Bookworms have stronger people skills

Edward Willett @ 10-07-2008

The Bookworm I have occasionally wondered, as I write fiction, if what I am doing is really a particularly worthwhile way to spend my time. Shouldn’t I be off actually, you know, building something? Inventing something? Saving the planet?

Via Blogowych, I am encouraged to learn from Toronto’s Globe and Mail that:

A group of Toronto researchers have compiled a body of evidence showing that bookworms have exceptionally strong people skills.

Their years of research – summed up in the current issue of New Scientist magazine – has shown readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than those who read non-fiction texts. And follow-up research showed that reading fiction may help fine-tune these skills: People assigned to read a New Yorker short story did better on social reasoning tests than those who read an essay from the same magazine.

Those benefits, researchers say, may be because fiction acts as a type of simulator. Reading about make-believe people having make-believe adventures or whirlwind romances may actually help people navigate those trials in real life.

And, yes, science fiction gets mentioned, although in that usual sort of “ooh, how icky” tone one encounters so often in news stories:

And do sci-fi tales about chasing aliens through the galaxy have the same benefits as Alice Munro’s short stories about love and loss?

This is a false dichotomy, of course. A story about chasing aliens through the galaxy can as easily be about love and loss as a story set in the here-and-now.

Besides, I’d argue that if one of the benefits of mundane fiction is that it acts as a “type of simulator” of real life, then one of the benefits of science fiction (oddly enough, maybe even in particular so-called Mundane SF) is that it acts as a type of simulator of how life may be affected by the never-ending and accelerating onslaught of the effects of technological change. So even if science fiction fans may not necessarily have exceptionally strong people skills (and certainly I’ve met a few at conventions who most emphatically did not), they may just possibly have exceptionally strong skills in other important areas, like adjusting to cultural upheavals and dealing with new technology.

And also exceptionally strong alien-chasing skills, of course. You never know when those might come in handy.

(Image: The Bookworm by Carl Spitzweg.)

[tags]books, science fiction, reading, psychology[/tags]

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5 Responses to “Bookworms have stronger people skills”

  1. Dave says:

    Here’s the New Scientist piece. Most of it is behind a subscription wall unfortunately.

    This appears to be a PDF of the research paper. At any rate, it’s the only on-point publication I could uncover by Oatley and the two collaborators he lists in the NS piece. It appears to be a book chapter, but I’m not sure if the book is out (or what it’s called). It’s only a brief lit-review, and much of the material it reviews is theoretical and speculative. Still, it’s very interesting, and convincing at least as a preliminary matter.

    (It’s embarrassing that the Globe reporter, Hayley Mick, didn’t mention the paper in which this research is reported. It’s almost as if Mick thinks New Scientist is a peer-reviewed journal, rather than a sketchy pop-sci mag.)

  2. Dave says:

    (Ugh, another complaint about the Globe reporting: Mick quotes both Oatley and Mar separately, without noting anywhere that they are collaborators who’ve published jointly on precisely the question that’s being discussed. It makes it sound like we’re getting two independent opinions on the science, when actually we’re just hearing twice from the same research team. As a non-scientist, I’m especially alarmed by sloppy science reporting, because I have to rely on science reporting to learn about science. If the reporters can’t get it right for me, I hardly have a chance.)

  3. SMD says:

    Aha! I knew it!

    By the way, I think there is great use for the ability to chase aliens, even today. Chasing aliens can easily mean trying to find them in that big thing we call the universe. If you have the skills for that sort of thing, then I think it’s very useful as we try to find Earth-like planets around other stars…

    And I sent you an email, Mr. Willett, just so you know (in regards to a review I did of Marseguro with a question). 😛

    Anywho.

  4. Dave says:

    Chasing aliens!? Like the Minutemen?

  5. Stephen Kotowych says:

    Hey Ed –

    Glad I’m not the only fictioneer with such qualms of purpose and conscience. Turns out we were right all along! 🙂