The Hard Facts: Fiction Readers Have More Social Skills

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“Over the past decade, academic researchers…from York University have gathered data indicating that fiction-reading activates neuronal pathways in the brain that measurably help the reader better understand real human emotion — improving his or her overall social skillfulness.” (The Business Case for Reading Novels“; Harvard Business Review Blog Network, 1/12/2012)

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone (almost always a man) tell me that he doesn’t read fiction because he “can’t justify reading about something that didn’t happen.” Escaping into a novel feels like a luxurious indulgence, apparently, while reading non-fiction seems more educational and purposeful. Non-fiction, so the argument goes, will make you smarter, and that’s not necessarily the case for stories that are—gasp!—made up.

Despite being a writer of non-fiction, I love novels. I relish being transported into a world completely different than my own, and great fiction changes the way I look at the world. When I get lost in a book, I feel a shift in the way my brain interacts with my surroundings and processes my daily experiences, even when I’m not engaged in the act of reading. The stories stay with me.

This research (sent to me by one of my fabulous book club friends!) proves what shouldn’t really need proving: reading fiction has practical benefits. It creates empathy, which in turn improves social skills.

In one of Oatley and Mar’s studies in 2006, 94 subjects were asked to guess the emotional state of a person from a photograph of their eyes. “The more fiction people [had] read,” they discovered, “the better they were at perceiving emotion in the eyes, and…correctly interpreting social cues.” In 2009, wondering, as Oatley put it, if “devouring novels might be a result, not a cause, of having a strong theory of mind,” they expanded the scope of their research, testing 252 adults on the “Big Five” personality traits — extraversion, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness — and correlated those results with how much time the subjects generally spent reading fiction. Once again, they discovered “a significant relation between the amount of fiction people read and their empathic and theory-of-mind abilities” allowing them to conclude that it was reading fiction that improved the subjects’ social skills, not that those with already high interpersonal skills tended to read more.

“Theory of mind” is the ability to interpret and respond to those different from us, a pretty vital skill for anyone looking to make new friends or, I don’t know, exist in the world.

So the next time someone mentions to you that it’s silly to read fiction, enlighten him on the practical applications of a night with The Art of Fielding or Room or even The Hunger Games.  Is there a specific book that helped you empathize with those who are different from you? Or changed the way you see the world?

Want to meet me for dinner? GrubWithUs is hosting an MWF Seeking BFF fan dinner in Chicago next Wednesday, June 13 at 7:30. For $22, you’ll get to try a new restaurant (Costa Rican food!), share a hearty family-style meal, and meet me and other potential new BFFs. Sign up now — I’d love to Grub with you! (Read all about my first awesome GrubWithUs experience to see what you’re in for.)


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14 responses to “The Hard Facts: Fiction Readers Have More Social Skills

  1. Awesome post! I read lots of fiction growing up, what a relief to know it was actually helpful! Now me craves some Danielle Steele again. Yes, yes, I know, cheezy, but so romantic. 😀 And ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card was totally amazing.


  2. I totally love young adult books about female friendship. I love the Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter and also the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares. And in Sisterhood Everlasting they are actually more like 30 years old.

  3. This is interesting. I guess it makes sense that there would be a correlation between reading fiction and personality traits and emotion. However, based on the description of the studies in the HBR article you cite, neither of them help to determine whether fiction reading is the cause or the effect.
    But the HBR article didn’t describe the design of the 2009 study accurately. According to the study’s abstract, the researchers didn’t correlate “how much time the subjects generally spent reading fiction” with personality traits. They actually conducted an experiment. They assigned (hopefully randomly) some of the study subjects to read a short story and the other subjects to read the same details in documentary form. They gave the subjects a personality self-assessment before and after the reading and apparently found more change on the personality self-assessment for the people assigned to read the short story. I’m not sure why we should expect personality traits to be so changeable (I find it hard to believe I could become measurably less introverted by reading one short story), but the results are sort of interesting.
    I would be curious to see the results of a study designed to test whether increasing the amount of fiction read actually improves people’s social skills (as opposed to people’s self-assessments of their personality traits).

  4. Finally, someone who admits that reading and having a healthy social life can go hand in hand 🙂

    You don’t know how this research will encourage fiction writers like myself to write their stories and share them with the world. Not only that, but also that reading fiction brings people together. And I’m with you on not understanding those who only read “non fiction.” Do they not know that many films and shows are written as fiction? How about children books? Bedtime stories? Games even!

    Stories stay with us our entire life, real or fiction. Stories are stories. The best stories are from God of course, from the Torahs, Bible and Quran.

    I think real stories nowadays can also have the same effect as fictional stories if they were written more poetically. Some stories that impressed themselves on my mind so far which I remember from time to time till this day are the novels: The Great Gatsby and Never Let Me Go, by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Kazuo Ishiguro, respectively.

    From short stories, I’d have to say The Yellow Wallpaper, and The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Incredible stories!

    It is a great relief to know that my writing can add love into the world.
    Thank you for the inspiration.

    Love & Peace,

  5. Thank you for posting this. Now I have another answer to my students’ constant, “Why do we have to read this?” question.

    This also explains why men who read fiction are so much sexier than men who don’t. 😉

  6. I’d love to have dinner with you – if only Chicago & Edmonton were a little closer together! I really miss my monthly Dinner Club.

  7. OhYeah

    I convinced my oh-so-logical sister to read the ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ years ago. Her comment afterward was ‘What makes people think that they can’t learn something from fiction?’
    My favorite part is when August says she painted their house the tackiest caribbean pink color because it made May feel like dancing, and “Some things in life, like the color of a house, don’t really matter. But lifting someone’s heart? Now, that matters.” Beautiful!
    Btw, does anyone have any recommendations for friend-finding events in San Francisco? I’ll be moving there in a few months 🙂

  8. Tina

    Interesting! I am a huge non-fiction reader (mostly memoirs, true crime and coming-of-age) and cookbooks.

    I used to read a lot more fiction. When I was in high school I read, ‘Before Women Had Wings’ by Connie May Fowler. That was an amazing read.

  9. This is really not surprising at all. Fiction is a bit of escapism… losing oneself in another time, another place, identifying with a character… a bit of wish-fulfillment… all of this moves the reader into ever-spreading circles, engaging with others in ways that those pseudo-intellects who look at fiction the way a Puritan would view pornography can never hope to.

    Camus may feed the intellect, but Hemingway, Austen, Rowling, King, et. al feed the soul. Reading fiction opens the mind to possibilities and frees the imagination. Who wouldn’t want to share that… to be a part of that?

    My reading is probably about 25 or 30 percent non-fiction and the rest fiction.

    Thank you for sharing this. I am going to reblog it on my page.

  10. Reblogged this on Veronica The Pajama Thief and commented:
    Yes, world… you must read more fiction. And I don’t just say that because I write fiction. 🙂

  11. Reblogged this on Feisty Red Hair and commented:
    Not that I need a reason for reading all the novels I do, but it’s still interesting to know there are added benefits beyond the imagination, excitement, travel, gripping plots, mental challenges, and adventure that fiction provides.

  12. On the subject of which book changed the way I see the world, only one comes to mind. And it isn’t a book, it’s a character: Sherlock Holmes! Conan Doyle was a genius! Ok, not exactly the best example of a character with superb social skills thereby helping justify the study you mentioned, but Sherlock Holmes taught me to keep my eyes open!

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