March 5, 2014
Stanford Center for Ethics panel finds that reading literature makes you a better bully
by Sal Robinson
From time to time, a group of philosophers or radio commentators or neuroscientists at loose ends will get together and discuss the question of whether or not reading literature makes you more moral.
It’s an especially good topic for stopping panels of novelists in their tracks, since it has a tendency to split the respondents into two unflattering groups: one group of interviewees will argue, eyes shining, that reading literature makes people into more empathetic, truly loving, all-round finer human beings. And the other group will glare at you.
But a recent panel at the Stanford Center for Ethics has offered a definitive response to this age-old debate. The answer is “no.” Literature does not make you more moral. It can make you a better bully, though.
To explain: one of the panelists was David Kidd, a PhD candidate in cognitive, social and developmental psychology at New School for Social Research, whose research on how reading literary fiction affects emotional intelligence was the subject of an article, “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend A Little Chekhov,” in the New York Times last year.
Kidd’s study, conducted with psychology professor Emanuele Castano, involved giving some subjects passages to read from novels by Don DeLillo and Wendell Berry, and others passages from Gone Girl and other popular fiction. Then, the subjects were asked to look at and interpret a range of facial expressions.
Kidd and Castano found that reading literature makes people more adept at assessing other individuals’ emotional states—it gives them a more developed “theory of mind (ToM),” which Kidd describes as the “capacity to infer the thoughts and emotions of others.” But this talent can be used for ill.
“Bullies have a very developed ToM,” Kidd said. “Which makes sense. If you want to manipulate or harass someone effectively, that requires a heightened sense of how their thoughts and emotions work.”
This is scary stuff: a Don DeLillo-prepped bully is a much, much more terrifying prospect than your standard-issue neighborhood thug, combining the ability to dole out, simultaneously, powerful noogies and close analysis of the “Pafko at the Wall” setpiece in Underworld.
The other panelists, Paula Moya, professor of English and director of the Program in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford, and Joshua Landy, professor of French and comparative literature and co-director of Stanford’s Initiative in Literature and Philosophy, looked at the question from philosophical and historical perspectives, but still came back to crime, dissipation, and bad manners (this is my favorite panel of recent times….). Moya reminded the audience that, in fact, there was a long period when novels as a whole were considered “profoundly corrupting.”
And Landy pointed out that faculty meetings in literature departments are living proof that reading lots of literary fiction does not make you a better person.
“We’re a bunch of raging narcissist divas, who just love to throw our toys out of the pram,” he said. “And look at me, making that catty remark. All those years reading Proust and Morrison, and I’m still a complete jerk.”
He also drew attention to the numerous historical baddies who’ve been big literary fiction readers, like Himmler, who loved Hesse’s Siddhartha.
In the end, as you might rightfully expect, all three participants argued that the efforts to show that reading literature is morally improving sell literature short. What literature can do is more subtle, and more unreliable, than even those making the updated version of the moralist argument for it bank on. Landy suggested that some of its other capabilities include “enchanting or consoling us, training us mentally, offering models of self-fashioning, or simply renewing our contact with the world.” I would add being beautiful and strange and sonorous and funny, and an ingenious and spectacular thing to do with our hands, eyes, and vocal cords.
Also, good for training bullies.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.