Nav: Home

Failed replication shows literary fiction doesn't boost social cognition

October 04, 2016

When a 2013 study published in Science concluded that reading literary fiction for as few as 20 minutes could improve someone's social abilities, it made quite the splash. However, when researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Pace University, Boston College and the University of Oklahoma tried to replicate the findings using the original study materials and methodology, the results didn't hold up.

"Reading a short piece of literary fiction does not seem to boost theory of mind," said Deena Weisberg, a senior fellow in Penn's psychology department in the School of Arts & Sciences, referring to the notion that describes a person's ability to understand the mental states of others. "Literary fiction did not do any better than popular fiction, expository non-fiction and not any better than reading nothing at all."

The research team published its results in a new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Initially, Weisberg and Pace's Thalia Goldstein wanted to repeat the original study, conducted at the New School for Social Research, to better understand how such a minimal intervention and a specific storytelling type alone could result in this response.

"Why would literary fiction be particularly good at doing this? Why not romance literature, which is primarily about relationships? Or why not something more absorbing?" Weisberg said. "Literature is harder to absorb. Those questions made me raise my eyebrows."

The pair followed the published study to the letter. They used the stories and materials from the original work, applying the same measures and design, including a theory-of-mind measure called the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, or RMET, in the hopes of drawing the same conclusion. They worked closely with New School researchers to ensure accuracy. Results in hand, they began speaking with other institutions, learning that BC and Oklahoma scientists had attempted -- and failed -- to replicate these results as well. They collaborated to put together the paper.

This particular outcome not only shines a light on problems with the conclusions drawn in one study but also reinforces a broader issue with which the field has been grappling.

"Psychology has been doing a lot of soul-searching lately," Weisberg said. "There's been a lot of attention to high-profile studies that show something of social importance. It would be amazing if we could put into place interventions on the basis of this study, but we really need to double check and not just rely on one lab, one study, before we go shouting from the rooftops."

Weisberg doesn't discount the idea that exposure to fiction could positively affect a person's social cognition. In fact, she and her collaborators additionally administered the Author Recognition Test, which measures lifetime exposure to all genres of fiction: From a list of 130 names -- some real authors, some foils -- participants were asked to select all real writers they knew with certainty. They were penalized for guessing and for incorrect answers. The researchers then tested for relations between this measure and social cognition, once again using the RMET, which offers an image of eyes and asks participants to choose the best description of the emotion the eyes convey.

In this case, they noted a strong relationship: The more authors participants knew, the better they scored on the social cognition measure.

"One brief exposure to fiction won't have an effect, but perhaps a protracted engagement with fictional stories such that you boost your skills, perhaps that could," Weisberg said. "It's also possible the causality is the other way around: It could be people who are already good at theory of mind read a lot. They like engaging in stories with people."

The next phase of research entails looking in more detail at other variables. Does literary fiction improve social abilities for some people but not others? Perhaps other kinds of fiction work? What personality traits make someone more likely to feel the effect?

Part of the original study's appeal came from its defense of reading literature. It's possible such a link will one day be demonstrated, but, for now, writers will continue to stand on their own merits, and psychology will continue answering questions about what works best to engage our social-cognitive abilities.
-end-


University of Pennsylvania

Related Reading Articles:

Here's how you help kids crack the reading code
Some children learn to read early. Others need more time.
Cerebral reperfusion of reading network predicts recovery of reading ability after stroke
'Our findings support the utility of cerebral perfusion as a biomarker for recovery after stroke,' said Dr.
A lack of background knowledge can hinder reading comprehension
The purpose of going to school is to learn, but students may find certain topics difficult to understand if they don't have the necessary background knowledge.
A map of the brain can tell what you're reading
UC Berkeley neuroscientists have created interactive maps that can predict where different categories of words activate the brain.
Questions during shared book reading with preschoolers need to be more challenging
When it comes to challenging young minds to grow language, asking how and why during shared book reading to preschoolers can be more beneficial, according to new research at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).
Intellectual curiosity and confidence help children take on math and reading
Children's personalities may influence how they perform in math and reading, according to a study by psychology researchers at The University of Texas at Austin.
Reading between the lines: Are we as savvy as we'd like to think when it comes to reviews?
New research suggests we are willing to blindly trust hotel reviews when they conform to our preconceived ideas.
Teenagers have a hard time reading one another's tones of voice
Newly published research in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior shows that the ability to understand what someone is feeling based on their tone of voice can be challenging in mid-adolescence (between 13-15 year olds), particularly when it comes to tones of voice which express anger, meanness, disgust, or happiness.
Kids connect with robot reading partners
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have built a robot, named Minnie, to serve as a reading buddy to middle school kids, and Minnie's new friends grew more excited about books and more attached to the robot over two weeks of reading together.
Beyond the 'Reading Wars': How the science of reading can improve literacy
A new scientific report from an international team of psychological researchers aims to resolve the so-called 'reading wars,' emphasizing the importance of teaching phonics in establishing fundamental reading skills in early childhood.
More Reading News and Reading Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Risk
Why do we revere risk-takers, even when their actions terrify us? Why are some better at taking risks than others? This hour, TED speakers explore the alluring, dangerous, and calculated sides of risk. Guests include professional rock climber Alex Honnold, economist Mariana Mazzucato, psychology researcher Kashfia Rahman, structural engineer and bridge designer Ian Firth, and risk intelligence expert Dylan Evans.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#541 Wayfinding
These days when we want to know where we are or how to get where we want to go, most of us will pull out a smart phone with a built-in GPS and map app. Some of us old timers might still use an old school paper map from time to time. But we didn't always used to lean so heavily on maps and technology, and in some remote places of the world some people still navigate and wayfind their way without the aid of these tools... and in some cases do better without them. This week, host Rachelle Saunders...
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dolly Parton's America: Neon Moss
Today on Radiolab, we're bringing you the fourth episode of Jad's special series, Dolly Parton's America. In this episode, Jad goes back up the mountain to visit Dolly's actual Tennessee mountain home, where she tells stories about her first trips out of the holler. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad's first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.