ArticlePDF Available

Fiction and Social Cognition: The Effect of Viewing Award-Winning Television Dramas on Theory of Mind



Previous research has shown that reading award-winning literary fiction leads to increases in performance on tests of theory of mind (Kidd & Castano, 2013). Here, we extend this research to another medium, exploring the effect of viewing award-winning TV dramas on subsequent performance on a test of theory of mind ability, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Hill, Raste, & Plumb, 2001). In 2 separate studies, participants were randomly assigned to watch either an award-winning TV drama (Mad Men or West Wing for Study 1; The Good Wife or Lost for Study 2) or a TV documentary (Shark Week or How the Universe Works for Study 1; NOVA Colosseum or Through the Wormhole for Study 2). In both studies, participants who viewed a TV drama performed significantly higher on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test than did those who viewed a documentary. These results suggest that film narratives, as well as written narratives, may facilitate the understanding of others’ minds.
Fiction and Social Cognition: The Effect of Viewing Award-Winning Television Dramas
on Theory of Mind
Jessica Black & Jennifer L. Barnes
University of Oklahoma
Black, J., & Barnes, J. L. (2015). Fiction and social cognition: The effect of viewing award-
winning television dramas on theory of mind. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and
the Arts. doi: 10.1037/aca0000031
Previous research has shown that reading award-winning literary fiction leads to increases in
performance on tests of theory of mind (Kidd & Castano, 2013). Here, we extend this research
to another medium, exploring the effect of viewing award-winning television dramas on
subsequent performance on a test of theory of mind ability, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes
Test (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Hill, Raste, & Plumb, 2001). In two separate studies,
participants were randomly assigned to watch either an award-winning television drama (Mad
Men or West Wing for Study 1; The Good Wife or Lost for Study 2) or a television documentary
(Shark Week or How the Universe Works for Study 1; NOVA Colosseum or Through the
Wormhole for Study 2). In both studies, participants who viewed a television drama performed
significantly higher on the Reading the Eyes in the Minds Test than those who viewed a
documentary. These results suggest that film narratives, as well as written narratives, may
facilitate our understanding of others’ minds.
KEY WORDS: fiction, social cognition, theory of mind, television, documentary
Fiction and social cognition: The effect of viewing award-winning television dramas on theory
of mind
Theory of mind (ToM) refers to the awareness of and the ability to interpret the mental
states and emotions of others. Prior research suggests that reading literary fiction, as opposed to
nonfiction and popular fiction, improves people’s theory of mind (Kidd & Castano, 2013). Kidd
and Castano assigned participants to read either literary fiction or nonfiction, and then had them
take a test designed to assess theory of mind, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET;
Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Hill, Raste, & Plumb, 2001). Participants performed better on the
RMET after reading fiction, controlling for prior experience with fiction (shown in previous
research to be positively associated with theory of mind and empathy; see Djikic, Oatley, &
Moldoveanu, 2013; Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, de la Paz, & Peterson, 2006; Mar, Oatley, & Peterson,
2009). Although there is ample evidence that reading fiction is associated with increased
emotional understanding of others, it is unclear whether this effect is specific to written fiction,
or whether the narrative complexity and the complexity of the characters and relationships
contained in a fictional story matters more than the medium through which that story is
A great deal of research in the science of fiction has engaged with the idea that fictional
stories serve as social simulation and allow us to practice attributing mental states to others (e.g.
Mar & Oatley, 2008), but a disproportionate amount of this discourseand nearly all of the
empirical research on fiction and theory of mindfocuses on written fiction, despite the fact that
the production and consumption of fictional stories is not nownor has it ever beenconfined
to the page. This is particularly striking given that many of the arguments in favor of the
connection between reading fiction and increased theory of mind performance are not in any way
intrinsically tied to the written word per se. For example, Kidd and Castano (2013) argued that
reading literary fiction increases theory of mind because it forces readers to take a writerly stance
with respect to the construction of a story’s characters, encouraging them to enter into
conversation with the author and forcing them to fill in gaps in the narrative to enrich their
understanding of characters' mental lives, relationships, and emotions. The techniques by which
they suggest literary fiction achieves this endby toggling between multiple perspectives, by
forcing readers to view the world subjectively through these different perspective, by presenting
complicated characters whose mental lives can be difficult to perceiveare not intrinsically tied
to the written form. Rather, they reflect the complexity of the characters presented and the
degree to which the audience is forced to work to construct their own understanding of those
Scholars in the field of media studies have long noted that audience participation in
television narratives often takes much the same form. For example, filling in narrative gaps,
parsing out subtext, debating the meaning of ambiguous facial expressions and dialogue, and
participating in the construction of characters in a writerly manner are all activities commonly
associated with television fandoms (e.g., Barnes, 2015; Jenkins, 1992; Zubernis and Larsen,
2012). Moreover, just as novels vary in how challenging, subtle, and narratively and socially
complex they are, so, too, do screen media, and a variety of scholars have argued that a subset of
narratively complex television, sometimes called “art television,” is the television equivalent of
art cinema or literary fiction (e.g., Kroener, 2014; Mittell, 2006; Thompson, 2003; Watson,
The purpose of the current research was to examine whether watching award-winning,
narratively complex television dramas facilitated performance on a theory of mind task
compared to watching television documentaries. In other words, we were interested in extending
the research of Kidd and Castano (2013) by adapting their methods in Study 1, which compared
the effects of reading literary fiction versus nonfiction, for use in another media.
