Research has demonstrated that people who read more fiction tend to have better perspective-taking abilities. Now, new research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin has found that reading more fiction early in life is associated with a more complex worldview and increased empathic abilities.
“By introducing readers to difference, even if that difference is not expressed as a different cast of mind, we argue that fictional experience can nevertheless remind readers that the world is complex, not simple; with powerful psychological effects,” explained study author Nicholas Buttrick and colleagues. “Fiction, in other words, does more than just give people social practice—by presenting difference, novelty, and even confusion, it underlines the idea of the world as a radically complicated place.”
People have differing levels of attributional complexity, which is one’s comfort with ambiguity and willingness to understand behavior in the context of a complex system. Readers of literary fiction, which is characterized by the introduction of a problem or difficulty in a world, may then have differing worldview complexity compared to non-readers.
For Study 1, researchers recruited a final sample of 369 American adults from Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online research platform. Participants completed measures assessing the genres they read early in life, attributional complexity (i.e., how much participants prefer complex explanations for social behavior over simple ones), and psychological richness (i.e., a sense that one’s life is interesting, and one is gaining wisdom).
Results showed that reading more overall was not associated with differences in attributional complexity; however, reading more romance novels, specifically, early in life was associated with lower attributional complexity. Frequency of reading fiction overall in early life, on the other hand, was associated with more psychological richness.
For Study 2, researchers wanted to extend these findings to understandings of systemic injustice to explore whether early life reading of fiction is related. They recruited a final sample of 2,243 American university students to participate.
Participants completed measures of both their current and early life reading habits and system justifying beliefs (i.e., how much one believes in the legitimacy of the current social order). The latter measure contained 4 sub-sections assessing participants’ belief in a just world, belief in the importance of hard work, belief that people can climb the social ladder, and belief that status differences in a society are appropriate.
Results showed that reading more literary fiction (both currently and in early life) was associated with a lower belief in system legitimacy.
For Study 3, the researchers expanded to a national sample and further sought to explore the relationship between reading habits and complexity of worldview. Using a survey firm, Lightspeed GMI, the researchers recruited a sample of 1,514 adults to participate.
Participants once again completed measures of reading habits and system justification as in Study 2. They also completed measures of psychological essentialism (i.e., one’s belief in the immutability of core human characteristics), empathic concern, and perspective-taking.
Results from Study 3 show that reading more fiction in early life, but not current reading habits, was associated with lower belief in system legitimacy. Similarly, those who read more literary fiction in early life were less likely to agree with the idea that people are only one type of way (i.e., essentialism discreteness). More reading of fiction overall was also associated with increased perspective-taking.
For Study 4, the researchers sought to replicate the findings of Studies 1 and 3 above in a large nationally representative American sample. Once again using Lightspeed GMI, the researchers recruited a final sample of 1,401 adults to participate. Participants again completed measures of their reading habits (as in Study 3), measures of attributional complexity and psychological richness (as in Study 1), and measures of belief in system legitimacy and essentialism discreteness (as in Study 2).
For exploratory purposes, participants also completed measures of intellectual humility (i.e., one’s willingness to realize their beliefs may be incorrect) and simple certain knowledge (i.e., one’s belief that knowledge is objective, static, and understood universally).
Results from Study 4 indicated that those who read more fiction in early life showed higher attributional complexity, more psychological richness, decreased beliefs in system legitimacy, and less agreement with essentialism.
Current fiction reading habits were not associated with attributional complexity or essentialist beliefs. However, reading more fiction currently was associated with more psychological richness and decreased beliefs in system legitimacy. Exploratory analyses suggest that reading more fiction in early life was associated with more intellectual humility and increased endorsement of simple certain knowledge.
“Across four studies (total [number of participants] = 5,176), including one preregistered replication with a nationally representative sample, we found that greater reading of literary fiction in early life predicted a more complex worldview in the present day among Americans,” the researchers said.
The authors cite some limitations to this work, such as the reliance on self-report for early life reading habits. Perhaps one’s memory of their early reading habits is less precise than that of their current reading habits. Further, we cannot say from these data alone whether the reading of fiction in early life caused these current changes in worldview, or vice versa. Perhaps people who are naturally empathic or inclined toward attributional complexity were more likely to seek fiction in early life.
The study, “Reading Literary Fiction Is Associated With a More Complex Worldview“, was authored by Nicholas Buttrick, Erin C. Westgate, and Shigehiro Oishi.