Relationship News

Reading Literary Fiction May Make You More Emotionally Intelligent

Want to make a stronger connection with your next date? Consider reading some literary fiction before meeting up.

Research suggests that reading literary fiction temporarily boosts people’s ability to understand the mental states of others — including their emotions, beliefs, and intentions.

The study, published in 2013 in the the peer reviewed journal Science, did five experiments on people to see how they reacted after reading different kinds of short texts: literary fiction, popular fiction, nonfiction, and nothing.

Those who read the literary fiction did better on several tests that measured how well they understood the mental states of others — a skill known as Theory of Mind (ToM).

Literary fiction the participants read included excerpts by finalists for the National Book Award, while popular fiction excerpts came from recent bestsellers on

The participants went through several different tests after they read their given text. To give you an idea of what these looked like, one was a newer test called the Yoni test, in which participants were asked to guess a character’s emotions and thoughts using minimal visual cues. 

Why didn’t popular fiction have the same effects as literary fiction?

You might not be able to get the same kind of emotional intelligence boost from reading the latest spy thriller as you would from reading a Nobel Prize winning novelist.

The authors suggested these two types of fiction may seem similar on the surface, but they’re very different in the details.

Popular fiction, including most romance novels, adventure stories, and thrillers, is written to entertain a passive reader, the paper explains. The characters and their world act and react in predictable ways that confirm the readers’ expectations and biases.

On the other hand, literary fiction often surprises the reader and keeps them guessing. It challenges the reader to think about new ideas and rethink what they thought they knew about people.

The researchers suggested literary fiction forced the readers to try to see into the minds of characters, engaging in theory of mind thought processes that allowed them to understand the characters’ thoughts and feelings.

Why is this important?

The ability to understand others appears to be a skill you can practice. And doing so may help us maintain and improve our relationships.

The researchers explained it well:

“The capacity to identify and understand others’ subjective states is one of the most stunning products of human evolution. It allows successful navigation of complex social relationships and helps to support the empathic responses that maintain them… Deficits in this set of abilities, commonly referred to as Theory of Mind (ToM), are associated with psychopathologies marked by interpersonal difficulties.”

Past research has also shown reading fiction is associated with self-reported empathy and that it may increase people’s ability to see themselves in others.

The final word

If anyone ever tells you reading fiction is pointless, you can tell them you’re reading it to “promote and refine your interpersonal sensitivity” — as the paper says.

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Science writer and founder of Relationship Smart. A bad boss once scoffed at her decision to study psychology, calling it "pseudoscience." She's had a chip on her shoulder ever since. This website is her response — because the world of our minds is real, important, and studyable. Relationship Smart is here to answer all your burning questions about relationships with scientific rigor and sensitivity.