There are many reasons, beyond those cited above, to expect that the benefits of
consuming fictional narratives should extend beyond the written word. For example, in one of
the only empirical studies to look at the relationship between fiction and theory of mind across
media, Mar, Tackett, and Moore (2010) found that inferred exposure to children’s movies
(although not children’s TV shows) predicted children’s performance on ToM tasks to the same
degree that exposure to children’s books did. Other support for the idea that there might be a
connection between theory of mind and the consumption of fiction across media comes from the
autism literature. Individuals with autism spectrum conditions, who have deficits in theory of
mind, show a preference for nonfiction over fiction in written form (Barnes, 2012) and also pay
less attention to people in films (Klin, Jones, Schultz, Volkmar, & Cohen, 2002). When asked to
retell television show scenes, they rely less on mental states than do neurotypical controls
(Barnes et al, 2009).
To understand a television show or film, the audience must keep track of the mental
states, emotions, and relationships of the characters contained therein. In fact, some scholars
have argued that screen media may be even more effective than books at placing the audience in
the relational world of the protagonists by showing the story from a character’s point of view and
limiting real-world self-awareness (e.g., Currie, 1995). In an analysis of the British
mockumentary The Office, Zunshine (2008) argues that this show is particularly good at
stimulating theory of mind because it shows the feelings and thoughts of the characters both
when it is the characters’ intent to do so and when they are seeking to hide their emotions. The
cameraand the audienceoften sees things that the fictional characters that populate that
world do not. Drawing meaning from these scenes and interpreting characters’ emotions may
require many layers of understanding of the characters’ mental states and relationships.
Although there seems to be no research specifically studying whether films or television
can affect adult ToM, there is a body of work that suggests that there are social, emotional, and
cognitive benefits to the one-sided relationships some viewers form with favorite television
characters (Derrick, Gabriel, & Hugenberg, 2009; Gardner & Knowles, 2008). Mar and Oatley
(2008) argue that the purpose of fiction is the simulation of social experience via imagination;
Currie (1995) applies the same logic to film, holding that film is a medium for both photographic
representation and narrative story-telling. Indeed, a visual medium may be even more effective
at increasing ToM, particularly given the instruments used to assess it (e.g., the RMET, used by
Kidd & Castano, 2013 and Djikic et al., 2013, requires participants to discern emotions based on
pictures). After all, watching a film requires attributing emotions to actors based on wide range
of cues, including facial expressions that may contradict spoken intentions (see Zunshine, 2008).
On the other hand, it may be that the types of cues used in film mediaeven narratively
complex media with complicated charactersare less effective at facilitating theory of mind
ability than having to imaginatively engage with information conveyed in print. Because many
specifics that are immediately apparent in a visual medium may be implied or omitted in a novel,
readers must constantly use their imaginations to fill in the details, and it could be that this
imaginative activity plays a key role in facilitating theory of mind. Zunshine (2006) contends
that much of the allure of reading fiction is the opportunity it offers to delve into others’ thoughts
and intentions, guessing and second-guessing what may be going on in their minds. Although it
could be argued that film narratives do this as well, processing the visual representation of the
interplay among characters may make for a more passive experience for viewers than
constructing mental imagery of their own.
It is also worth noting that the written nonfiction used as stimuli by Kidd and Castano
(2013) had nonhuman topics (for example, birds and potatoes), and made only oblique references
to people. In contrast, even documentaries about objects tend to have a human narrator, whose
tone of voiceand sometimes, even visual imageis part of the show. Whereas written
nonfiction about objects or animals may lack characters altogether, television documentaries,
even when they focus on object, tend to feature people. It is possible that merely viewing media
which contains human will result in participants performing better than they otherwise would in
tasks devoted to reading the facial expressions of others.
In contrast, it could be that fictionof any mediumonly increases theory of mind when
the characters contained therein are challenging to understand. In line with this idea, Kidd and
Castano (2013) found that reading literary fiction resulted in better performance on the RMET
than did popular fiction. Similarly, though both nonfiction television and award-winning,
narratively complex fictional dramas may contain people, only the latter may provide the kind of
challenging “mind-reading” opportunities needed to engender increased performance on a theory
of mind task.
Here, we investigated the hypothesis that participants would do better on a theory of
mind test (the RMET) after watching award-winning television dramas than they would after
watching documentaries designed to provide information. If award-winning fictionacross
mediaimproves theory of mind, then participants would score higher on the RMET after
watching the award-winning television dramas. In contrast, it could be the case that the ability to
increase theory of mind is specific to written fiction, in which case, participants would score
similarly regardless of whether they have just viewed an informational documentary or an
award-winning television drama.
