Reading literary versus popular fiction promotes different socio-cognitive processes, study suggests

By Beth Ellwood

A study published in PLOS One suggests that the type of fiction a person reads affects their social cognition in different ways. Specifically, literary fiction was associated with increased attributional complexity and accuracy in predicting social attitudes, while popular fiction was linked to increased egocentric bias.

“We learn a lot about ourselves, interpersonal relations, how institutions work, etc., from fiction. In other words, fiction impacts what we think about the world. But in my research, I am interested in the ways in which fiction shapes how we think,” explained study author Emanuele Castano of the University of Trento and the National Research Council in Italy.

“The original work, published with my former student David Kidd in the journal Science, showed that not all fiction shapes how we think in the same way. We distinguished between literary (e.g. Don Delillo, Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munroe) and popular fiction (e.g. Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Jackie Collins), and showed that it is by reading literary fiction that you enhance your mindreading abilities — you are better at inferring and representing what other people think, feel, their intentions, etc.”

“In the latest article, with my former student Alison Jane Martingano and philosopher Pietro Perconti, we broaden the spectrum of variables we look at, and most importantly we develop our argument about the two types of fiction and their role in our society,” Castano said.

Scholars have typically differentiated between literary and popular fiction. For example, engaging with literary fiction is thought to be active; it asks readers to search for meaning and produce their own perspectives and involves complex characters. Popular fiction, on the other hand, is passive; it provides meaning for the readers and is more concerned with plot than characters.

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