Reading Literary Fiction Increases “Theory of Mind” Empathic Insight

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka opined that people should read literature as “an axe to break the frozen sea inside us.”

David Comer Kidd-Emanuele Castano

David Comer Kidd-Emanuele Castano

New School for Social Research’s Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd showed the effectiveness of Kafka’s recommendation:  Reading award-winning literary fiction increased emotional intelligence, social perception, and empathy, known as Theory of Mind (ToM) abilities.

Theory of Mind (ToM) skills enable people to recognize and infer mental states like emotions, attitudes, concerns, and beliefs, and to understand that other people may have different beliefs, wishes, and goals.

In contrast, people with autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, neurotoxicity due to alcohol abuse, can experience ToM deficits.

Castano and Kidd asked volunteers ages 18 to 75 to read:

  • Commercial fiction or
  • Literary non-fiction or
  • Factual non-fiction or
  • Nothing

Next, they asked participants to describe their own emotional states, or people’s emotions from photographs of their eyes.

Those who read literary fiction more accurately judge others’ emotions, a measure of emotional intelligence, social perception, and empathy.
Results demonstrated that literary fiction, which requires making inferences about characters, their emotions, relationships, and motivations, triggered this increased social insight.

Simon Baron-Cohen

Simon Baron-Cohen

Examples of tests to assess these skills are summarized by Simon Baron-Cohen, an expert on autism, and cousin of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, along with the New School Researchers.

P. Matthijs Bal

P. Matthijs Bal

Vrije Universiteit‘s P. Matthijs Bal and Martijn Veltkamp of FrieslandCampina differentiated “transporting” fiction that “emotionally transported the reader into the story” with fiction that did not.

Martijn Veltkamp

Martijn Veltkamp

Bal and Veltkamp found that reading “transporting” fiction increases the reader’s empathic capabilities, but not fiction that lacks “transporting” qualities.

-*Which works of literary fiction have influenced your attitudes and empathic attunement with others?

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3 thoughts on “Reading Literary Fiction Increases “Theory of Mind” Empathic Insight

  1. Pingback: Emotional Awareness Enables Focus, Risk-taking Even When “Stressed” | Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary

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  3. Pingback: Stress Increases Women’s Performance and Empathic Attunement, but not Men’s | Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary

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