Fiction and Social Cognition

My former graduate student David Kidd and I first published evidence that reading literary fiction improved one’s capacity to infer and represent other people’s mental states (a capacity that is called Theory of Mind in psychological literature) in a 2013 article reporting results from five experiments, published in Science.  The implications of this work work have been discussed with regard to various fields ranging from education to management. Replications and extensions of this original findings, are discussed below. 

In the latest publication, appeared in Springer Nature HSSCOMMS, I extend this work to films, theorising about a parallel between literary fiction and art films.

Two recent articles  appeared in Plos one and Frontiers. The former investigates associations between reading literary vs popular fiction and attributional complexity, ego-centric bias and accuracy in social perception. The latter focuses on psychological essentialism.

I discussed this work in an interview with the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera,  on Rai 3 radio, with Enrico Morteo, during an episode of Fahrenheit, and on German public radio.

Aside from investigating the impact of fiction on social cognition variables other than Theory of Mind, we also reject the idea of a hierarchy of fiction and present our latest thinking with regard to the possible role of literary and popular fiction in fostering individuating and binding processes, both necessary for the functioning of a society.

Three other articles published over the years  further support our original claims. The first is published in the APA journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts and looks at the same question using a correlational approach. The second article replicates the experimental findings and begins to elucidate the mechanisms and appeared in the journal Scientific Study of Literature. The latest article of ours is a three-study pre-registered replication, published in Social Psychology and Personality Science. We also published a review chapter in French, in the volume “Violence et Passion” published by the CNRS. The chapter is available here.

Replications and extensions of our findings by independent researchers appeared in the the journal Poetics, in the journal Collabra and, with an italian sample, in the journal PlosONE. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, also support our findings. A recent non-replication of one of the five experiments that we published in 2013 appeared in Nature and Human Behavior; our response also appeared in NHB.

The Science article has received extensive media coverage worldwide. In addition to TV (see TV interview here) and newspaper coverage, this work has been discussed on several NPR programs (All Things Considered, The Diane Rehm Show, and NPR Books) and international radio programs (FRANCEinter). On October 4th 2013 it made the front page of the New York Times, was discussed in The New Yorker, and reviewed in Scientific American. This work was also widely covered in the international press (La Repubblica, Focus , Il Corriere della Sera, The Guardian, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, The Huffington Post). The article published in PACA also received media attention in The Guardian and Le Figaro, and was reviewed in the British Psychological Society’s blog.

Our research on these questions has been aided by various intramural grants from the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College, both part of The New School, as well as by a generous fellowship from the Whiting Foundation and an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.