Does Reading a Single Passage of Literary Fiction Really Improve Theory of Mind? (NO)

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Fiction simulates the social world and invites us into the minds of characters. This has led various researchers to suggest that reading fiction improves our understanding of others’ cognitive and emotional states. Kidd and Castano (2013) received a great deal of attention by providing support for this claim. Their article reported that reading segments of literary fiction (but not popular fiction or nonfiction) immediately and significantly improved performance on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET), an advanced theory-of-mind test. Here we report a replication attempt by 3 independent research groups, with 792 participants randomly assigned to 1 of 4 conditions (literary fiction, popular fiction, nonfiction, and no reading). In contrast to Kidd and Castano (2013), we found no significant advantage in RMET scores for literary fiction compared to any of the other conditions. However, as in Kidd and Castano and previous research, the Author Recognition Test, a measure of lifetime exposure to fiction, consistently predicted RMET scores across conditions. We conclude that the most plausible link between reading fiction and theory of mind is either that individuals with strong theory of mind are drawn to fiction and/or that a lifetime of reading gradually strengthens theory of mind, but other variables, such as verbal ability, may also be at play. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)
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