Fiction readers score higher on empathy and social acumen tests than do readers of nonfiction.
Reading fiction, it turns out, is a surprisingly social process. A study at the Journal of Research in Personality showed that frequent readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than did readers of expository nonfiction. A follow-up study showed that fiction could actually hone these skills: People assigned to read a New Yorker short story did better on a subsequent social-reasoning task than did those who read an essay from the same magazine.
If you find yourself returning again and again to lighter fare, there’s no need to feel bad. Mysteries and romances are likely to boost your empathy and social savvy, and they definitely will shift your focus from self to others, according to psychologist Victor Nell, author of Lost in a Book. A good read, he found, “completely envelopes us in a trancelike state.” This state resembles “flow,” immersion so deep and satisfying that we don’t notice the hours flying by, says Melanie C. Green, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. According to Green and Nell, such engrossing reading dispels negative thoughts. “By reading fiction,” Green says, “we get into a whole different world and leave that other stuff behind.” If you’re feeling self-absorbed, get absorbed in a good book.