November 21, 2018

Study shows that reading fiction helps us read each other


One of the major differences between books and movies is the book’s ability to lay open someone’s brain out over the page. These monologues help us understand the characters as people – or at least something more than words on a page. And, as it turns out, they also help us understand each other as actual people.

A recent study from the American Psychological Association found that reading fiction can improve your social cognition. The study was led by David Dodell-Feder, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, and was published in the November 2018 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. It was essentially a study designed to answer this question once and for all: is there actually a cause and effect relationship between social cognition and fiction? Science says: yep!

But what is social cognition, and how does fiction improve it? According to Kendra Cherry, a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, social cognition “focuses on how people process, store, and apply information about other people and social situations.” Children develop this naturally as they grow and “become more aware not only of their own feelings, thoughts, and motives but also of the emotions and mental states of others.” This helps them understand how others feel, how to respond in social situations, and how to take on the perspective of others.

According to Psychology Today, the studies mentioned in this paper measured their subjects’ social cognition based on their “ability to read other people’s emotions, to judge their beliefs and false beliefs, to take other people’s perspectives, and to guess the emotions people would experience in different situations.” Subjects were grouped into two to three categories: subjects who read fiction, subjects who read nonfiction, and subjects who weren’t given anything to read.

Although the effect was admittedly small, there was still a notable increase in people’s ability to read others after reading fiction.* It was enough, at least, for Dodell-Feder and the psychology community to call for further research – on the long-term effects of reading and on the habits readers develop over time.

With this study in mind, it seems important now more than ever to keep pushing for more diversity in what we write, read, and publish. If science has proven that fiction can help us understand each other, even just a little, then why not write and read fiction about people different from ourselves?




Alyssa Monera is an intern at Melville House.