Reading Fiction is Good for You! - Sarah Woodbury

Reading Fiction is Good for You!

As a writer, this should go without saying, but several new studies show that fiction does more than spark the imagination and take us to other worlds.

And article in the Boston Globe ( follows a series of studies by researcher (and anthropologists) about what fiction does to us–how it shapes us, makes us think, and changes our sensitivities.

“… Perhaps the most impressive finding is just how fiction shapes us: mainly for the better, not for the worse. Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds. More peculiarly, fiction’s happy endings seem to warp our sense of reality. They make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is. But believing that lie has important effects for society?—?and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place.

For a long time literary critics and philosophers have argued, along with the novelist George Eliot, that one of fiction’s main jobs is to “enlarge men’s sympathies.” Recent lab work suggests they are right. The psychologists Mar and Keith Oatley tested the idea that entering fiction’s simulated social worlds enhances our ability to connect with actual human beings. They found that heavy fiction readers outperformed heavy nonfiction readers on tests of empathy, even after they controlled for the possibility that people who already had high empathy might naturally gravitate to fiction. As Oatley puts it, fiction serves the function of “making the world a better place by improving interpersonal understanding.”

Take a study of television viewers by the Austrian psychologist Marcus Appel. Appel points out that, for a society to function properly, people have to believe in justice. They have to believe that there are rewards for doing right and punishments for doing wrong. And, indeed, people generally do believe that life punishes the vicious and rewards the virtuous. But one class of people appear to believe these things in particular: those who consume a lot of fiction.

In Appel’s study, people who mainly watched drama and comedy on TV?—?as opposed to heavy viewers of news programs and documentaries?—?had substantially stronger “just-world” beliefs. Appel concludes that fiction, by constantly exposing us to the theme of poetic justice, may be partly responsible for the sense that the world is, on the whole, a just place.

This is despite the fact, as Appel puts it, “that this is patently not the case.” As people who watch the news know very well, bad things happen to good people all the time, and most crimes go unpunished. In other words, fiction seems to teach us to see the world through rose-colored lenses. And the fact that we see the world that way seems to be an important part of what makes human societies work.

Our survey respondents reacted to the characters as though they were real people: They admired the protagonists, disliked the antagonists, felt happy when the good guys succeeded, and felt sad or angry when they were threatened. By simulating a world where antisocial behavior is strongly condemned and punished, these novels were promoting ancient human values. And from these books, and from fiction more broadly, readers learn by association that if they are more like the protagonists, they’ll be more likely to live happily ever after.

Fiction is often treated like a mere frill in human life, if not something worse. But the emerging science of story suggests that fiction is good for more than kicks. By enhancing empathy, fiction reduces social friction. At the same time, story exerts a kind of magnetic force, drawing us together around common values. In other words, most fiction, even the trashy stuff, appears to be in the public interest after all.”  For the whole article:

2 Replies to “Reading Fiction is Good for You!”

  1. That’s a great article, Sarah. Thanks for pointing it out. I want to show that to the students in my reading and composition classes.

    BTW, I just came across your books, and I love them, particularly the mix of history and fantasy in your “After Cilmeri” series, although I also really enjoy the Garth and Gwen mystery series. I was a faithful follower of the Brother Cadfael series, and I’m delighted to see a worthy successor to it, especially one with a little romance as well.


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