A co-worker is having family issues at home and is inappropriately lashing out at his colleagues. Whether you see this person as a jerk or as someone who is stressed and having difficulty coping may depend on whether you are an avid fiction reader.
Research by psychology Professor Raymond Mar and colleagues suggests that reading fiction boosts social skills and empathy, while reading non-fiction does the opposite. “It may be that someone who reads a lot of narrative fiction may gain more insight into other people’s behaviour,” says Mar.
Right: Raymond Mar
In one study, Mar found that people who read a narrative fiction story from The New Yorker scored higher on tests involving social reasoning skills than those assigned a non-fiction essay from the same magazine. “It could be entirely possible that people who are socially awkward could become more socially adept from reading fiction, but it has yet to be empirically proven.”That is the next step for Mar, to empirically prove the link between reading narrative fiction and increased social abilities.
So, could reading fiction help a shy person become more extroverted? “I don’t think you’re going to find that it will make a shy person gregarious, but it’s quite possible they’re going to find the tools to be able to navigate social interactions better,” says Mar. “Or, it could be that social people enjoy reading fiction more.”
That’s one of the questions Mar and his colleagues were hoping to answer when they tried to replicate the social reasoning skills study in children ages four to six. Children of that age don’t have the same ability as an adult to determine their level of exposure to fiction. That study, as yet unpublished, found the positive correlation between reading and social skills in children also held true. “We are trying to prove there are social and cognitive aspects of reading fiction that are beneficial,” Mar says.
Left: Human brain
In a meta-analysis of neuroimaging data, it was demonstrated that social comprehension and narrative comprehension may rely upon similar processes. Mar says his work revolves around the hypothesis that when people are reading a fictional story or watching a film, they are experiencing a fictional social world that has ramifications in the real world.
Mar’s own love of reading is what fuelled his research into the area. “I’ve always been an ardent reader, especially when I was younger. When I was in my undergrad year, I became really interested in this feeling of being absorbed and really wrapped up in literature.” Despite the bad rap fictional literature has had over the years, Mar is determined to prove its worth. “Stories contain social information, and they require us to use social-cognitive processes in order to comprehend the characters within them.” Those stories can be in the form of movies, theatre or even television programs. He believes people are essentially social creatures and their fascination with literature comes from their interest in others.
Seeing bookworms as socially adept people, however, is counterintuitive to the way most people perceive them. Mar realizes his hypothesis may seem unlikely. Some of his colleagues believed his research would find people who liked to read a lot were socially awkward. In fact, Mar says the results seem to show the opposite. Frequent exposure to fiction had a positive correlation with social abilities. So far the research has shown no indication that fiction readers are socially withdrawn bookworms.
Armed with a three-year, $85,000 Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada grant, Mar is currently exploring the relationship between reading fiction and social abilities in more depth. He is looking at the causal mechanisms underlying this association and the degree to which it can be generalized to other contexts. The research will also try to answer how and why reading narrative fiction increases social skills and whether it communicates concrete social knowledge to readers.
Mar is using a variety of different approaches including social cognition, social neuroscience, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology and individual differences. The findings of his studies, he says, could be of interest to parents, teachers, social scientists and those interested in literature, film, theatre and other forms of narrative fiction.
One of the aspects Mar will be investigating is whether the improvements in social skills after reading narrative fiction are long term or short term and translate from the laboratory setting into real world situations. He will also explore whether all forms of narrative fiction produce the same results.
“If it can be demonstrated that reading narrative fiction directly influences social skills, we will have a powerful rationale for employing narrative in education, social development and also for treating mental health disorders that involve a deficit in empathy,” says Mar. “This is a pretty unique research project. We’re essentially looking at fiction in a way it has not been looked at before.”
By Sandra McLean, YFile writer