For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov
... Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel.
That is the conclusion of a study published Thursday in the journal Science. It found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.
Here's the title:
A Theory of Mind is what autistics lack. From Wikipedia:
Theory of mind (often abbreviated "ToM") is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one's own.
From the NYT:
The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.
... The researchers, social psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York City, recruited their subjects through that über-purveyor of reading material, Amazon.com. To find a broader pool of participants than the usual college students, they used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, where people sign up to earn money for completing small jobs.
People ranging in age from 18 to 75 were recruited for each of five experiments.
They were paid $2 or $3 each to read for a few minutes. Some were given excerpts from award-winning literary fiction (Don DeLillo, Wendell Berry). Others were given best sellers like Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” a Rosamunde Pilcher romance or a Robert Heinlein science fiction tale.
In one experiment, some participants were given nonfiction excerpts, but we’re not talking “All the President’s Men.” To maximize the contrast, the researchers — looking for nonfiction that was well-written, but not literary or about people — turned to Smithsonian Magazine. “How the Potato Changed the World” was one selection.
That's an excerpt from Charles C. Mann's 2011 book 1493, which I reviewed here.
After reading — or in some cases reading nothing — the participants took computerized tests that measure people’s ability to decode emotions or predict a person’s expectations or beliefs in a particular scenario. In one test, called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” subjects did just that: they studied 36 photographs of pairs of eyes and chose which of four adjectives best described the emotion each showed.
Is the woman with the smoky eyes aghast or doubtful? Is the man whose gaze has slivered to a squint suspicious or indecisive?
But psychologists and other experts said the new study was powerful because it suggested a direct effect — quantifiable by measuring how many right and wrong answers people got on the tests — from reading literature for only a few minutes.
“It’s a really important result,” said Nicholas Humphrey, an evolutionary psychologist who has written extensively about human intelligence, and who was not involved in the research. “That they would have subjects read for three to five minutes and that they would get these results is astonishing.”
An alternative explanation is that three to five minutes of Chekhov doesn't raise these capabilities meaningfully, it just primes people into making the effort to respond well on the test. Chekhov is such a striking reminder of how psychologically perceptive a member of the human race can be that he encourages you to up your game, at least for a little while.
(I think we need a Theory of Test, which would include the notion that modern people are pretty good at figuring out what testers want, and not bothering to expend energy on low stakes tests if that's not what the tester wants to hear. Much popular psychological research, such as stereotype threat, assumes that test-takers are more or less autistic in not noticing what the testers want to discover.)
On the other hand, when I last read a couple of Chekhov stories around 2009, I was exhausted by the time I finished the second. And then I didn't sleep well. I'm not in Chekhov's league. I, personally, like articles about the potato's effect on history.
Dr. Humphrey, an emeritus professor at Cambridge University’s Darwin College, said he would have expected that reading generally would make people more empathetic and understanding. “But to separate off literary fiction, and to demonstrate that it has different effects from the other forms of reading, is remarkable,” he said.
Is it "literary fiction" per se that matters? Does reading Borges make you less Aspergery than reading Gone With the Wind? If so, why?