Whatever you might think of the year in politics or weather, 2018 was definitely a great year for books. The sales of paper books continued a steady five-year rise and, despite Amazon's omnipresence, the number of independent bookstores was up too.
Why are people returning to old-fashioned printed books despite earlier predictions that technology would be the demise of deep reading? Maybe because they intuitively understand what science is just now getting around to proving--books don't just make us smarter, fiction can make us nicer and more empathetic too.
A scientific controversy resolved
Some earlier, high-profile studies (which we covered here on Inc.com) assigned people to read either pulpy stories or serious works of fiction and then tested their ability to perceive others' emotions. Other studies asked how many famous literary writers a subject recognized before giving them similar tests.
Both found that exposure to literature seems to boost EQ, but several observers criticized the work. Some complained about the studies' methodology, others about how the researchers defined "quality" literature. Or maybe, they suggested, people who are naturally good at reading emotions simply enjoy reading fiction more too.
A new meta-analysis aimed to finally clarify matters. Led by University of Rochester psychologist David Dodell-Feder, this new research reviewed 14 previous studies on the relationship between reading fiction and empathy. The conclusion it came to will cheer book lovers everywhere: Compared to reading non-fiction or not reading at all, reading fiction produced a "small, statistically significant improvement in social-cognitive performance."
In short, the sum total of science on the subject says reading fiction really will make you a little nicer and more empathetic.
This isn't a shock to many super achievers.
It's good to have more definitive science on the subject, but it's not like a ton of folks were sitting around biting their nails waiting for the answer to this all-important question. Judging by the time they make for literature in their schedules, many super successful folks clearly already believed in the benefits of fiction.
The likes of Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Warren Buffett are all voracious readers of fiction and non-fiction, for example. Barack Obama even once explained that, "when I think about how I understand my role as citizen...the most important stuff I've learned I think I've learned from novels."
There is even, I recently learned from this brilliant New Yorker article, a thing called bibliotherapy, where you consult an expert who prescribes a reading list to help you work out whatever psychological issues are troubling you.
"Fiction is a kind of simulation, one that runs not on computers but on minds: a simulation of selves in their interactions with others in the social world...based in experience, and involving being able to think of possible futures," cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley is quoted as saying. Literary fiction, in other words, works like a flight simulator, only it trains you to avoid crashing and burning as a human rather than as a pilot.
All of this suggests that reading can and does have powerful effects on our cognition, social and otherwise. So perhaps it's not terribly shocking that science has confirmed that reading a great story will improve your perceptions of other people. But nonetheless it's good to know that those hours you set aside for reading really are making a difference.
You are setting aside time for reading this year, aren't you?