science of us

Reading Fiction Makes You a Little Nicer

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStoc/Getty Images

My middle school had a program called AIR (I don’t know what that stands for) in which students were awarded points for every book we read — or, I should say, for every book for which they passed the corresponding trivia quiz. Not that I, or anyone, ever took a quiz for a book they didn’t read. But shorter, easier books were worth fewer points, while harder, longer books were worth more, and more points meant better trade-in prizes. The Mists of Avalon, for instance, was, like, 100 points, but it was also 876 pages long. So I wouldn’t be shocked if someone read 20 pages plus the Cliff Notes because they really wanted the giant novelty pencil from the prize catalogue. Not that it mattered, because certain seventh grade teachers were pretty negligent with the prize collection forms, and certain bloggers never even received what they only halfway-earned. I guess you could argue that the real prize was all the literature we consumed along the way — and, according to an analysis of studies examining the effects of reading fiction on social behavior, we’re probably a little nicer for it, too.

Whether (and how) reading fiction changes one’s brain is a weirdly controversial subject, so the meta-analysis’s authors — led by David Dodell-Feder, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester — sought to evaluate previous research in this area. The news should provide some comfort for the floundering fiction publishing industry: upon analyzing 14 previous studies on this subject, Dodell-Feder concluded that, compared to reading nonfiction, or not reading at all, reading fiction produced a “small, statistically significant improvement in social-cognitive performance,” a finding they call “robust.”

A number of the previous experiments examined were designed differently — some asked subjects to self-report on their empathy after reading a passage of fiction, while others attempted to measure it with an empathy-related task. Differences like these, and others, might account for differences in earlier studies’ conclusions. Still, Dodell-Feder and his co-authors argue that, in sum, the evidence for fiction’s effect on social cognition is there.

The authors also note that the reason the improvement measured is so small may be due to the short-term nature of the experiments; even the best book probably can’t change your cognition much in an hour. But if you continue to read fiction, the authors argue, these effects will very likely compound over time. It’s no giant novelty pencil, perhaps, but it’s something.

Reading Fiction Makes You a Little Nicer