There’s that quote from To Kill a Mockingbird, that the best way to understand another person is to “climb into [their] skin and walk around in it.” This sounds a little Silence of the Lambs when taken out of context, so here is an alternate way of improving your capacity for empathy: Read more literary fiction.
Or so goes the argument recently put forth by a pair of researchers, who find that familiarity with literary fiction — in contrast to genre fiction (mystery, sci-fi, romance, and the like) — is associated with greater emotional intelligence. They tested this in a number of different ways, but here’s the gist of one experiment: Study volunteers read through a list of 130 names, 65 of which belonged to authors from a variety of genres. The volunteers’ task was to pick out the names of any authors they recognized on the list, and when they were done, the researchers tallied the number of literary fiction authors they’d correctly identified against the number of genre fiction authors. (They figured that knowing more authors in either category suggested that they read more of those books.) Afterward, everyone took a test that measures emotional intelligence — something sort of like this — and, in the end, the researchers found that the people who knew more literary fiction authors also tended to do better on the emotional intelligence tests. Put more simply: Reading literature helps you “read” people, too, they concluded.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, that’s likely because this is the second such study on emotional intelligence and literary fiction from this particular pair of psychologists. The publication of that first study, in the journal Science, made a big media splash in 2013, with headlines like, “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov.” It also attracted quite a bit of criticism from those who thought the conclusions were overreaching. As psychology writer Christian Jarrett reports at BPS Research Digest, it’s pretty clear that the researchers attempted to address those criticisms with their new paper. Whether or not they succeeded is a matter of opinion. But let’s return for a minute to that experiment recounted above: Isn’t it possible that most people would recognize the names of more pop fiction writers, simply because many of those writers are much more famous? Louise Erdrich is a treasure, but she does not exactly have the name recognition of a Tom Clancy or a Stephen King. If you recognize the names of Clancy and King, that doesn’t necessarily mean you read more of their books.
There is reason to be skeptical here, in other words. And yet this line of research is an encouraging one for those of us who spend an embarrassing portion of their income on new entrants in the literary-fiction genre, so, you know what — carry on.