October 7, 2016
Sorry kiddos, reading doesn’t make you a better person, it just makes you a nerd.
by Simon Reichley
Three years ago, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, researchers at The New School for Social Research, published the results of a series of psychological studies that claimed to show a causal link between reading literary fiction (as opposed to non-fiction or popular fiction) and “theory of mind,” or empathy. The results were much discussed at the time, and re-reading pieces in the New York Times’ Well blog, the Atlantic, and the Guardian, one gets a reserved but distinctly triumphalist vibe. All of these folks writing on the internet were finally justified, having spent so much of their free time alone and indoors, paying very close attention to imaginary people.
The architects of the study only amplified this “revenge of the lit-nerds” vibe, with Kidd in particular giving a pretty high-flown and unscientific summary of his study to The Guardian:
“What great writers do is to turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others.”
Transferring the experience of reading fiction into real-world situations was a natural leap, Kidd argued, because “the same psychological processes are used to navigate fiction and real relationships. Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience.”
I mean… maybe? But did the results of Kidd’s study really prove or even suggest any of that? Did the apparent correlation between reading Don DeLillo for five minutes and an improved ability to identify the fake emotional state of actors prove that great writers turn anyone into anything, or that fiction is a bona-fide social experience?
Short answer: no, it didn’t.
Earlier this week another group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Pace University, Boston College and the University of Oklahoma released the results of their own study, which failed to replicate the results of Kidd and Castano’s experiment. According to a story published Tuesday in Science Daily, the group followed the previously published experiment “to the letter,” working closely with Kidd and Castano to ensure they were using the same reading materials, methods, and metrics as the New School study, but failed to find any correlation between reading anything at all and increased theory of mind performance.
So, egg on the face of Keith Oatley, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, who said of the previous experiment “This really nails down the causal direction.” Because, as it turns out, five experiments do not causation make. Not necessarily because causality is a myth, but because that’s not how science works. Post hoc ergo proptor hoc, anyone?
Deena Weisberg addresses the real problem with the New School study in the press release:
“Psychology has been doing a lot of soul-searching lately,” Weisberg said. “There’s been a lot of attention to high-profile studies that show something of social importance. It would be amazing if we could put into place interventions on the basis of this study, but we really need to double check and not just rely on one lab, one study, before we go shouting from the rooftops.”
It’s not a problem that the New School study produced some faulty results. It’s a problem that the careless boosterism of a couple columnists, combined with the exuberance of one researcher, positioned what was clearly a provisional result as some sort of essential statement on the meaning of literature.
However, Weisberg’s follow-up study did reveal something interesting:
Weisberg doesn’t discount the idea that exposure to fiction could positively affect a person’s social cognition. In fact, she and her collaborators additionally administered the Author Recognition Test, which measures lifetime exposure to all genres of fiction: From a list of 130 names—some real authors, some foils—participants were asked to select all real writers they knew with certainty. They were penalized for guessing and for incorrect answers. The researchers then tested for relations between this measure and social cognition, once again using the RMET, which offers an image of eyes and asks participants to choose the best description of the emotion the eyes convey.
In this case, they noted a strong relationship: The more authors participants knew, the better they scored on the social cognition measure.
SEE! The more you read, the better you are as a human! People who have read every French realist of the 19th century are demonstrably superior beings! SCIENCE SAYS SO!
Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.