Everyone Wants to Believe That Reading Good Books Will Make You a Good Person

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Photo: Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images

In 2013, a pair of psychologists published a paper in the prestigious journal Science, in which they argued that reading a brief passage of literary fiction — so, Louise Erdrich, not James Patterson — would significantly and immediately improve your emotional intelligence. After reading a short selection of literary fiction, they claimed, the people in their experiment were better at guessing at the emotional states of others, as compared to those who read popular fiction or nothing at all.

Nerds rejoiced. Seemingly every major media outlet picked this up, no doubt because nerds are overrepresented at major media outlets. A brief sampling of headlines: “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov.” “Read literary fiction before dates or meetings for social success.” It’s a tantalizing idea (and maybe that’s the real problem); people seemed to want to believe that the best in literature can bring out the best in us.

And yet, in the years since, others have tried to replicate this study, with mixed results. In September, for instance, a different team of researchers found that, contrary to that exciting initial finding, reading literary fiction did not result in immediate improvement on an emotional intelligence test, as compared to reading popular fiction or reading nothing at all. It’s a disappointing result for anyone who would like to believe in the magic of literature to immediately spark meaningful, personal change.

But that doesn’t mean there is no magic to be found here — not necessarily, anyway. In August, the authors of the original paper published a new article that added some nuance to the earlier result: Perhaps the link between reading fiction and “reading” people is more dependent on whether or not you are a lifelong reader than the quick fix touted by their initial study. Likewise, the authors of that September paper also found that greater familiarity with literature did indeed predict an improved performance on the emotional intelligence test. It’s not clear, they note, whether that necessarily implies that a lifetime of being a bookworm results in gradually built-up empathy over time; it could also simply mean that people who are better at guessing the inner states of other individuals are more likely to be drawn to literary fiction, which, of course, spends a fair bit of time dwelling on individuals’ inner states.

This study is not likely the final word here. As Christian Jarrett notes at BPS Research Digest, more research is currently in the works, including one study that supports that first study in Science and another that doesn’t. It’s interesting, in a slightly meta way, to note how much attention this idea has gotten from the press and from psychology researchers alike; it suggests that, if nothing else, people really want to believe that reading a good book makes you a good person. While scientists battle this one out, here is a simple suggestion: Ignore them and just keep reading. (I hear the new Maria Semple is good.)