Fiction improves our social understanding

Last Thursday morning, Radio 4’s Today programme hosted an interview with Professor Keith Oatley, a cognitive psychologist and author of the book Such Stuff as Dreams.

His thesis is that reading fiction is good for you.

Well, I, inveterate bookworm of this parish, could have told you that – though I couldn’t have offered any hard evidence. I’m sure there are members of book clubs all over the world who would say the same thing. The Greeks thought it was the case, but again, without proof.

Professor Oatley, on the other hand, has come up with something more empirical. His study established a direct link between the amount of fiction a person reads, and their degree of empathy with and understanding of others (as measured by accepted psychological tests). The link was so strong that it seems to have surprised even him.

It’s worth listening to the interview (it’s on the BBC iPlayer, so will probably disappear in a few days’ time – though as of 24th July it’s still available). He compares fiction to a flight simulator – it is a way of encountering a wider range of situations and people, of living a richer and more interesting life than one might have the opportunity to experience directly. And it has a positive, demonstrable effect on the way people cope with the world.

Aside from its obvious intrinsic interest, there are three things that struck me about this idea.

The first it the delicious irony that, on the day of Professor Oatley’s broadcast, the British Medical Journal published a news item (picked up the next day in the Telegraph) suggesting that Mills & Boon novels “cause marital breakdown”. Now, I’m no fan of Mills & Boon – I find their characters are one-dimensional and implausible, their plots repetitive and predictable, and I can get quite irritable about their cavalier and misrepresentative portrayal of history. It is little more than escapist fantasy. But escapism offers hope. And it is interesting to note that Professor Oatley – in his interview, at least – did not distinguish between different types of fiction.

The second point was made yesterday at the Chalke Valley History Festival. At the talk on historical fact and fiction, a member of the audience asked whether the panellists (historical novelists all) chose to write historical rather than contemporary fiction, so that they could be free of the mundane trivia of the weekly Tesco shop, and could focus on saying something about the human condition.

This is a big part of the appeal that historical fiction has always had for me. I have often said that Dorothy Dunnett’s Checkmate helps me to walk taller. Dunnett certainly has something profound to say about the human condition – even when that condition is degrading and squalid – as too do authors like Charles Palliser, James Clavell, Robert MacNeil and (yes) M.M. Bennetts. And all these authors manage to portray a whole civilisation in the course of a novel.  How is that not going to help the reader to understand and empathise with his or her surroundings more fully?

The third point takes me back to a knowledge cafe I attended in May, hosted by David Gurteen. David was talking about the benefits of conversation over confrontation. I like that term ‘conversation’ in a business context; it seems less structured and stilted than ‘dialogue’, and David emphasised that a conversation can go wherever you want it to go. He also stressed the value of storytelling as a business technique. I got quite excited by all this.

The interesting and slightly disappointing thing, though, was the subsequent attempt at conversation with one of the others in the room. If a conversation can go wherever I want it to, I thought, I’d like to talk about the value of fiction.

Maybe I picked the wrong person to talk to about it, though, because I got a mystified and slightly contemptuous look. A look that said, That’s all very well, but that’s not what he meant by storytelling. A look that said, Storytelling means including a couple of anecdotes in your management seminar. A look that said, This conversation is supposed to be about organisational intelligence and knowledge management, not about fluffy things like novels. A look that said, This conversation can go wherever you want it to, as long as you want it to stay within certain tacitly defined boundaries.

Such a pity. Because if reading fiction improves our social understanding – if, as Professor Oatley claims, it has a positive and demonstrable effect on the way people cope with the world and understand each other – it seems to me that it might, it just might, have some untapped value in a business setting too.

Would anyone like a conversation about that?

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8 Responses to Fiction improves our social understanding

  1. Scott Morgan says:

    I don’t know who said it originally, but I agree with the notion that fiction is truth. And if truth is beauty, then fiction is beauty. So yes, Ben, I agree with you.

  2. TessyBritton says:

    Reading novels is very important. We should never be without one! My daughter is studying creative writing and we have very long discussions about how literature and popular narratives impact on society and visa versa. Thanks for directing me to your very interesting post.

    • Ben Bennetts says:

      Thanks Tessy. I do want to investigate Prof Oatley’s findings a bit more – I can’t help wondering what the practical implications and applications might be, particularly for people or groups who find it hard to engage with others. Should we be looking at more book groups in the community?

      I’m also interested to find out whether he draws any distinction between reading a book and watching a film of the same storyline. I suspect he will have found quite a significant difference, but it would be interesting to see what the evidence actually shows of this! Literature is far more than the popular narrative, of course.

  3. Interesting study by Professor Oatley and I would agree that reading fiction probably does open your eyes to the problems of others as well as one’s own. However, one of my best mates was an utter fiction bookworm when she was younger and when she came to my school she really struggled socially as she was on a completely different planet, and in a way, thought people who werent bookish were below her (her words not mine). It took some time for her to strike a balance between reading and socialising and that is when she began to empathise with people a lot more. She still absolutely loves reading but she is now much less solitary than she used to be.

    • Ben Bennetts says:

      Lucy – it’s an excellent point you make. I suspect this may be to do with age and social maturity – I was a forerunner of your friend, and it took me till my mid-teens to engage more fully with real people and not just with the safe and trustworthy world of books.

      That said, whilst many of the true bibliophiles I have known have been relatively quiet people, they have also been the more thoughtful people, more likely to listen than to interrupt – character traits which are maybe undervalued and under-rated today.

  4. Ben Bennetts says:

    Stop Press – David Gurteen has just pointed me to this article by Katherine Bell, first published in the Harvard Business Review, giving four excellent reasons why writing fiction is good for one’s business acumen.

    And yet… and yet… whilst her points ring true about writers, I find it harder to reconcile them with writers who are above all self-publicists. Perhaps that is because, as I’ve argued elsewhere, good readers and good writers are often characterised by a kind of stillness which allows them to listen and respond to what is going on around them – a quality that is at odds with many of the characteristics of the self-promoter.

  5. Thank you SOOOOOO much for this post! I’m an aspiring writing who teaches in the meantime, and I’m constantly trying to convince my students that empathy is learned through reading fiction. Now, I can refer them to this post to aid conversations about this. 🙂

    • Ben Bennetts says:

      Thanks, Kathryn. I was watching the TV movie of Arabian Nights with my daughter at the weekend; there is a marvellous line where the Storyteller tells Scheherezade, “Stories teach us how to live, and why”. It may not be true of all writing but I think it can be true of the best – and probably of more than we think! After all, if we don’t learn to exercise our imagination, how on earth are we supposed to grow and develop, or to cope with the unexpected?

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