Read great fiction to build emotional intelligence

Author: Matt Bloom

Many of us read for pleasure, and recent research suggests that what we read might impact our capacities for empathy &  social perception which are important components of emotional intelligence. Researchers at The New School for Social Research studied individuals 18 to 75. They had some of these people read excerpts from award-winning literature, others read popular fiction  (e.g., books on the New York Times bestseller list), and still others read serious nonfiction such as excerpts from Smithsonian Magazine.

After reading their assigned materials, these individuals participated in computerized tests of their ability to accurately read other people’s emotions (empathy) or predict a person’s expectations or beliefs in a particular situation (social perception). These researchers found that people who read great fiction performed much better than those who read either popular fiction or serious nonfiction. It is important to note that this happened even though these individuals said they did not enjoy literary fiction as much as the other forms of reading material. It turned out that people who read popular fiction were no better at empathy or social perception than people who read nothing.

One impressive characteristic of this research is that the researchers conducted five separate studies, changing important elements for each study. They found the same results across all five studies. In other words, the results seem to be robust.

Of course, there are many important reasons for reading popular fiction and nonfiction. I like to read what I call “mind fodder” –  books that are easy and fun to read (e.g., detective stories, humorous fiction). And I also read a great deal of serious nonfiction. Popular fiction relaxes and entertains me, serious nonfiction educates me and expands my mental horizons. What this research emphasizes, however, is the need to read books that might not be as fun, but have many other merits. Mortimer Adler started The Great Book Academy because he believed reading great literature was a core component of great education. This research provides yet another reason for us to dig into some of those books we say we have always wanted to read, but just haven’t found the time to do so.

So, I’m off to start Joyce’s “Ulysses” again…wish me luck!

We hope you are flourishing!

~Matt and the entire Flourishing Team


Research citation: David Comer Kidd & Emanuele Castano, Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1239918