Reading literary versus popular fiction promotes different socio-cognitive processes, study suggests

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From PsyPost:

A study published in PLOS One suggests that the type of fiction a person reads affects their social cognition in different ways. Specifically, literary fiction was associated with increased attributional complexity and accuracy in predicting social attitudes, while popular fiction was linked to increased egocentric bias.

“We learn a lot about ourselves, interpersonal relations, how institutions work, etc., from fiction. In other words, fiction impacts what we think about the world. But in my research, I am interested in the ways in which fiction shapes how we think,” explained study author Emanuele Castano of the University of Trento and the National Research Council in Italy.

. . . .

“We distinguished between literary (e.g. Don Delillo, Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munroe) and popular fiction (e.g. Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Jackie Collins), and showed that it is by reading literary fiction that you enhance your mindreading abilities — you are better at inferring and representing what other people think, feel, their intentions, etc.”

Link to the rest at PsyPost

PG wonders, at least in the current (and likely post-election) political environment in the US, if more mindreading purporting to discover other people’s (perhaps hidden) thoughts and motives is a good idea or not.

17 thoughts on “Reading literary versus popular fiction promotes different socio-cognitive processes, study suggests”

  1. Okay, here’s the thing; cognitive behavioural therapist professional hat on…

    Mind reading is one of those psychological processes that arise from the human condition and the need for an awareness of social cues from a wide range of stimuli: facial expression, tone of voice, behaviours etc.

    It’s also the driving force that fuels anxiety and depression.

    So with that in mind, as a therapist I would often teach clients to challenge their mind reading assumptions, because invariably mind reading is projection (useful when it’s useful, but not useful if not challenged) and should be subject to testing ones assumptions.

    Invariably, when tested, mind reading can be proven to be wrong more often than it is right.

    Don’t do it. Instead ask the other person what’s on their mind; still subject to false answers, but much more reliable than mind reading.

    • Thanks for the additional clarity on the subject, A., and your recommended solution to attempting to read someone else’s mind.

    • I think there’s a large cultural component to mind reading. I have a close Chinese friend (who grow up there) who has no clue about what I’m thinking (or other Americans as far as I can tell), but has a much better clue about what other Chinese people are thinking.

    • Excellent comment, Ashley!

      But – from my behavioral observations of many, many people over the years, I have come to two conclusions, to whit:

      1) That it is much easier to just KNOW what people NEED than to try to figure out what they WANT.

      2) That the vast majority of people reach for their Easy Button every time.

  2. If it makes you such a great ‘mind reader’ you would think that the Literary crowd would understand why they hold such a narrow niche in the beloved reading habits of the populace. It’s right up there with duct-taping a banana to a wall and calling it art but deriding the mere masses, the great unwashed who are not part of the ‘art world’, for not seeing it as such.

    Everything has its place and its audience and I dream of a day when people stop assuming that because you don’t subscribe to ‘their’ passion you must be less than them, a mere Philistine.

  3. Specifically, literary fiction was associated with increased attributional complexity and accuracy in predicting social attitudes, while popular fiction was linked to increased egocentric bias.

    Make you wonder how the literary crowd so badly misread the social attitudes in 2016.

  4. Loose translation: ‘You should read literary fiction because it’s good for you. We’ve given up pretending that anyone is going to enjoy it.’

  5. Given psychological research’s replication crisis, I’m not inclined to trust these results unless and until they’ve been replicated. Of course, this is not just a problem with psychology, scepticism is required across a broad range of subjects (and in particular of old but celebrated research results).

    The methodology as described – of course the description may not be accurate – classifies the experimental subjects by “… scores based on how many literary fiction versus popular fiction authors they recognized”. In the very small sample of authors of both types that were mentioned, I recognised all the names but have read none of them. The problem may be in the published description of the experiment – it’s hard to believe that the experimenters do not know that recognition is not equivalent to having read – but on the face of it the headline should be “Recognising literary versus popular fiction authors promotes different socio-cognitive processes”.

    It would also be interesting to know more about the subjects’ reading habits. A random selection of adults would include a lot of people who read so little fiction that it is unlikely to have any impact on their cognitive processes.

  6. I have never accomplished anything in my life, but I read books about depressed college professors moving scrambled eggs around their plate. That makes me better than all the rest.

  7. Someone else picked up on that article and posted a different bit – this: , engaging with literary fiction is thought to be active; it asks readers to search for meaning and produce their own perspectives and involves complex characters. Popular fiction, on the other hand, is passive; it provides meaning for the readers and is more concerned with plot than characters.

    Which prompted me to reply – See fans. Listen to fans. pay attention to what fans talk about regarding whatever they are fans of. THAT is active engagement. What has fans is popular. Therefore popular books are result in more active reading and overall engagement. QED.

    • A genuine question: does literary fiction generate fan fiction?

      I’ve always thought that fan fiction is the ultimate expression of reader involvement but have assumed that it is only a genre thing. I know that Jane Austen fan fiction is a whole industry (it’s public domain so you can put it up on Amazon and charge for it) but Jane Austen is not literary fiction.

      • Oooh, I’m not touching that one. 😉

        (What’s your idea of literary? Shakespeare, perhaps? Cervantes? Fielding?)

        • Well, by modern academic standards, she’s probably not – after all, she’s fun to read, and was popular, too! And let’s add RLS, Kipling, Waugh, Dickens, etc. (Now there are some classic authors I’d put on the unreadable litfic list, such as Thomas Hardy).

        • No need to avoid touching things! The worst that can happen is some on-line derision, and my generation at least grew up with “sticks and stones can break your bones but words will never hurt me!” (Though in the age of safe spaces this is probably politically incorrect?)

          I’m not sure that “literary” does not change meaning when combined into “literary fiction”. Shakespeare, for example is clearly literary but not lit-fic (though some find his work annoying because it’s full of clichés).

          However, to pick up on some of TonyT’s examples, RLS wrote adventure stories, Kipling’s best novel is a spy story, Dickens was pretty much a pulp writer before the rise of the pulps and Jane Austen wrote romances (well Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility and Persuasion are romances and that’s almost half her output), so in my eyes all definitely not lit-fic.

          • Still not saying what litfic *is*, you know.

            (The quicksand pit is just a few feet to your right, btw.) 😀

    • There are plenty of genre books that invite (and even demand) active thought; not just of the “what just happened?” but about meaning, consequence, application to the real world.
      Anybody who thinks popular fiction is just passive “in one ear out the other” fodder is simply looking at the wrong stories.

      Just as anybody who thinks all superhero videos are mindless light shows is watching the wrong ones, say ANTMAN, instead of MAN OF STEEL or HBOMAX WATCHMEN.

      It is not only possible but common to find popular fiction that is both fun and engaging and also thought-provoking. If anything, it is a failing of their idea of litfic that their stories believe the latter precludes the former.

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