President Obama's summer reading list is full of literary fiction. So is Richard Branson's list of the books that influenced him the most. Both icons are exceptionally busy guys. Why do they make time in their tight schedules for literary classics or classics in the making?
Perhaps because they've intuited a reality that scientists are just now beginning to conclusively document -- reading great fiction has a unique ability to improve our emotional intelligence.
The scientific case for why literature is worth your time.
The connection between complex literature and enhanced emotional skills was first highlighted by David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, a pair of psychologists at the New School. Several years ago they published a study in the influential journal Science that showed reading literary fiction was linked with an improved ability to better read fine emotional cues on people's faces.
But not everyone was convinced by that study. Critics noted that the pair had used only a few somewhat random samples of literary and genre fiction to test their ideas. Could you really make such sweeping generalizations from such a limited experiment, they asked. So Kidd and Castano designed a follow-up study.
This time around, instead of having study subjects read a bit of Don DeLillo or Louise Erdrich, they asked more than 2,000 people how many of a long list of authors' names they recognized. Those who knew more authors of literary fiction, they reasoned, could be assumed to have read more of the stuff. Then the psychologists once again administered a test that asked participants to look at images of eyes and discern which emotion the person pictured was feeling.
"There was a clear pattern in the findings - the more literary fiction authors that participants recognized, the better they tended to perform on the emotional recognition test, and this association held even after statistically accounting for the influence of other factors that might be connected to both emotion skills and reading more literary fiction, such as past educational attainment, gender and age," reports the British Psychological Society Research Digest blog, summing up the results.
This still isn't a slam dunk.
These newest results boost the case of the those who argue that immersing yourself in a fictional world populated by layered, complex characters can't help but increase your understanding of how the human mind works and make your fellow humans a little less strange to you. But it's also far from a slam dunk in terms of proving the hypothesis, BPS stresses.
For instance, couldn't a test that asks people to match pictures of faces with words for emotions end up measuring people's verbal knowledge rather than their level of empathy? And wouldn't knowledge of a range of words for different emotions naturally correlate with reading more nuanced fiction?
But while this isn't an open-and-shut case scientifically speaking, this study does count as yet another weight on the scales in favor or deep, broad reading. And there are already plenty of inarguable reasons to make time for books. So it's safe to assume that if you're hoping to become a truly great leader, picking up the occasional literary classic or current critics' darling can only benefit your EQ.
When is the last time you read literary fiction?