand the people and the world around you.
What does this research mean in the real world?
Numerous research has proven that reading fiction does, indeed, make us behave better. More empathy, more social connection, more understanding, more tolerance. The research is so accepted that the University of California, Irvine, has implemented a humanities program incorporating the reading of fiction for medical students. Why? Because it’s proven fact that reading fiction makes better doctors.
Some scientists are hopeful that reading programs incorporating literary fiction can improve education and develop kinder citizens. Others theorize that reading can improve the social relationships and empathy levels of prisoners, autistic people, or those with disabilities.
I hope they’re right. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world — and all its peoples — could get better just by reading books?
An off-beat observation about reading and experience-taking
To take in the experience of others, you first have to lose your own identity, something that happens when you immerse yourself in a book. When students were placed in a cubicle with a mirror and told to read, they weren’t able to connect with the characters and “take in” the experience of others. The visual reminder of their personal identity was just too strong.
To get the benefits of reading and experiencing-taking, you have to do it without thinking about yourself, far away from mirrors that remind you of who you are.
Melissa Gouty believes that reading is the answer to many of life’s problems. She’s also hopeful that the number of books she’s read has made her kind, empathetic, and tolerant of other viewpoints.
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