Reading literary fiction and understanding other minds

from the Guardian:

Literary fiction by the likes of Salman Rushdie, Harper Lee and Toni Morrison helps improve readers’ understanding of other people’s emotions, according to new research – but genre writing, from authors including Danielle Steel and Clive Cussler, does not

The article discussed is [Kidd, D., & Castano, E. (2016, August 8). Different Stories: How Levels of Familiarity With Literary and Genre Fiction Relate to Mentalizing. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Advance online publication.

Here’s the abstract (my stress):

Our ability to infer and understand others’ thoughts and feelings, known as theory of mind (ToM), has important consequences across the life span, supporting empathy, pro-social behavior, and coordination in groups. Socialization practices and interpersonal interactions help develop this capacity, and so does engaging with fiction. Research suggests that lifetime exposure to fiction predicts performance on ToM tests, but little evidence speaks to the type of fiction most responsible for this effect. We draw from literary theory and empirical work to propose that literary fiction is more likely than genre fiction to foster ToM, describe the development of a new method for assessing exposure to literary and popular genre fiction, and report findings from 3 samples testing the specificity of the relation between exposure to literary fiction and ToM. Results indicate that exposure to literary but not genre fiction positively predicts performance on a test of ToM, even when accounting for demographic variables including age, gender, educational attainment, under-graduate major (in 2 samples), and self-reported empathy (in 1 sample). These findings offer further evidence that habitual engagement with others’ minds, even fictional ones, may improve the psychological processes supporting intersubjectivity. We discuss their implications for understanding the impacts of fiction, and for models of culture more generally.

The idea that human beings function with a theory of mind is actually problematic from several points of view. (1) Is our ability to have reasonable knowledge of what’s going on with others really a matter of having a theory? and (2) Is there only one such ability or perhaps several kinds of abilities here?  (3) Do some people lack the ability to understand others because they lack a theory of mind?  And so on.  So it is worth looking at what the authors say about the possession of a ToM in their experiments:

Theory of mind was assessed using the
Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET; Baron-Cohen et al.,
2001). Designed and validated as a measure of advanced ToM, the
RMET includes 36 trials in which black and white images of only
the eye regions of the faces of actors are shown. Participants
respond by selecting which of four complex emotion terms (e.g.,
contemplative, cautious, concerned, irritated) best matches the
emotion expressed in each image. Unlike many tests of ToM,
which have largely been designed for use with children or people
with social difficulties, the RMET is sufficiently difficult to reveal
variability among ordinary adult participants (Baron-Cohen et al.,
2001; Vellante et al., 2013). The RMET is also distinct from more
simple tests of emotion perception because the mental states depicted
are complex, often blending affective and cognitive features
(e.g., contemplative), and thus require advanced ToM in order to
be understood …

(You’ll find a version of the test here; you can get it scored.)


One question this passage raises is how reading about people increases our ability to assess what’s behind their eyes.  One theory about our mind-reading abilities has to do with our having the ability to put ourselves in other’s places.  How reading would enhance our ability to do this with pictures of eyes is unclear.  It is not impossible.  One  view is that we imitate others’ expressions, which causes emotions in us, and then we attribute these emotions to the people we are imitating.  The question remains, however, of how reading fits in here.  Perhaps in reading we also practice emotions we are reading about and so are just able to have a wider range of emotions to draw on.

Another question for me concerns what the effects of a diet of philosophical texts on one’s ability to understand others.  History, literature and presumably some social sciences will expand one’s understanding of others.  Is philosophy similarly beneficial?  Or are our classes more likely to produce emotional clods?

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Reading literary fiction and understanding other minds


    I found the test somewhat odd. I did not go back and do a complete calculation, but I did go back and ‘eyeball’ the apparent gender of the eyes and the terms listed below.

    My impression is that sexualized terms are used much more often for the “feminine eyes” (those with make-up, vs. “masculine eyes” those with no make-up) than they were for the male eyes. For example ‘desire’ is used once and it is used under “feminine eyes” (it is also the correct answer). ‘Fantasizing’ is used 3 times, two for “feminine eyes” (and both times it is the correct answer, while it is incorrect the one time it is used for “masculine eyes”). ‘Flirtatious’ is used twice, and it is gender balanced but it is the correct answer only when it is applied to “feminine eyes.”

    In addition decisive and strong words seem to be associated with “masculine eyes” in similar ways. For example, ‘insisting’ appears 4 times, it is gender balanced but only correct when applied to “masculine eyes.”

    As I said, this is by no means an analysis of all the terms, which were correct when applied to which set of gendered eyes, but my impression is that the terms seem gendered. So I wonder to what extent this is demonstrating ‘a theory of mind’ (which I agree is a problematic term) and to what extent it demonstrates an understanding of gender norms in North American society.

  2. Bakka, your scrutiny has yielded a very interesting account of the pictures and labels. It makes me wonder about the agreement they find. It also leads me to thinking that failing the test might not be a bad thing.

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