Findings just published in Science magazine show that reading serious fiction may improve our ability to assess body language and what people are thinking. In a study at the New School for Social Research in New York City, participants ranging in age from 18 to 75 were instructed to read 10 to 15 pages of either literary or mainstream popular fiction. Authors in the literary category included Anton Chekhov and Don DeLillo, while the mainstream authors included Danielle Steel, Gillian Flynn, and Robert Heinlein.
After reading the passages, participants looked at photographs of faces and were asked whether the expressions were happy, angry, afraid, or sad. Then they were shown only small segments of faces and asked to provide more nuanced interpretations of what they expressed, such as doubt or hostility. Those who’d read the literary fiction had more successful assessments than the mainstream group did.
One possible explanation for this finding is that literary fiction features more character development and leaves more to the imagination, as opposed to mainstream fiction’s tendency to focus more on plot. Additional research is required to determine the validity of these results. In the meantime, before your next blind date or job interview, you might want delve into Dostoyevsky or peruse some Proust.