Study: Read Romance, Be Sensitive

Readers of fiction (romance more so than science fiction, suspense, or domestic) were better at picking up emotion in the eyes of others.

Problem: People are always saying “Nothing” when you ask what’s wrong, or “Good,” when you ask how they’re doing, even though oftentimes those answers are clearly just niceties intended to fulfill a standard social script of surface-level interactions. But being sensitive to others is hard work, and some people are really not good at it. Previous studies have shown that one way people learn social skills—aside from, you know, socializing—is by reading books. Fiction in particular, which, compared to, say, a textbook, contains more depictions of social situations.

In a recent study, researchers at Canada’s York University expanded on this by looking at whether the genre of fiction someone prefers to read affects their interpersonal sensitivity, positing that “each fiction genre is likely to provide a distinctive conceptual framework through which readers construct meaning about the social world.”

Methodology:  The researchers gauged what kind of books participants had been exposed to most by showing them a list of names, and asking them to identify which they recognized as authors. The genres included were domestic fiction, romance, sci-fi/fantasy and suspense/thriller. Some of the other names were nonfiction authors, and some were made up.

Then they tested subjects’ interpersonal sensitivity by showing them black and white photos of actors’ eyes, and having them identify which of four possible mental states the actor was portraying. Subjects also took a personality survey, so the researchers could account for any differences in sensitivity resulting from personality, not reading material.

Results: As expected, fiction readers showed more interpersonal sensitivity than nonfiction readers. (Though there wasn’t a negative relationship between reading nonfiction and sensitivity.) When the researchers looked at the genres specifically, controlling for other variables, they found that reading romance in particular correlated with higher sensitivity scores, which makes sense for fans of a genre built on the foundation of expressing emotion. There were also relationships between reading suspense/thriller and domestic fiction books and higher sensitivity, but those ties were weaker than the one found with romance readers.

Implications: It’s hard to know if reading romance makes you more sensitive, or if sensitive people are naturally drawn to romance novels, or some combination thereof. The researchers consider a possible explanation for this relationship: “It may be that the emotional experiences evoked by romance novels lead to rumination on past relationship experiences…perhaps encouraging readers to puzzle out the complexities of their own past romantic relationships. This thoughtful introspection might then be usefully applied to new social interactions.”

The study, "What You Read Matters: The Role of Fiction Genre in Predicting Interpersonal Sensitivity," appeared in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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