No prior research had investigated the effect of television series genre on theory of mind;
as such, we had no effect size estimate upon which to base power analysis. Kidd and Castano
(2013) collected data from 90 participants in their first study that contrasted literary fiction and
nonfiction; we used this number as a rough estimate, then added participants in order to obtain a
balanced representation of men and women for both fiction and documentary. Accordingly, 108
college students took part in this research in exchange for class credit. Two failed to complete
the online portion of the experiment. Of the remaining participants, five more were dropped due
to familiarity with the stimuli (two had seen the episode, and three had watched 20 or more
episodes of the same series). Data from one participant who scored more than three standard
deviations below the mean on the RMET were also discarded. The final sample was comprised
of 72 women and 28 men (mean age = 18.77, SD = 1.17); 51 people (71% female) watched
documentaries and 49 (73% female) watched fiction.
Materials and Instrumentation
Video stimuli. Participants were randomly assigned to watch one of four television
series episodes, two award-winning fiction (Mad Men and West Wing, both pilots) and two
documentaries (Shark Week: Jaws Strikes Back (2014) and How the Universe Works: Season 3,
Episode 1: The Sun). Each video was played from the beginning and stopped after
approximately 26 minutes (the precise stopping point varied according to the scene: all were
stopped at a scene change).
The television dramas were chosen using similar standards to those used by Kidd and
Castano (2013) in their study comparing literary fiction and nonfiction, wherein they chose to
operationalize “literary” fiction as works that had received prestigious awards in recognition of
their quality and execution. For our purposes, we focused on television dramas whose first
seasons had received Emmy nominations/wins across three major categories related to quality
and execution of the story: writing, directing, and acting. Based on these criteria, we chose The
West Wing (wins: Writing, Directing, Supporting Actress; additional nominations: Actor,
Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress) and Mad Men (win: Writing, additional nominations:
Directing, Lead Actor, Supporting Actor). Both series won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama
Series in their first season.
The nonfiction stimuli were also chosen with respect to the criteria of Kidd and Castano,
who focused on articles that were published in a popular educational venue (The Smithsonian
Magazine) and focused on non-social content. Thus, both of the documentary programs chosen
for this experiment aired on a popular, educational channel (The Discovery Channel) and focused
on non-social content.
Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. The RMET (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, & Hill et
al., 2001) assessed “mentalizing,” or theory of mind. Designed to measure the ability to interpret
facial expression, the RMET includes 36 images of eyes from a sample of people that vary in
gender, age, ethnicity, and attractiveness. Participants are shown four words (e.g., jealous,
panicked, arrogant, and hateful) and choose the one that best describes the emotion of the
photographed person.
The Author Recognition Test (ART). To measure exposure to fiction, we used
Acheson, Wells, and MacDonald’s (2008) revision of Stanovich and West’s (1989) instrument.
Participants are shown 130 names, half of which are real authors representing various genres,
and half of which are foils. They are told to select all the names they recognize as belonging to
authors, and are warned that there are fakes. A total score is calculated by subtracting the
number of selected foils from the number of selected names of genuine authors.
Participants came into the lab in groups of up to three people. They were informed of the
procedure (including explicit instructions to turn off devices and not to talk), and then watched
one of the four videos together. Afterwards, they sat down at individual computers to complete
the RMET, the ART, and a brief questionnaire asking participants to report if they were fluent in
English, whether they had prior exposure to the television show they had just viewed, how many
episodes they had seen in total, whether they had seen the specific episode shown, their gender,
their age, how many TV shows they followed on a regular basis, and how many books they read
each month. All participants were fluent in English. Those who had seen more than twenty
episodes of the show or the specific episode shown were excluded from further analysis.
Initial analyses using an independent samples t-test demonstrated that participants did
better on the RMET after watching award-winning fiction (M = 28.78, SD = 2.93) than
documentary (M = 27.31, SD = 3.79), t(98) == 2.15, pone-tailed = .017, d = 0.43. (There were no
differences between means for the two shows in each category, ps > .50; see Table 1 for all
means.) Participants reported following a mean of 3.2 TV shows and reading a mean of 1.8
books per month; neither was related to RMET scores (Spearman’s rho = -.04 for TV shows and
-.01 for books, ps > .60). As expected, familiarity with fiction (ART) was related to scores on
the RMET, r(98) = .26, p = .009 (both variables were transformed to correct for skew for
correlational analyses). In line with past research, women (M = 28.56, SD = 3.34) scored higher
than men (M = 26.68, SD = 3.44) on the RMET, t(98) = 2.50, pone-tailed = .007, d = 0.55; however,
there was no gender*group interaction, F(1, 96) < .001, p = .994, so it was not entered in the
final model (see Figure 1). TV show genre was entered as a random variable in an ANOVA
model with gender as a fixed variable and ART scores as a covariate. Controlling for past fiction
exposure and gender, watching award-winning fiction meant higher scores on the RMET than
watching a documentary, F(1, 96) = 4.65, p = .034, partial η2 = .046.
