Dickens and Austen help in job interviews
SAY you are getting ready for a blind date or a job interview. What should you do? Besides shower and shave, of course, it turns out you should read - but not just anything.
Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel.
That is the conclusion of a study published in the journal Science. It found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious non-fiction, people performed better in tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence - skills that come in handy when you are trying to read someone's body language or gauge what they are thinking.
The researchers said the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.
To find a broader pool of participants for the study than the usual college students, the social psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York City recruited their subjects through Amazon's Mechanical Turk service, where people sign up to earn money for completing small jobs.
People ranging in age from 18 to 75 were paid US$2 (S$2.50) or US$3 each to read for a few minutes.
Some were given excerpts from award-winning literary fiction (Don DeLillo, Wendell Berry). Others were given bestsellers like Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, a Rosamunde Pilcher romance or a Robert Heinlein science-fiction tale.
In one experiment, some participants were given non-fiction excerpts, but we're not talking All The President's Men. To maximise the contrast, the researchers - looking for well-written non-fiction that was not literary or about people - turned to Smithsonian Magazine. How The Potato Changed The World was one selection. Bamboo Steps Up was another.
After reading - or in some cases reading nothing - the participants took computerised tests that measured people's ability to decode emotions or predict a person's expectations or beliefs in a particular scenario.
The idea that what we read might influence our social and emotional skills is not new. Previous studies have correlated various types of reading with empathy and sensitivity.
But psychologists and other experts said the new study was powerful because it suggested a direct effect - quantifiable by measuring how many right and wrong answers people got in the tests - from reading literature for only a few minutes.
The researchers - Dr Emanuele Castano, a psychology professor, and Mr David Comer Kidd, a doctoral candidate - found that people who read literary fiction scored better than those who read popular fiction. This was true even though, when asked, subjects said they did not enjoy literary fiction as much.
However, there is still much that the study does not address: How long could such effects last? Would three months of reading Charles Dickens and Jane Austen produce larger or smaller effects, or have no impact?
Are the differences in scores all attributable to the type of material read? Would the results hold if the same person read all of the types? And would it matter if the literary fiction was particularly difficult?
The study's authors and other academic psychologists said such findings should be considered by educators designing curriculum, particularly when assigning reading materials to students.