Does reading romance novels make you socially awkward?

October 5, 2013


Does reading romance novels make you socially awkward?  As someone who reads hundreds of romance novels a year, I surely hope not.  I like to think that my interest in interpersonal relationships translates from paper to the real world.  Yet again, science is attempting to prove my cockamamie ideas wrong.  Damn you, science.

Researchers at the New School for Social Research in New York have published a study with the following abstract:
Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Yet little research has investigated what fosters this skill, which is known as Theory of Mind (ToM), in adults. We present five experiments showing that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of [ToM] compared with reading nonfiction, popular fiction, or nothing at all. Specifically, these results show that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM.
How did the researchers distinguish between literary fiction and popular fiction?  As a rule of thumb, they state that popular fiction tends to be plot-driven with clearly defined heroes and villains.  In an interview with NPR, co-author Emmanuele Castano says,
"You open a book of what we call popular fiction and you know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy."
Literary fiction focuses on the inner, psychological lives of characters who do not exist in a morally black-and-white world.  Literary fiction is less definitive; its characters have ambiguous motives that the reader must decode from clues.   
"This is really the very same process that we engage in when we try to guess other people's thoughts and feelings and emotions, and to read their mind in everyday life," says Castano.
Readers were given 10-page samples of different texts to read.  For literary fiction, they were given excerpts from Louise Erdrich; for popular fiction, samples of Danielle Steel.  Then researchers administered different ToM (Theory of Mind) tests, including the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test (which you can try here).  Results? The people who read literary fiction did better than those who didn't.
Friendly?  Or dominant?  From the Reading the Eyes Test.  Image from thelastpsychiatrist.com.
For me, this study raises a couple of questions.  First, does reading literary fiction put you in a more erudite state of mind, making you feel more tweed-pipe-leather-patches-on-elbows and thus more likely to want to do better on a test than someone who's just read a dirty sex scene?  I know when I read a dirty sex scene, all I want to do is...um, have sex.  Not take some weirdo test.  ("Hey, there.  You look good in that lab coat.  You smell good, too.  What are you doing later?")

Academic types turn me on, too.  Remember this?  Image from pastpersistent.com.
Also, what about people who read regularly?  I spend hours with my nose in books, both literary fiction and popular fiction.  How good am I really going to be at reading real live people in the real world if all I do is read books, no matter what genre they are?  I would imagine that only lots of face time teaches us these lessons.

I'm no scientist, but I find this study fascinating.  Kudos to these researchers for designing the experiment and gathering the empirical evidence to examine such a nebulous question as "Does reading improve society?"  I wouldn't have known where to begin.