by Martin Cothran
One of the contentions of those who defend the humanities is that a familiarity with classic literature improves interpersonal skills, and that, since most jobs, even in tech industries, involve such skills, an educational emphasis on literature is hardly irrelevant to the vocational emphasis many policymakers now think education should have.
Literary fiction by the likes of Salman Rushdie, Harper Lee and Toni Morrison helps improve readers’ understanding of other people’s emotions, according to new research – but genre writing, from authors including Danielle Steel and Clive Cussler, does not.
Academics David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, from the New School for Social Research in New York, put more than 1,000 participants through the “author recognition test”, which measured exposure to fiction by asking respondents to identify writers they recognised from a list. The list included both authors and non-authors, and ranged from writers who are identified as literary, such as Rushdie and Morrison, to those such as Cussler and Steel who are seen as genre authors. The participants then did the “reading the mind in the eyes” test, in which they were asked to select which of four emotion terms most closely matches the expression of a person in a photograph.
As with all such studies, there are methodological questions. But it shouldn’t exactly surprise anyone that reading literature in which there is an interplay of human emotions between well-drawn characters should engender a greater ability to detect these emotions in other people.