Wednesday, August 15, 2007

You Complete Me, and You Read

I've been trying to write about writers and booze, and why the two seem to love each other. You wouldn't believe all the studies and theories and experiments around this topic, including one that involved putting writers on a diet of whiskey and gin.

But there have also been quizzical studies like the one below, which suggests that fiction-readers are more socially able and empathetic than nonfiction-readers, and that nonfiction-readers may even be uniquely disadvantaged in this way.

I know plenty of nonfiction readers who would disagree. But doesn't it make sense?

"A study published in the Journal of Research in Personality and led by Raymond Mar, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Toronto, found that people who read narrative fiction often have improved social abilities, while for those who read non-fiction, the opposite holds true.

"All stories are about people and their interactions -- romance, tragedy, conflict," says Mar. "Stories often force us to empathize with characters who are quite different from us, and this ability could help us better understand the many kinds of people we come across in the real world."

...The participants were asked to identify fiction and non-fiction authors from a long list of names (which included non-authors). Research has shown that the more authors a person identifies, the more the person reads.

They were then tested on measures of social awareness and empathy (such as recognizing a person's emotions from seeing only a picture of the person's eyes). The study found that:

  • People who frequently read narrative fiction scored higher on tests of both empathy (the ability to understand and identify with another person's feelings) and social acumen (the ability to make quick judgments of people and situations).

  • Frequent reading of non-fiction was associated with poorer empathy and social acumen.

A follow-up study found similar results. Those who read a short story from the New Yorker performed better on a social-reasoning task that followed than those who read an essay.

"In general, fiction print-exposure positively predicted measures of social ability, while non-fiction print-exposure was a negative predictor. The tendency to become absorbed in a story also predicted empathy scores," the researchers wrote.

Read the whole thing!

~Sonya Larson


Daniel said...

Whoa crazy!

The Writers' Group said...

That explains a lot. Very insightful, Sonya!


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