Failed Replication Shows Literary Fiction Doesn’t Boost Social Cognition

A 2013 study published in Science found that reading literary fiction for just 20 minutes could improve one’s social abilities, but researchers who attempted to replicate the findings using the original study materials and methodology were unable to obtain the same results.

The team, which included researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Pace University, Boston College and the University of Oklahoma, published its results in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Deena Weisberg, a senior fellow in Penn’s psychology department in the School of Arts & Sciences, and Thalia Goldstein, assistant professor of psychology at Pace University, wanted to replicate the study to improve their understanding of how such a small change involving a specific storytelling type could result in this response.

 “Why would literary fiction be particularly good at doing this? Why not romance literature, which is primarily about relationships? Or why not something more absorbing?” Dr. Weisberg said. “Literature is harder to absorb. Those questions made me raise my eyebrows.”

Once the pair completed their study, they found that BC and Oklahoma researchers also had attempted and failed to replicate the results of the original study. The separate groups collaborated on the paper.

Dr. Weisberg and colleagues did find that subjects who recognized more authors on  an  Author Recognition Test also scored better on the social cognition measure.

“One brief exposure to fiction won’t have an effect, but perhaps a protracted engagement with fictional stories such that you boost your skills ... could,” Dr. Weisberg said. “It’s also possible the causality is the other way around: It could be people who are already good at theory of mind read a lot. They like engaging in stories with people.”