This study confirms the correlation between fiction and emotional intelligence

“By showing you the world through the eyes of other people, literature can give you a window into others’ thoughts or feelings.”

It’s funny how you don’t really comprehend how much you love writers like George Macdonald until you’re an adult. It’s an enduring demonstration of the gift all the best children fiction authors seem to possess; masking vital character building lessons in engaging escapism.

You had no idea that a tale about a pointy-eared, hairy-toed curmudgeon deathly afraid of the world outside his door could make puberty that much less terrifying. Or how the unlikely friendship of a mole and a water rat perhaps cautioned you so profoundly against indulging in biases.


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Those of us that sought refuge in the arms of reverie had a hunch that we were all the better for it, but now a recent study confirms it.

Fiction inspires empathy

The correlation has been explored exhaustively over the last couple of years, but the methodology that informed these studies was often subject to criticism. Psychologist  David Dodell-Feder wanted to quiet the skepticism that prods the impact fiction has on emotional intelligence once and for all.

Taking 14 previous studies conducted on the matter into account, Feder found the data to be overwhelmingly in favor of the positive effect genre literature has on EQ,  particularly empathy.

The virtue was measured via participants ability to correctly read the expressions of others, ability to correctly surmise how others might feel in different situations and readiness to consider things with a  perspective other than their own.

Art Markman, Ph.D., head of human dimensions of the Organizations program observed boosts to these qualities to occur after very little reading had been done. The findings animate the way he and his colleagues construct their programs. Markman believes the instrumental role fiction plays in the sharing and understanding of feelings to be evident in his classrooms, in confirmation of the reported statistics, stating:

“By showing you the world through the eyes of other people, literature can give you a window into others’ thoughts or feelings.”

The exercise of retaining plot lines and chapter names has also been proven to greatly improve cognition and even add years to your life.

The British Psychological Society research Digest put together five experiments relying on hundreds of respondents on the internet. They similarly concluded that just reading a few pages of fiction a day (pulling from a wide range of subsects) enabled the participants to be better at interpreting facial gestures and the emotions of others. The post additionally adds that “no such effects were found from reading non-fiction.”


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CW Headley|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at cheadley@theladders.com.