What’s that book you’re reading as you wait to be impaneled?
I listen to a lot of audiobooks while driving or flying or cooking or cleaning. I rarely listen to academic tomes. Instead, I like to be entertained with mysteries and thrillers or suspenseful stories. Lately, I have purchased several highly rated mysteries only to discover they are romance novels in disguise.
It is irksome and I am grateful to have discovered I can return the unwanted book and download another. I complained about this to a fellow audiobook devotee and he gave me a “never fails” filter to avoid romance novels in disguise, even when the author writes under a pseudonym to fool you. He apologized for the method being so sexist, but I will attest to the general effectiveness. When a new (to me) author has multiple 5 star ratings for a mystery and the publisher is not listed, you peruse the individual reviews. If the reviews are entirely written by women, you have likely found a bodice-ripping romance novel. And I move along to the next title.
So it is with a sense that perhaps we need to apologize to the readers of romance novels everywhere that I share this research finding:
Readers of romantic fiction are better at sensing what others are feeling.
Maybe its because they read romance novels. Maybe it is the reason they are attracted to this genre. Romance novel readers are better, according to these researchers, at interpreting subtle facial cues and identifying the emotions those cues express.
The researchers had people indicate names of fiction writers they recognized (from a variety of genres with some fake names thrown in) and then asked them to look at cropped pictures of actors that only showed the area around the eyes. Only those who were fans of romance novels (as compared to those who read domestic fiction, science fiction/fantasy and suspense/thrillers) excelled in accurately identifying the emotions the actors were expressing. The researchers say,
“It may be that the emotional experiences evoked by romance novels lead to rumination on past relationship experiences, perhaps encouraging readers to puzzle out the complexities of their own past romantic relationships.”
While we would (suspiciously) point out that the photos used were of actors simulating emotions, there has been a belief for years that we can read emotions from facial expressions.
Whether our mock jurors talk about knowing how to read emotions in faces or focus in on what they believe to be the meaning of various eye movements, we know the (generally inaccurate) belief that we can intuit whether someone speaks the truth via facial expression or eye movement is deeply embedded in American belief systems. So our task in pretrial research is not to debunk those beliefs but rather, to identify what nonverbal behavior prompts the assumption. Once we know what sparks the assumptions, we can work with the witness to minimize that distracting behavior so actual jurors can focus on listening rather than assuming.
So am I going to start reading romance novels to get better at identifying and interpreting subtle facial expressions? No. I think the results of this study could also serve as a tip that the romance novel reader may read between the lines a little more than others and jump to conclusions that are not warranted by the evidence. There are times that might be a good thing and times it will not.
Fong, K, Mullin, JB, & Mar, RA (2013). What you read matters: The role of fiction genre in predicting interpersonal sensitivity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. DOI: 10.1037/a0034084