When I did look into it I found, via Scientific American, that this latest research defines the relative benefits of reading different kinds of fiction. The study, published online by Science on October 3rd, is the work of two social psychologists, andfrom The New School in New York City. They were interested in discovering the mechanisms that foster development of empathy. "Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Yet little research has investigated what fosters this skill, which is known as Theory of Mind (ToM), in adults." To address this research gap Kidd and Castano ran several studies. Their results show "that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM. More broadly, they suggest that ToM may be influenced by engagement with works of art." (Italics mine).
Value of the "beach read"?
While reading the latest Danielle Steele or Tom Clancy may help you navigate the social complexities of life slightly more than reading non-fiction (or not reading at all), those benefits are small compared to ones gained by reading truly literary work. Why might that be? Since I prefer literary fiction to scientific papers, I have not read the entire study myself. But Scientific American reporterdid read it, and says the study offers this explanation: Popular fiction is more formulaic, more plot-focused than character-focused, and "the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader's expectations of others. . . . Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. . . the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes."
Using this insight
And as a communications consultant who works with clients on issues of leadership, I know the value of empathy. Of thinking beyond yourself. Of not limiting options by your own failure of imagination. Getting outside of yourself and taking a mental vacation by reading a book has intrinsic value. But when it can teach you to accept the flaws of others and to navigate the tensions inherent in everyday living, you have tools that enable you to connect more fully. Some of my clients can do that more easily than others. I wonder what's on their shelves?