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The Great Debate: Fiction vs. Nonfiction

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February 17, 2022

It is known that reading in general has a positive impact on vocabulary size, spelling and mental agility, but is nonfiction more valuable than fiction?

Reading fiction has been shown to increase empathy and moral reasoning in people, as well as greatly improve their social cognition. Some believe reading fiction is a waste of time; that instead of reading about a fictional character's adventures, you should go experience them yourself. In my opinoin, learning new skills and information is important and I think nonfiction has value, though not more than fiction. They both have importance, and research agrees.

Research shows that reading nonfiction may negatively predict empathic abilities (or at least has a smaller positive effect), concluding that the connection between a positive relationship with empathy and reading fiction is not contingent on the act of reading. There’s a relationship between immersion in the story and increased positive effects, which tells us the connection has less to do with identifying with characters, being emotionally moved, or vividly imagining environments, and more to do with a deep immersion into the story world. In other words, the more "lost" you are in a story, the more your brain is working. Studies on empathy require participants to "self-report," which results in a less measureable outcome than studies on increased vocabulary or spelling, but the results are still valid.

“Inhabiting a novel can be transformative in a way that using a self-help book isn’t.”

Ella Berthouid, Bibliotherapist at the School of Life

Overall, reading increases vocabulary, sharpens reasoning skills, and expands intellectual horizons, but what else can it do, especially if you're reading fiction?

A study found a link between what psychologists call “theory of the mind” (the ability to know what another person is feeling or thinking) and reading fictional literature. While the results of that study have not been replicated, more research has shown that there is a link between reading fiction and empathy, researchers are still attempting to learn why or how. Reading fiction can help strengthen our socio-cognitive abilities, which is a large part of socioemotional learning (the development of skills and knowledge related to personal and social tasks and challenges). Other research supports the importance of promoting socioemotional learning in schools, but that can extend into our adult lives as learning is a life-long endeavor. 

“The science behind reading for mental health is limited, but researchers like Panero are eager to continue exploring the benefits. 'I think we all have some sort of intuitive sense that we get something from [fiction]. So in our field, we’re interested in saying, [Well, what is it that we’re getting?]'”

–Maria Euginia Panero, Research Associate and Project Manager at Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, with a Ph.D in Social Psychology from Boston University

Literary fiction helps us understand complex ideas, conflicting viewpoints, and social situations. While nonfiction may be able to provide psychological reasoning, or a more scientific approach to the why and the how, fiction gives us countless examples. The reader is able to imagine themselves in a situation and is shown how a character navigates that situation, allowing them to experience it secondhand, and later ponder what they would have done or how the experience effects a person or world.

These studies and articles are all about adults, not including any of the numerous studies done about the benefits of reading to children or the impact reading has on development. There are also countless research papers on the measurable benefits of reading, increased vocabulary size, spelling and general knowledge. While reading anything has its benefits, specifically reading fiction can have a more positive effect on empathy than reading nonfiction. Learning facts and skills is important, but fiction has a greater impact on our socio-cognitive abilities and empathy which are equally as important.

Turner R. The benefits of fiction-engagement for empathic abilities : a multidimensional approach. 2020.

Begley S. Read a Novel: It’s Just What the Doctor Ordered. TIME Magazine. 2016;188(19):58-60

Kozak S, Recchia H. Reading and the Development of Social Understanding: Implications for the Literacy Classroom. Reading Teacher. 2019;72(5):569-577. doi:10.1002/trtr.1760

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