Here’s what research says
Do you feel reading fiction is a waste of your time?
You’re in good company: The most prosperous leaders suggest we should focus on non-fiction. Of the 102 books Bill Gates recommended over eight years, 90 were non-fiction. And from the 19 books Warren Buffett recommended in 2019, a mere 100% were non-fiction.
So, when it comes to reading, we are bought into the idea that reading for knowledge is the best reason to do so. Scientists, however, suggest that reading fiction outscores non-fiction on various levels.
Increased Emotional Intelligence
There are better ways to increase your EQ than reading Goleman’s non-fiction classic. In a Harvard study, researchers asked participants to either read fiction, non-fiction, or nothing. Across five experiments, those who read fiction performed better on identifying emotions encoded in facial expressions than the other groups.
“If we engage with characters who are nuanced, unpredictable, and difficult to understand, then I think we’re more likely to approach people in the real world with interest and humility necessary for dealing with complex individuals,” this studies’ lead author David Kidd, said in an interview.
Even if we don’t like to think about it, many of our social interactions follow given norms that are based on stereotypes. Meeting a teacher puts her in your brain’s default option for how teachers are like. This compartmentalization goes beyond professions, age groups, gender, and cultural background.
When reading fiction, however, we often experience a disruption of our expectations. The book forces us to bend our minds to understand the feelings or thoughts of a novel’s character, mainly if the character’s actions go against our pre-built stereotypes.
A 2014 study supports this mind-bending effect of fictional literature. Here, they found reading fiction leads to increased levels of empathy for individuals outside of your cultural community: “Reading narrative fiction appears to ameliorate biased categorical and emotional perception of mixed-race individuals.”
As a regular reader, you’ll likely remember a book that opened up your mind towards other cultures. After reading Tara Westover’s memoir, you’ll exactly understand how it feels to grow up in a Mormon family in off-grit Idaho. And on the opposite end, Elizbeth Gilbert’s latest novel allows you to experience life from a rich kid growing up in the 1940s, fighting her way to break free from social expectations, and finding her way to sexual liberation.
Better Decision Making
Again, we might think digesting the latest non-fiction books on decision-making will help us make smarter choices. Yet also, recent findings on the link between cognitive-closure and non-fiction reading prove us wrong.
By following logical, step-by-step guidance, we “reach a (too) quick conclusion in decision-making and an aversion to ambiguity and confusion,” researchers from the University of Toronto write in this study.
Individuals with a strong need for cognitive closure rely heavily on so-called early information cues. They are fixed on their opinion and struggle to change their minds upon newly presented information. People with closed minds also stop thinking about alternative explanations, making them more confident in their own initial and potentially flawed beliefs.
Fiction can reverse this effect: “When one reads fictional literature,” the scientists state, “one is encouraged to simulate other minds and is thereby released from concerns for urgency and permanence.” Surprisingly, the attributed benefit doesn’t depend on the quality of a text, but rather on the overall genre of literary non-fiction.
Professionals whose trainings depend on non-fiction, like lawyers and doctors, benefit the most from this effect. A physician, with an entire medical encyclopedia in her head, might (too) quickly identify a specific malady when additional symptoms point towards another one. Here, reading fictional books can help.
In the words of the researchers, “Given the suboptimal information processing strategies that result from the premature need for closure, exposure to literature may offer a pedagogical tool to encourage individuals to become more likely to open their minds.” In short, fiction can help us overcome cognitive closure and thereby, improve how we make decisions.
Why You Shouldn’t be Reading This
Finding scientific evidence for doing the things we enjoy is yet another form of internalized capitalism.
What if we allowed ourselves to prioritize joy over productivity?
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