Can we take back that apology to the readers of romance novels?
Whew. Last week we wondered if we should apologize to the readers of romance novels everywhere and this week, as it happens, we’ve learned we can skip that. We are relieved and uplifted by this news. To improve your social skills and your ability to identify the emotions of others, read a little Chekhov (Anton is pictured at left) rather than that romance novel. Simply by reading Chekhov, Dickens, or Jane Austen–your empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence are all improved. It’s even true if you don’t particularly enjoy Chekhov.
You may recall that last week we covered some research (with a little chagrin) that said romance novel readers were best at “reading the mind in the eyes”. They have just been unseated by fans of Austen, Chekhov, Dickens and Munro everywhere. It seems to us a better indicator of the long-term survival of an enlightened culture.
What is especially wonderful about this research is that they used exactly the same measure (photos of faces cropped so that only the eyes were visible and then asking research participants to identify the emotion expressed in the photo) as was used in the study which found romance novel readers were best at identifying the emotions of others.
In this study, the researchers had participants read from literary fiction (that would be Chekhov and his ilk), popular fiction (best-sellers at Amazon.com, including romance novels and science fiction), non-fiction (using for example, articles from the Smithsonian Magazine), or had the participants not read at all. After the reading (or not-reading) was done, participants examined the eyes and identified the emotion they thought the actor was emulating.
Readers of literary fiction were best at accurately identifying the emotions depicted in cropped photos of the eyes.
Yes! They beat out readers of popular fiction, including those romance novels. They also beat out readers of quality non-fiction and those who were not asked to read at all. The researchers say that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination and you have to work harder to figure out nuances and complex, often difficult, passages.
Perhaps that’s why participants in this study didn’t enjoy reading the literary fiction as much as those who read popular fiction. Thankfully, enjoyment did not matter. If you read literary fiction, you were better at identifying what emotions were reflected in those closely cropped photos of the eyes.
The researchers don’t know how long the effect lasts and we all know that the writing in jury instructions would not qualify as “well-written nonfiction”. Nonetheless, it’s an intriguing idea to consider.
Will English literature professors and devotees of Jane Austen be more able to “read” your witness, your party, your self?
And does that mean you want them on your jury or as far away as possible?
Keep in mind that devotees of literary fiction and more challenging non-fiction are self-selected and likely better educated and arguably at least somewhat more intelligent. So there is a potentially confounding variable when we try to take these results and apply them to the world around us. If we had the opportunity to force a jury to do some challenging reading before they begin deliberations, it might shape their approach to evaluating the case, but even the most ‘out-there’ jury reform proposals don’t go this far.
We like to think we can predict who will be better for our case by looking at their reading material, identifying their bumper stickers or tattoos, asking if they like crossword puzzles or Sudoko, and more. We are always looking for an edge in identifying those most suited for our case. And this one might have merit. Does it matter if your juror is higher in empathy and social perception than average? Or would it be better to avoid anyone with more developed powers of observation and emotion identification? If you can find that rare juror reading Chekov or Alice Munro in your venire, you can apply this curious research.
If you do not wish to read through the fairly dense academic paper (cited below), there’s a translation of sorts over at the New York Times.
Kidd, DC Castano, E 2013 Science Magazine, 3, October. Kidd DC, & Castano E (2013). Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science. PMID: 24091705