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Those Who Read Fiction Better at Reading People

"Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren't."
-- Author Julian Barnes

If you've ever longed for the solace of the novel on your nightstand or found yourself thinking about its characters long after the book was closed, you will likely relate to a new study that lends credence to the, previously unstated, feelings that reading fiction evokes.


People who read fiction are more empathetic and able to judge people and social situations than people who read non-fiction.

A study published in the Journal of Research in Personality and led by Raymond Mar, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Toronto, found that people who read narrative fiction often have improved social abilities, while for those who read non-fiction, the opposite holds true.

"All stories are about people and their interactions -- romance, tragedy, conflict," says Mar. "Stories often force us to empathize with characters who are quite different from us, and this ability could help us better understand the many kinds of people we come across in the real world."

Fiction Readers Score Higher on Tests of Empathy

Because people sometimes exaggerate their actual reading on surveys, Mar and colleagues used a different method to determine how much their 94 participants really read.

The participants were asked to identify fiction and non-fiction authors from a long list of names (which included non-authors). Research has shown that the more authors a person identifies, the more the person reads.

They were then tested on measures of social awareness and empathy (such as recognizing a person's emotions from seeing only a picture of the person's eyes). The study found that:

  • People who frequently read narrative fiction scored higher on tests of both empathy (the ability to understand and identify with another person's feelings) and social acumen (the ability to make quick judgments of people and situations).

  • Frequent reading of non-fiction was associated with poorer empathy and social acumen.

A follow-up study found similar results. Those who read a short story from the New Yorker performed better on a social-reasoning task that followed than those who read an essay.

"In general, fiction print-exposure positively predicted measures of social ability, while non-fiction print-exposure was a negative predictor. The tendency to become absorbed in a story also predicted empathy scores," the researchers wrote.

Why is Fiction Reading Good for Social Awareness?

The researchers developed two theories to explain why reading fiction may be good for social skills. First, it exposes people to examples of the way people behave socially. Second, fiction readers practice inferring people's intentions and closely watching their relationships.

However, non-fiction readers, the authors say, "fail to simulate such experiences, and may accrue a social deficit in social skills as a result of removing themselves from the actual social world."

While a direct cause-and-effect relationship remains to be established, Mar is optimistic:

"Should future work determine that fiction-reading interventions yield improvements in empathy, stories could prove a powerful tool for educating both children and adults about understanding others, an important skill currently under-stressed in most educational settings. If it proves to be the case that the causality of this relation is reversed -- that being more empathetic predisposes people toward reading fiction -- we will still have learned something interesting about fiction, and about empathic personality."

More Reasons to Read

Other studies have also found reading (of all kinds) to be beneficial for a host of reasons, including:

  • Stress relief

  • More success

  • Support for your mental health

If you're still looking for a reason to read, be sure to check out our past article: Want to Live Longer? Be Wealthier? And Happier? Here is the One PROVEN Secret: Reading!

Top 5 Novels of 2006

The Road -- Cormac McCarthy

1. The Road
      Cormac McCarthy

Described as a rich, brutal "post-apocalyptic masterpiece," "The Road" is written in beautiful prose that follows a father and son on the ultimate journey of survival, hope and humanity.

The Children's Hospital

2. The Children's Hospital
      Chris Adrian

An epic tale of the sole survivors after the earth is covered in seven miles of water -- those aboard the Children's Hospital, a working medical facility and ark. Magical, mesmerizing and full of heartfelt emotion.

Moral Disorder

3. Moral Disorder
      Margaret Atwood

A series of poignant, intelligent and deeply personal stories make up this novel, which follows a Canadian family from the 1930s to present-day, from large cities, to suburbs, to Northern forests and a farm.

The Dead Hour

4. The Dead Hour
      Denise Mina

A sequel to "The Field of Blood," "The Dead Hour" is a crime thriller of suicide, murder, violence, and greed.

The Last Town on Earth

5. The Last Town on Earth
      Thomas Mullen

Set during the 1918 flu epidemic, a small mill town in the Pacific Northwest decides to quarantine itself, placing guards at its only access road. "The Last Town on Earth" is a remarkably moving story of morality as an ill soldier shows up at the town and begs for sanctuary.

Recommended Reading

How (and Why) to Teach Kids to Care: What Amazing New Studies Suggest

Who is Better at Revenge, Men or Women?


Journal of Research in Personality, Volume 40, Issue 5, October 2006, Pages 694-712

Psychology Today Magazine Nov/Dec 2006

BPS Research Digest

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