In Study 1, we found preliminary evidence that television show genre affected theory of
mind ability: people did better on the RMET after watching award-winning fiction than after
watching a documentary. However, there were several limitations to this experiment. First, the
absence of a control group makes it impossible to interpret what effect, if any, watching
documentary television may have had on theory of mind performance. It could be that watching
either type of television program improved theory of mind ability over baseline, but that in the
absence of a control group, the only effect visible is that watching award-winning dramas
facilitates performance more. Second, in the current experiment, all of the shows were stopped
around the 26 minute mark. Although this is, in some ways, similar to experiments in which
participants read excerpts of books, rather than whole novels (e.g., Kidd & Castano, 2013,
experiment 2), it arguably does not resemble the way that television showsparticularly
fictional dramas, which provide story arcs within a given episode, as well as season-long arcs
are designed to be consumed. Stopping in the middle of a story arc may have encouraged
participants in the television drama condition to focus on understanding intentions and emotions,
as they tried to figure out what was going to happen in the remainder of the episode. Thus, the
effect seen in this experiment may be exaggerated compared to the effect of watching an entire
episode of an award-winning drama. Finally, given that this experiment focused on only two
examples of each type of show (documentary and award-winning drama), there is a need for
replication of this effect using different stimuli. This is particularly true given that both Mad
Men and West Wing are work place dramas, and both feature relatively male-dominated work
places; it could be that these effects would not generalize to award-winning shows in other
settings or genres, or shows that focused on different kinds of protagonists. Alternatively, the
quality of the shows could be driving the effect: Mad Men and West Wing were both award
winners, but the nonfiction shows had not been chosen with respect to awards. It is possible that
award-winning television documentaries, even those that focus on non-social content, may have
effects more similar to award-winning television dramas. The purpose of Study 2 was to address
these issues.
Study 2
Study 2 was identical to Study 1 with three exceptions. First, new stimuli were chosen to
represent the fiction and documentary genres. The fictional shows chosen included one with a
female protagonist (The Good Wife) and one that diverged from the stimuli used in Study 1 in
both genre and setting (Lost). Additionally, this time both the fiction and nonfiction television
shows selected had won or been nominated for prestigious awards, guaranteeing a high level of
quality in each.
A second key change implemented in Study 2 was that participants were shown 42
minutes, rather than 26, of each of the shows, ensuring that they were allowed to watch a full
hour-long episode of each of the television dramas. Finally, Study 2 also incorporated a control
group from the same research pool who took the RMET without watching any television
beforehand. Based on the results from Study 1, we expected the participants who watched the
episodes from fictional shows to perform better on the RMET than those who watched the
documentaries. We did not make any predictions for the control group, but two possibilities
existed. If the effect was limited to fiction, then the control group would score similarly to the
nonfiction group on the RMET. On the other hand, if watching television of either genre
improved theory of mind skills, then the control group would score lower than both experimental
Participants and procedure
One hundred twenty-seven college students completed the experiment in exchange for
class credit. As in Study 1, they came into the lab in groups of three, watched one of four videos
(randomly assigned), and sat at individual computers to complete a survey on Qualtrics that
included the RMET, the ART, demographics, and questions about their familiarity with the show
they had just watched. As in Study 1, participants who had seen the episode and/or 20 or more
episodes of the TV show were discarded (ten cases). The final sample consisted of 116
participants (63% female, mean age = 19.5 years). Of these, 53 watched fiction (66% female),
and 63 watched non-fiction (60% female). Additionally, a control group of 61 undergraduates
from the same research pool completed the RMET as the first part of a longer online survey.
One participant was discarded for taking more than seven standard deviations longer than the
mean time, leaving 60 participants (60% female, mean age = 19.3 years).
Materials and instrumentation
Participants were randomly assigned to watch one of four television series episodes, two
fiction (Lost and The Good Wife, both pilots) and two documentaries (Through the Wormhole: Is
Time Travel Possible?Season 1, Episode 3 and NOVA: Colosseum: Roman Death Trap
Season 13, Episode 4.). As in Study 1, the television dramas chosen as stimuli had received
Emmy recognition, in the form of nominations and wins, in their first season across a variety of
categories (Lost: win: Outstanding Drama Series, nominations: Writing, Directing, Supporting
Actor (2 nominations); The Good Wife: win: Supporting Actress; nominations: Writing, Actress,
Outstanding Drama Series). Additionally, the nonfiction series Through the Wormhole and
NOVA have also been recognized for their quality, with NOVA having received multiple Emmy
and Peabody awards, and Through the Wormhole having been nominated for Emmys in both the
Outstanding Informational Series category and the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction
All episodes were shown in their entirety except Roman Death Trap, which was stopped
at 42 minutes. After viewing the video, participants took the RMET and ART, described in
Study 1. The control group only took the RMET.
Preliminary Analyses
As in Study 1, there were no significant differences in mean RMET scores between
shows in the same category (drama and documentary, See Table 1). The mean RMET score for
the control group was 25.30 (SD = 5.24), and females (M = 26.30, SD = 3.72) tended to score
higher than males (M = 23.79, SD = 7.75). t(32.38) = 1.66, p = .106, d = 0.41 although the
difference was not statistically significant. There were no significant gender differences in the
experimental group, t(124) = 0.53, p = .600, d = 0.10, and no interaction with gender in the
ANOVA models.
