Does Reading Make Us Better People? by Melissa Saryazdi

This book changed me. Most of us have heard or said that before. But can literature really change people? Science says yes.

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.
— Oscar Wilde

In 2013, PhD student David Comer Kidd and psychologist Emanuele Castano published their study on literature and Theory of Mind in Science, entitled Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.

Its findings sparked the interest of newspapers like The Guardian, The Atlantic and Scientific American, who declared that reading literary fiction improves empathy. But Theory of Mind is not a synonym for empathy; it is a broader term that defines our ability to understand that others have beliefs and desires that can be different from ours. Empathy is the ability to understand other people’s emotions.

Suddenly, literary fiction could be more than an art form. It could be a tool to better ourselves.

Lacking or struggling with Theory of Mind means that you’d have a harder time than others communicating with people and building relationships. For example, say you’ve asked your partner to do the laundry, but you come home to find out they haven’t – they might have a good reason, but you’d struggle to understand that. In short, lacking in Theory of Mind means, on a very simple level, to struggle in seeing “the other side” of things. That’s why it is crucial in our social development.

Kidd and Castano had various participants take a series of tests, hoping to demonstrate that literature could positively affect Theory of Mind. Before being tested, the participants read short extracts taken from either literary fiction, popular fiction, non-fiction, or nothing at all. They also took an Author Recognition test, where they pointed out authors they knew within a list of names, the idea being that this could differentiate those who didn’t read much from those who did.

Those who scored higher in both tests had better results in Theory of Mind tests than others, meaning that reading affects us on a much deeper level that we thought. Suddenly, literary fiction could be more than an art form. It could be a tool to better ourselves. 

Now, the media weren’t completely wrong in their reports, because reading can also influence empathy. P. Matthijs Bal and Martijn Veltkamp’s study How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation suggests that general fiction stimulates empathy, but only when the reader is transported by the text. The reader then experiences an absolute sleeper effect, which means that they only see the effects of reading over the course of a week, after they’ve reflected on what they’ve read and changes in empathy have sunk in.

Results from both studies have significant implications. The first is that this could bring about new modes of helping autistic children, as they tend to experience difficulties with Theory of Mind. In 1991, Carol Gray pioneered the use of social stories and comic strips conversations to help autistic children improve their Theory of Mind, and its success means that it is still ongoing today. Kidd and Castano’s findings could maybe be used to explore an additional approach to this topic, although more research is necessary to solidify their findings.

The second implication is for young people. If fiction can improve Theory of Mind and empathy, then promoting them could help children develop better social skills. Yet, despite the government promoting “reading for pleasure”, the Department for Education found that only two-fifths of young people read fiction outside of school in 2011, and the Publishers Association reported this year that the UK spends 23% less on fiction books than it did in 2012.

A loss of interest in reading fiction could be influenced by multiple factors, including shorter attention spans, no huge bestsellers, or even the appeal of series, which are faster to watch and maybe easier to understand. But if popular fiction doesn’t improve Theory of Mind, then series might not affect it either, considering they often share many of the same characteristics (predictable outcomes, stereotypical characters, re-used tropes.)

Still, not everything needs to have meaning, unless you want it to. The effects of literature on Theory of Mind are promising but need to be further explored, as do the effects on empathy. Reading has always been for pleasure and discovery, and forcing yourself to read to heighten your empathy seems counterproductive (Bal and Veltkamp say you must to be transported to see any effects, and force-reading is unlikely to achieve that.)

It seems that literature does have the potential to change people, though much still needs to be proven. In the meanwhile, let’s continue to read we we like, and remember that it will likely help us become better versions of who we are.