Stats Fact 2

Can reading literary fiction really make people better at empathy?

That’s what a recent study claims to show. 
“Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind ”
appeared in Science this month.

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There were five different experiments with people randomised to either two or three groups. One group was assigned to read literary fiction – works chosen by literary prize judges, and including authors such as Jane Austen and Anton Chekhov.  The other groups varied, and were assigned to read popular fiction, non-fiction or nothing at all. The participant completed the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test” (RMET), which was designed by Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of Sacha Baron Cohen of “Ali-G”, “Borat” and other fame ... but I digress). 

You can do the RMET yourself



The RMET is supposed to measure your capacity for understanding other people’s mental states.  You look at 36 different images of a pair of eyes, and have to say what the eyes are showing (for example: impatient? aghast? irritated? reflective?): four choices for each pair of eyes, one of which is deemed to be correct.

The groups that were allocated to read literary fiction did better than the groups allocated to read nothing, or such riveting pieces of non-fiction as “How the potato changed the world”.
In four experiments, the comparison of groups was “statistically significant”; on the RMET test the difference in means was between 1 and 3 (pairs of eyes); to put that in context, we are told that scores between 22 and 30 (out of 36) are common.

What is really going on here? 

What should we make of this? 

Can it really be true that reading a bit of Jane Austen makes the reader more understanding of others, and insightful?

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There is a crucial aspect of the experiments that needs highlighting. Reading the research article itself, I was wondering … how long did the intervention go for?  Did they read the allocated works for days? Weeks? Months?  The use of the word “temporarily” in the abstract, and “short-term” in the text, gives a hint.  And … who were the people recruited for the experiments?  Were they the usual suspects, university students?  But I had to rely on media sources to discover that the subjects were recruited from Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” service, which advertises small jobs to be completed for a few cents or dollars.  They were paid $2 or $3 each to read for a few minutes; see the New York Times blog post.

Neither of these details is in the Science article.  So the subjects were from a highly selective group of the population (would you sign up?) which may or may not be a problem, and they read for a few minutes, according to the New York Times’ account.
Should we trust these results?  Although the effects were small, they were consistent in their direction, there were five of them, and they were independent, randomised experiments.  At face value, this is evidence of a real effect. 

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But it is all very brief and may be ephemeral.  It seems possible to me that the data are consistent with a kind of “warming up” effect, similar to stretching and jogging before more vigorous exercise.  The more literary works may focus the mind on its potential for empathy, causing the performance on an empathy test immediately following to be slightly better than otherwise, on average.  Cricketers catch balls before fielding; tennis players warm up by hitting against their opponent for a few minutes, a student doing an oral exam in French may listen to some spoken French immediately beforehand.  Why? Because it “tunes” and focuses the body and mind to the task immediately following.  If the pre-task activity is not as relevant, the warm-up effect does not occur.  This study may be observing this effect, and no more. 

Is this effect worth having?

Is it a ringing endorsement for reading literary fiction?

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Well, the experiments, taken together, suggest there’s no harm. 

But I think it’s a stretch to say that reading a few minutes of any text can really make a person more understanding and insightful over a long period of time, and the authors do suggest this: “reading literary fiction may lead to stable improvements”.  Put it this way.  If, instead of doing the RMET straight after the required reading, the test was done six months later, do you think the results would show a benefit of the literary fiction over the non-fiction?

I would feel a lot less uneasy about the article if its title was “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind (for 15 minutes, anyway)”. 

Now back to Sense and Sensibility.