Primary Analyses
First, we used analysis of variance to compare RMET scores across the three groups:
drama, documentary and control. Mean RMET differed across the three groups, F(2, 173) =
6.04, p = .003, partial η2 = .065. Pairwise contrasts demonstrated that mean RMET for the
control group was significantly lower than that of the fiction group, (M = 28.02, SD = 3.35), F(1,
173) = 12.09, p = .001, partial η2 = .065 (d = 0.53). RMET scores for the control group also
tended to be lower than those the documentary group (M = 26.55, SD = 3.52), but the difference
was not statistically significant, F(1, 173) = 2.81, p = .095, partial η2 = .016 (d = 0.26; see Figure
Next, we replicated the analyses we had performed in Study 1, comparing RMET scores
after watching dramas with RMET after watching documentaries, controlling for ART scores
and gender. As expected, participants who had watched fictional shows scored higher than those
who had watched documentaries, t(116) = 2.28, pone-tailed = .012, d = 0.43. A square root
transformation was performed on ART scores to correct a positive skew. Scores on the ART
were not significantly related to RMET scores in this sample, r(114) = .10, 95% CI [-.06, .26].
Although there were no gender differences and no relationship between RMET and ART scores,
in order to replicate Study 1 we tested an ANOVA model with ART scores as covariate, gender
as a fixed variable, and group (fiction vs. nonfiction) as a random variable to predict RMET
scores. Results were very similar to those reported in study 1: controlling for past fiction
exposure and gender, watching fiction meant higher scores on the RMET than watching a
documentary, F(1, 111) = 5.40, p = .022, partial η2 = .046.
Study 2 corroborates the results of Study 1. With new stimuli and participants, we
obtained identical effect sizes, both for the simple independent samples t-test (d = 0.43) and
controlling for gender and familiarity with fiction (ART) in an ANOVA model (partial η2 =
.046). This is particularly notable given that, unusually, there were no gender differences in
RMET scores and no significant relationship between the RMET and ART scores in the second
sample. The stimuli in Study 2 were better matched across conditions, with both documentary
and fiction shows chosen with reference to award nominations. In Study 1, the award-winning
fiction were male-centered workplace dramas; in Study 2, Lost occurs far from the workplace,
and The Good Wife focuses on a woman juggling a demanding job and stressful family life.
Study 2 also allowed us to compare RMET scores from a control group; these were significantly
lower than that of the fiction group, with a medium to large effect size. Although the difference
between the nonfiction group and the control group was not significant, the effect size (d = .28)
suggests that with a larger sample, we might find a significant, if small, improvement in RMET
scores for people who watch a documentary, compared to people who watch nothing.
A final observation that should be noted is that RMET scores were in general lower for
Study 2 than for Study 1. Both samples came from the psychology department research pool, but
they were from different semesters, and Study 2 contained more male participants (38% vs. 28%
in Study 1). The lower scores in Study 2 may be due to the fact that men tend to score lower
than women on the RMET (Baron-Cohen, 2010). In neither study did we find evidence of an
interaction with gender, and although there were no gender differences in Study 2, the increased
number of male participants may have lowered the mean RMET score without altering the effect
of watching different TV genres.
General Discussion
In two experiments, we tested the effect of viewing different television shows on theory
of mind ability. Past research had shown that reading award-winning fiction results in better
scores on ToM tasks than reading nonfiction (Kidd & Castano, 2013), but the question remained
if the same pattern would apply to visual media. Our results suggest that it does, lending support
to the hypothesis that fiction in film as well as print facilitates theory of mind. Participant scores
on the RMET were higher after watching award-winning dramas than after watching
documentaries, even after controlling for both gender and reading experience. Although there
was only a small to medium effect (Cohen, 1988), it is notable that its size is almost identical to
that reported by Kidd and Castano for the comparison between literary fiction and nonfiction:
they reported an effect equivalent to f = .23, while our Cohen’s d (and partial η2) in both studies
corresponded to f = .22. Although future research is needed to directly compare the effects of
watching versus reading the same scene, these results provide preliminary evidence that viewing
award-winning fiction may have similar effects to reading award-winning fiction.
These results are particularly notable given that the majority of discussionand nearly
all of the prior researchon the relationship between fiction and theory of mind has focused on
the effects of reading fiction, despite the fact that reading is not the onlyor even the primary
means through which fictional stories are consumed. Both written and filmed fictional narratives
demand that the audience understand the feelings and intentions of the characters. Without
knowing what the people in a story are thinking, it is difficult, if not impossible, to follow the
plot. Although documentary-style television may require that the audience follow the narrator’s
train of thought and reasoning, these tend to be spelled out when the purpose of the presentation
is to inform the audience. In fiction, on the other hand, part of the pleasure of viewing may be
derived from guessing and second-guessing the purposes of the protagonists.
One key difference between the current study and Kidd and Castano’s (2013) study on
the effects of reading fiction is that in the current study, participants viewed the stimuli in
groups. Although participants were instructed not to talk to each other, it is possible that
watching television dramas as a group may facilitate theory of mind more effectively than
watching alone would. Watching as part of a group may encourage participants to track the
mental states and emotions of not only the characters in Mad Men or Lost, for example, but also
their fellow participants. For instance, a viewer might wonder if other people are interpreting a
given scene the same way he or she is, or might base his or her own enjoyment of an episode in
part on how much the other participants seem to be enjoying it. This is a possibility that merits
further investigation, especially given that television shows are often watched in group settings
in the real world.
Another limitation in the current study involves the stimuli chosen. Whereas Kidd and
Castano (2013) examined the effects of both award-winning (“literary”) and popular fiction, the
current research focused exclusively on award-winning television dramas. The critical reception
these dramas have received reflects recognition of the quality and complexity of these narratives.
