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It’s a cliché: reading takes you into others’ worlds.

But an interesting new study refines this cliché to inform us about exactly what kind of reading has the power to broaden our perspectives: psychology professor David Comer Kidd and graduate student Emanuele Castano studied how reading affects our ability to understand others’ emotions and to empathize with them.

Kidd and Castano asked people to read samples of non-fiction works as well as literary, high-brow fiction and popular, best-selling fiction (the study is here, and nicely summarized here). They then tested the readers’ abilities to interpret social and emotional clues—for example, by judging the emotional states of people in photographs.

They found that literary fiction had a power to boost people’s abilities to interpret other people’s emotional states. Best-selling beach and airplane books just don’t have this power. Kidd and Castano offered this common-sense explanation:

Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant explanation. . . . Whereas many mundane social experiences may be scripted by convention and informed by stereotypes, those presented in literary fiction often disrupt our expectations. Readers of literary fiction must draw on more flexible interpretive resources to infer the feelings and thoughts of characters.

Interestingly, Kidd and Castano found that you didn’t need to enjoy reading literary fiction in order to become better at interpreting others’ emotional states—so high school students grumbling their ways through Shakespeare and Steinbeck are likely learning something about empathizing with others in spite of themselves.

This new study seems like one of those “science of the obvious” studies that make people wonder about why taxpayers need to fund professors to study things that common sense told the rest of us for free.

But, alas, there is a need to remind people of the importance of reading high-brow literature, whether that’s to insist that surveys of English literature remain part of the undergraduate curriculum and an important component of primary and secondary education.

Kidd and Castano note the public policy importance of making the case for reading serious literature:

Literature has been deployed in programs intended to promote social welfare, such as those intended to promote empathy among doctors and life skills among prisoners. Literature is, of course, also a required subject throughout secondary education in the United States, but reformers have questions its importance: A new set of educational standards that have been adopted by 46 U.S. states (the Common Core State Standards) controversially calls for less emphasis on less emphasis on fiction in secondary education.

Indeed, the importance of literature for taking people into others’ worlds may be becoming all the more important in time when people’s social networks are becoming more homogenous, as social media facilitates the development of networks of friends and acquaintances who are much alike in age, educational attainment, and general outlook—and when people are much less likely to study and to work alongside, to marry, and to attend church, synagogue, or mosque with those of different social and economic backgrounds.

Empathy and understanding the circumstances of others is an impetus to philanthropy—so if we want to raise a generation of philanthropists, perhaps we might begin by encouraging young people (and older ones too!) to read great literature.

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