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A study showed there is not a link between reading literary fiction and social cognition.

Credit: Ananya Chandra

A recent study released by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Boston College, Pace University and the University of Oklahoma failed to replicate the famous results from an earlier 2013 study, which identified a positive immediate relationship between reading literary fiction and improved theory of mind. 

Initially the researchers intended to perform a replication which would expand upon the findings of the original study in order to better understand the short and long term effects of reading upon theory of mind — the ability to understand the mental states of others. The study evaluated the effects of reading both literary fiction and narrative non-fiction. 

Using the same methodology, same recruiting methods and a larger sample pool than the original study, the researchers confirmed that the total amount of fiction that an individual has read over the course of their lifetime is correlated with theory of mind.

“The finding that we did not replicate is this immediate effect of literary fiction,” said Pace University psychology professor and co-author Thalia Goldstein. “We did not find, under any circumstances, that reading fiction makes you better at theory of mind in the half an hour in which we are testing our participants.”

The paper, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, reports that exposure to literary fiction did not cause improved performance on a theory-of-mind test, leading the researchers to conclude that they could not prove a concrete link between the two.

“I still have the feeling that reading is good, even thought we haven’t been able to prove this aspect scientifically,” co-author and Boston College doctoral student Maria Eugenia Panero said. “Perhaps reading literary fiction throughout your life will slowly and incrementally improve your theory.”

The next step in this line of research is to better understand the long-term benefits of reading, and whether they include increased theory of mind.

“A study like this should not change anybody’s mind about whether or not they should read fiction,” Goldstein said. “We are trying to figure out what reading is actually doing.”