It is unclear whether popular, but not award-winning, television dramas would yield similar
effects. If the difference between our fiction and nonfiction conditions was due, in part or whole,
to the presence of conflict, multiple characters with divergent beliefs, emotions, and desires, and
the inclusion of story arcs with a defined narrative structure, then it is possible that watching
popular, as well as award-winning, television dramas may lead to increase theory of mind
performance. If, in contrast, the key variable underlying the effect obtained here is that award-
winning television dramas are challenging, subtle, and require more effort on the part of the
audience to fill in narrative gaps and interpret ambiguous motivations and events, then the effect
found here may not generalize to non-award-winning dramas. Future research is needed to
distinguish between these possibilities.
Similarly, even within the category of award-winning fictional television, it is unclear
whether the same results would be obtained if participants watched award-winning comedies
(such as Arrested Development), award-winning dramas with a strongly episodic structure (such
as House) or more fantastical fare (such as Game of Thrones). Given that prior research suggests
that focusing on a person’s body may lead to changes in the mental states that are attributed to
that person (e.g., Gray, Knobe, Sheskin, Bloom, & Barrett, 2011), it is also an open question
whether award-winning dramas that contain more nudity or a focus on physical actions would
yield similar results.
Finally, although the current study controlled for past exposure to written fiction through
the use of the Author Recognition Test, there was no equivalent measure of exposure to fiction in
visual media, such as television and film. Future research should endeavor to explore whether
the well-established correlation between long-term print fiction exposure and ToM and empathy
(e.g., Djikic et al., 2013; Mar et al., 2006; Mar et al., 2010) persists across media. As a whole,
the work presented in this paper represents an important first step toward extending the body of
research on the relationship between reading fiction and theory of mind to fiction in other media.
Given the vast amounts of time spent watching television and the popularity of visual media, this
is an area ripe for future research.
Acheson, D. J., Wells, J. B., & MacDonald, M. C. (2008). New and updated tests of print
exposure and reading abilities in college students. Behavior Research Methods, 40, 278-
289. doi:10.3758BRM.40.1.278
Barnes, J. L. (2012). Fiction, imagination, and social cognition: Insights from autism. Poetics,
40, 299-316. doi:10.1016/j.poetic.2012.05.001
Barnes, J. L. (2015). Fanfiction as imaginary play: What fan-written stories can tell us about the
cognitive science of fiction. Poetics, 48, 69-82.
Barnes, J. L., Lombardo, M. V., Wheelwright, S., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2009). Moral Dilemmas
Film Task: A study of spontaneous narratives by individuals with autism spectrum
conditions. Autism Research, 2, 148-156. doi:10.1002/aur.79.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2010). Empathizing, systemizing, and the extreme male brain theory of autism.
In I. Savic, (Ed.) Sex Differences in the Human Brain, Their Underpinnings and
Implications (pp. 167-176). Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Hill, J., Raste, Y., & Plumb, I. (2001) The “Reading the Mind
in the Eyes” Test revised version: A study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger
syndrome or high-functioning autism. Journal of Child Psychology Psychiatry, 42, 241
251. Medline doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00715
Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Spong, A., Scahill, V., & Lawson, J. (2001). Are intuitive
physics and intuitive psychology independent? A test with children with Asperger
Syndrome. Developmental and Learning Disorders, 5, 47-78.
Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical Power Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences, Second Edition.
Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Currie, G. (1995). Image and Mind: Film, Philosophy and Cognitive Science. Cambridge, UK;
Cambridge University Press
Derrick, J. L., Gabriel, S., & Hugenberg, K. (2009). Social surrogacy: How favored television
programs provide the experience of belonging. Journal of Experimental Social
Psychology, 45, 352-362.
Djikic, M., Oatley, K., & Moldoveanu, M. (2013). Reading other minds: Effects of literature on
empathy. Scientific Study of Literature, 3, 2847. doi:10.1075/ssol.3.1.06dji
Gardner, W. L., & Knowles, M. L. (2008). Love makes you real: Favorite television characters
are perceived as “real” in a social facilitation paradigm. Social Cognition, 26, 156-168.
Gray, K., Knobe, J., Sheskin, M., Bloom, P., & Barrett, L. F. (2011). More than a body: mind
perception and the nature of objectification. Journal of personality and social
psychology, 101, 1207.
Jenkins, Henry. (1992). Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New
York: Routledge.
Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science.
Published online 3 October 2013. doi:10.1126/science.1239918
Klin, A., Jones, W., Schultz, R., Volkmar, F., & Cohen, D. (2002). Visual fixation patterns
during viewing of naturalistic social situations as predictors of social competence in
individuals with autism. Archives of General Psychiatry, 59, 809816.
Kroener, O. (2014). Breaking narrative: narrative complexity in contemporary television. In V.
Marinescu (Ed.) Critical Reflections on Audience and Narrativity: New Connections,
New Perspectives (pp. 77-88). Hannover, Germany: ibidem Press
Mar, R. A. & Oatley, K. (2008). The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of
social experience. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 173-192.
Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., de la Paz, J., & Peterson, J. (2006) Bookworms versus nerds:
Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the
simulation of fictional social worlds. J. Res. Pers. 40, 694712.
Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., & Peterson, J. (2009) Exploring the link between reading fiction and
empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes. Communications
34, 407428. doi:10.1515/COMM.2009.025
Mar, R. A., Tackett, J. L., & Moore, C. (2010). Exposure to media and theory-of-mind
development in preschoolers. Cognitive Development. doi:10.1016/j.cogdev.2009.11.002
Mittell, J. (2006). Narrative complexity in contemporary American television. The velvet light
trap, 58, 29-40.
Stanovich, K. E., & West, R. F. (1989). Exposure to Print and Orthographic Processing. Reading
Research Quarterly, 24, 402-433. Retrieved from:
Sugiyama, M. S. (2001). Narrative theory and function: Why evolution matters. Philosophy and
Literature, 25, 233-250. doi:10.1353/phl.2001.0035
Thompson, K. (2003). Storytelling in film and television. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Watson, G. (2011). The Literary Critic, the Nineteenth Century Novel and the Wire. CineAction,
84, 32-41.
Zubernis, L & and Larsen, K (2012). Fandom At The Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and
Fan/Producer Relationship. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Zunshine, L. (2006). Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus: The Ohio
University Press.
Zunshine, L. (2008). Theory of mind and fictions of embodied transparency. Narrative, 16, 65-
92. doi:10.1353/nar.2008.0004
Table 1
Sample sizes, gender make-up, RMET means, and standard deviations for each category and the
individual episodes in Studies 1 and 2.
Total N
Study 1
Mad Men
West Wing
How the Universe Works
Shark Week
Study 2
The Good Wife
Through the Wormhole
Control Group
Note. *One participant who watched NOVA preferred not to answer the gender question.
Figure 1. Mean scores on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET; Baron-Cohen
et al., 2001) after viewing either award-winning drama or documentaries are displayed for men
and women in Study 1. Although, in line with past research, women tended to perform better on
the RMET, there was no interaction with type of T.V. show. Bars represent +/- two standard
Figure 2. Mean RMET scores were highest for the group that had watched fictional television
dramas in Study 2. There were no significant gender differences or interactions in this study.
... Moreover, the finding that reading a piece of literary fiction has a positive effect when compared with nonfiction has also been backed up by additional studies (Bal & Veltkamp, 2013;Black & Barnes, 2015a, 2015bPino & Mazza, 2016). For example, using a within-subjects design, Black andBarnes (2015a, 2015b) found that reading literary fiction significantly improved scores on the RMET compared with the effect of reading nonfiction. ...
... Other studies have attempted to demonstrate the specific effect of literariness and/or fictionality on social-cognitive abilities by comparing the effect of literary fiction to the effect of nonfiction (i.e., expository texts; Bal & Veltkamp, 2013;Black & Barnes, 2015a, 2015bDe Mulder et al., 2017;Pino & Mazza, 2016). This comparison is problematic, however, as it collapses the effects of literariness, fictionality, and narrativity by comparing a literary, fictional narrative (literary fiction) to a nonliterary, nonfictional expository text (nonfiction). ...
... Finally, recent empirical work on the relationship between narratives and social cognition has sparked plenty of other questions and avenues for further research, such as the case of other narrative media (see Black & Barnes, 2015aMar et al., 2010;Nathanson et al., 2013) or even other art forms and their relationship with social cognition (for an overview, see Kou et al., 2020), the timeline of the effects of narrative exposure (see Bal & Veltkamp, 2013), and the effects of writing rather than reading narratives (e.g., Kou et al., 2020;Maslej et al., 2017). Research on these questions may also benefit from the approach outlined here, that is, by focusing on specific factors of interest, taking into account individual differences between readers (or listeners, spectators etc.), and studying a wide range of social-cognitive abilities. ...
Full-text available
It is often argued that narratives improve social cognition, either by appealing to social-cognitive abilities as we engage with the story world and its characters, or by conveying social knowledge. Empirical studies have found support for both a correlational and a causal link between exposure to (literary, fictional) narratives and social cognition. However, a series of failed replications has cast doubt on the robustness of these claims. Here, we review the existing empirical literature and identify open questions and challenges. An important conclusion of the review is that previous research has given too little consideration to the diversity of narratives, readers, and social-cognitive processes involved in the social-cognitive potential of narratives. We therefore establish a research agenda, proposing that future research should focus on (1) the specific text characteristics that drive the social-cognitive potential of narratives, (2) the individual differences between readers with respect to their sensitivity to this potential, and (3) the various aspects of social cognition that are potentially affected by reading narratives. Our recommendations can guide the design of future studies that will help us understand how, for whom, and in what respect exposure to narratives can advantage social cognition.
... In addition to the effects reported for exposure to written narrative fiction in relation to mentalising, exposure to visual narrative fiction has also been found to directly enhance mentalising ability. Participants who viewed an award-winning TV-drama scored better on a test of mentalising than participants who watched a TV-documentary (Black & Barnes, 2015b). ...
