Friday, 30 May 2014

Reading Fiction Doesn't Mean You're Lonely (but Non-fiction Might) (Fiction on the Brain, Part III)

If you read a lot, others may have implied - or even told you directly - that you're socially awkward or lonely because of this.

However, upon delving further into the psychological, social and cultural aspects of reading fiction, I've come across fascinating research to suggest otherwise.

"Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds" (2006) is a paper complied by psychologists including Raymond A. Mar and Keith Oatley. They've done some fascinating research into the effects of reading on the brain, and this is no exception.

Bookworms versus nerds in the social realm

In simple terms, the research in the "Bookworms versus nerds" paper suggests that while frequent readers are often stereotyped as socially awkward, this may in fact only be true of non-fiction readers.

How could this possibly be true? 

Fiction readers enter into the world of characters in a way that parallels social interaction in the real world. This allows them to bolster or maintain their social abilities in a way that non-fiction readers generally cannot.

What's the evidence?

Well, participants were examined on how much fiction and non-fiction they had been exposed to over a lifetime, alongside their performance on empathy/social-acumen measures.

Generally, the more fiction a participant had been exposed to, the better they tended to do on measures of social ability. On the other hand, non-fiction exposure tended to predict the opposite.

Also, participants with a tendency to become absorbed in a story - an inherent part of fiction - also predicted their empathy scores. You might say that the age, intelligence and level of English might sway results, but these were all controlled.

Let's keep our fiction intake topped up

You might like to try some of the feel-good, mood-boosting novels I've selected for summer, or think about what bookworm friends of yours have recently enjoyed. 

However, don't forget about non-fiction! I don't think this research should be interpreted in a way that suggests we should read more fiction than non-fiction - rather, it's a way to strike back against the 'readers are lonely' stereotype!

Mar, R.A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J.B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694–712.

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Eleanor Baggley said...

This is really interesting. I have to say, I've always been the slightly socially awkward fiction reader but I think I read fiction to help myself deal personally with my awkwardness. Maybe it has been silently helping me improve my social skills! Basically, you're on to a winner if you read fiction and non-fiction because it means you'll be good at social interaction and smart. I'll carry on doing that then :D

Brian Joseph said...

Very interesting stuff here Lucy. When I was a cild I read a lot. I was somewhat socially awkward and many folks linked it to my reading. I think that I accepted the connection at the time.

I still read a lot and am not socially awkward anymore and have not thought about the connection in a long time. These days find that books help connect me with others.

tolstoytherapy said...

Thank you, Brian! I'm still more than a little socially awkward, but I wouldn't like to think what I'd be like without all the reading I've done! I definitely think that books help me to connect with others and develop empathy...research like this definitely reassures me I should carry on reading! I'm so glad you've found it useful too.

tolstoytherapy said...

I'm so glad you find this interesting too, Eleanor! I definitely read to deal with my social awkwardness a little too...Aspergers Syndrome runs very much in my family, and I dread to think what I'd be like without all the reading I do. Like you, I think that reading a combination of fiction and non-fiction is ideal!