Literature is good for you, at least in some ways. Author and psychologist Keith Oatley lists his three main findings on the impact of literature on readers:
- Fiction improves social skills and Theory-of-Mind
- Fiction increases empathy for others and tolerance of other viewpoints
- Fiction gradually alters personality traits, usually toward Openness
1. Fiction improves social skills and Theory-of-Mind
Theory-of-Mind (ToM) is the ability to attribute alternate mental states to others. Human children usually develop this ability around the age of 4. At this point, they can correctly solve the following puzzle:
Max puts his chocolate bar in the cupboard and then goes to school. While he’s in school, Max’s mother moves the chocolate bar from the cupboard to the kitchen table. When Max gets home from school, where will he look for the chocolate bar?
Until the age of four, children answer that Max will look for the chocolate bar on the kitchen table. These kids haven’t reached a stage in their development where they can conceive of Max as having different beliefs about the world than they have.
Children giving the incorrect answer to the Max puzzle will have a tough time following the plot lines of narrative fiction. Fiction forces us to consider the motives, desires, and feelings of many characters as they interact with one another. Readers and viewers of narrative fiction also must use their knowledge of character traits and situations to forecast future events. Without understanding what is at stake for the various characters, narrative fiction loses a lot of its appeal and meaning.
In reading, people mentally simulate stories in their heads and create a situation model, which is to say, a mental representation of what they’re reading about. Zwaan tells us that read words automatically activate neural responses in the brain of the reader that are analogous to the would-be activated neural responses in the brain of the person actually performing the described actions.
This close relation between narrative comprehension and experiential mental representation explains the impact of reading fiction on our social ability. In a study comparing the effects of reading fiction and non-fiction on social skills, it was found that reading fiction is helpful for both social ability and feelings of social support in ways that reading non-fiction is not. This can be explained by the fact that fiction requires us to enter the minds of other people and make sense of their insecurities, motivations, habits, hopes, and fears.
2. Fiction increases empathy for others and tolerance of other viewpoints
The ability to make sense of alternate viewpoints is not just useful for social interactions. It also helps us empathize with those that we might otherwise have written off as “crazy,” “stupid,” “evil,” or “sub-human.” In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker even partially credits the explosion of literature for the Humanitarian Revolution.
Whereas in previous times, people had no method of understanding alternate viewpoints other than by comparing their actions and beliefs to one’s own beliefs and cultural norms, literature gave people access to a diversity of cultures, upbringings, social situations, emotional situations, and viewpoints. Often these depictions did not just give people access to foreign situations, but also gave insight into how these situations inform the beliefs and behaviours of the people inside of them. In portraying a wider range of humans as morally and intellectually competent, literature fueled an expansion of the ethical sphere of equal consideration.
One could also view this development as a taming of a particular cognitive bias called the fundamental attribution error (or correspondence bias). People commit the fundamental attribution error when they attribute the behaviour of others to their personalities, rather than to their situations.
As Eliezer Yudkowsky explains, “When we see someone else kick a vending machine for no visible reason, we assume they are "an angry person". But when you yourself kick the vending machine, it's because the bus was late, the train was early, your report is overdue, and now the damned vending machine has eaten your lunch money for the second day in a row. Surely, you think to yourself, anyone would kick the vending machine, in that situation.”
Narrative fiction lets us see the situations people are in when they make the decisions that they do. It therefore makes us less likely to commit the fundamental attribution error.
3. Fiction gradually alters personality traits
Narrative fiction possesses the potential to change people’s attitudes and personalities, but usually only a little at a time. When asked to take a personality test before and after reading either a non-fiction report or Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog,” those who read the short story showed more personality change. The ways in which people changed were unpredictable, however. Narrative fiction reliably changes attitudes but everyone’s attitudes are changed in different ways. Oatley speculates that although a single artwork’s influences are probably only temporary, that a repeated engagement with fiction probably has replicable effects on reader attitudes, such as increased openness to experience.
Fiction also has some potential to affect ethical, political, and philosophical attitudes. Mulligan and Habel documented audience reactions to the popular film The Cider House Rules. The movie follows a victim of incest that wants an abortion but faces external pressure not to get one. The moral of the film seems to relate to the idea of using gut feelings to solve moral dilemmas. The experimenters tested four possibilities: (1) the film’s effects on views on abortion, (2) the film’s effects on abortion in the case of incest, (3) the film’s effects on core ethical views, and (4) the film’s effects on the belief in handling ethical dilemmas by following one’s conscience. They found that the film did manage to affect beliefs (2) and (4) but was unable to affect beliefs (1) and (3). They also found that viewers of the fictional film Wag the Dog were more likely afterward to suspect the American government of constructing a fictional war for political gain. Mulligan and Habel explain these findings with their theory of “fictional framing,” which assumes that the way in which fictional narratives frame issues will affect viewers’ beliefs on these issues. The phenomenon of frame-affected judgments is already well understood in the context of the heuristics and biases literature.
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Much of the work on the psychology of narrative fiction originates with Oatley. He is currently retired but he is succeeded by his student, Raymond Mar, who started The Mar Lab, a research group focusing on how people engage with narrative fiction and how narrative fiction in turn affects them. Maja Djikic is another notable member of the Mar Lab that has worked extensively with Oatley and Mar.
Their work supports the view that fiction affects people in ways that matter. I think this knowledge should be used to try to optimize artistic output according to its effects on society. This is a logical consequence of libertarian paternalism. In an email exchange, Oatley informed me that he was against this idea due to the possibility of messing things up by trying to impose one viewpoint on the rest of society.
“Much more important, I think, is to enable a social influence that enables people to change in their own way. I think this is one of the functions of art.”
Allowing people to change in their own ways is A Good Thing. It is just one reason why art is valuable. But much of Oatley and The Mar Lab’s work on the psychology of narrative fiction tells us how fiction at large affects people, why having narrative fiction is better than having no narrative fiction. It doesn’t tell us how individual works of art affect people, and which kinds of works of art affect people in better ways than others. Without this knowledge, our use of art is bound to be highly sub-optimal. This bothers me more than it does Oatley.