This post was updated on August 23, 2021.
While the works of popular authors like Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, and Jodi Picoult may be the talk of book clubs when new releases arrive, reading literary fiction — like books by authors Ernest Hemingway and Toni Morrison — can produce greater attributional complexity and social accuracy compared to popular picks, which can create a greater egocentric bias.
The study, published in PLOS One, was conducted by Emanuele Castano, Alison Jane Martingano, and Pietro Perconti. Castano had previously published research in 2013 that showed literary fiction’s powers in bettering one’s mental states, but his continued research illustrates how high-brow reading can benefit “collective and strategic intelligence.”
“The original work, published with my former student David Kidd in the journal Science, showed that not all fiction shapes how we think in the same way. We distinguished between literary (e.g. Don Delillo, Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munro) and popular fiction (e.g. Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Jackie Collins), and showed that it is by reading literary fiction that you enhance your mindreading abilities — you are better at inferring and representing what other people think, feel, their intentions, etc,” Castano said, via PsyPost.
“In the latest article… we broaden the spectrum of variables we look at, and most importantly we develop our argument about the two types of fiction and their role in our society.”
The difference between literary and popular fiction is simple. Literary fiction “engages readers in a discourse that formers them to fill in narrative gaps and search for meanings,” per the study’s authors. It forces readers to think more and take in multiple perspectives of the world within the novel and the material world.
Popular fiction takes on a more passive role, according to the study. It’s the predictable story of love or heartbreak; works that follow a path that becomes more about telling instead of showing, and focusing on plot rather than characters.
For the study, researchers had 493 participants with an average age of 34 complete a version of the Author Recognition Test, an exam of a list of names that participants are asked to identify any authors they recognize. Participants were given scores based on the number of correctly identified literary authors and popular authors.
Additional tests like the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test” and others were conducted.
Researchers said that the results revealed differences between participants who read literary fiction as opposed to popular fiction. Literary fiction “paints a more complex picture of human affairs, and of the human psyche, than popular fiction,” while it can “develop more complex schemas about others, their behavior, and about the social world they inhabit.”
While literary fiction has it benefits and may prompt different social cognition processes or ideas, there’s nothing wrong with reading popular fiction.
“[This study] should not be interpreted as a suggestion that literary fiction is better than popular fiction,” the study concluded.
Whether you read for pleasure or leisure, recent research found that people who regularly read fiction usually score higher on language assessments than those who read to access specific information, meaning you can get a bigger mental booster reading “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald instead of reading a textbook on data science.