... Although by far the most of the studies that have investigated the relationship between narrative fiction exposure and mentalising have focused on written narrative fiction, there are studies that suggest that the effect is not specific to the written modality. Black and Barnes (2015b), for instance, demonstrate that viewing an award-winning TV-drama also enhances mentalising ability (as compared to watching a TV-documentary). Mar, Tackett and Moore (2010) show that exposure to movies, as well as books, was positively related to mentalising ability in young children, although they did not find any positive effects of exposure to children's television. ...
... On the other hand, visual narrative fiction may be more effective at giving its viewers the idea that they are physically present in the fictional world (i.e., the 'diegetic effect'; Tan, 1995). Additionally, visual narrative fiction provides direct representations of all kinds of, potentially ambiguous, complex facial expressions and emotions that can only be conveyed indirectly in written narrative fiction (Black & Barnes, 2015b). Visual narrative fiction may thus provide viewers with more 'lifelike', and thus, arguably, more effective, simulations of social interactions. ...
... Simulating spaces and scenes need not entail social content; it still transports readers away from their current world and into a fictive one (Hassabis et al., 2014). Future work should examine how the medium of the story (e. g., television vs. books; Black & Barnes, 2015b), or the tendency of the reader to be transported into it (Bal & Veltkamp, 2013), impacts the extent to which a story will elicit simulation and accompanying default network activity. ...
... Conceptual replications have fared better: in a withinsubjects study, participants scored higher on the RMET after reading fiction than after reading expository nonfiction, controlling for narrative engagement (Black & Barnes, 2015a). A similar replication using television shows in two studies found that participants who had watched award-winning dramas scored higher on the RMET than those who had watched documentaries (Black & Barnes, 2015b). However, in a meta-analysis of the effects of written fiction, Dodell-Feder and Tamir (2018) did not find an effect of reading fiction on RMET scores (vs. ...
Fiction-when it is listened to, or when it appears in print, film, and video games-introduces people not only to storyworlds, but also to characters, their relationships, and complex social interactions. A growing body of research suggests that people who listen to, read, or watch fiction may learn social skills from stories through various mechanisms, including identifying with and forming parasocial relationships with characters, and simulating the social experiences depicted in the story. This chapter begins by reviewing theories that explain the potential effects of engaging with fiction and the possible mechanisms through which these effects might manifest. We then describe the methods used to investigate the effects of fiction and present a brief overview of both cor-relational and experimental findings. This overview indicates that there is robust evidence of an association between lifetime exposure to fiction and social cognition, but results from experimental studies have been mixed. Finally, we identify the most important gaps in the current research and propose directions for future research. Despite recent efforts to test the effects of manipulating engagement with fiction on a limited range of social cognitive abilities, many aspects of social cognition have yet to be explored, and there is a clear need for longitudinal intervention studies.
... Smartphones have become a leading electronic device when users engage with audiovisual content (van Kessel et al., 2019). If watching videos on a smartphone-sized screen (as compared to a larger screen) reduced users' transportation into story worlds (Green et al., 2020;Dunaway & Soroka, 2021), this shallower experience could have an impact on the development of perspective taking, mentalizing, and empathy (e.g., Black & Barnes, 2015;Mar, 2018), targeted communication in the fields of health, marketing, and politics (e.g., Nielsen et al., 2018), and the communication of knowledge and culture in a society more generally (e.g., Gottschall, 2013;Pinker, 2007). In three experiments we examined the impact of presenting a story on a smartphone-sized screen, as compared to a larger-sized computer monitor screen. ...
... A livello mentale, l'accuratezza è misurata solitamente attraverso i test di Teoria della mente, le cui prestazioni hanno dimostrato di essere potenziate dall'esposizione alla narrativa letteraria (Kidd, Castano, 2019;Black, Barnes, 2015;Kidd, Castano, 2017a;Kidd, Castano, 2017b;Kidd, Castano, 2018;Pino, Mazza, 2016;van Kuijk et al., 2018). A livello sociale, un indicatore di accuratezza sociale può essere ottenuto attraverso lo stesso paradigma usato per indagare gli effetti di falso consenso, guardando la correlazione tra le popolarità osservate e quelle stimate (de la Haye, 2000). ...
Full-text available
Il libro, che nasce dall’esigenza di fare il punto sui risultati e sui metodi della ricerca empirica relativa alla lettura ad alta voce, riproduce cinque studi condotti in diverse parti del mondo, scelti in modo da essere rappresentativi di differenti orientamenti e metodi di indagine, oltre che di prestigiose riviste internazionali ad accesso libero (open access) e peer reviewed. La diffusione in lingua italiana di questi contributi, introdotta da un sag- gio di Federico Batini su La lettura, i metodi di ricerca, l’importanza della condivisione (open access), la collaborazione internazionale, intende sol- lecitare anche nel nostro Paese insegnanti, studiosi e decisori ad attribuire un ruolo fondamentale alla didattica della lettura ad alta voce durante l’intero percorso di istruzione ed educazione, e non solo nella fascia infantile, su cui tendono a concentrarsi già da alcuni decenni le azioni educative e le attività di ricerca. Il futuro della lettura ad alta voce, se osservato dal particolare punto di vista della ricerca internazionale, sembra promettere, in risposta a una maggiore consapevolezza degli effetti dell’esposizione alla lettura, un’intensificazione delle indagini e un ampliamento del campo di applicazione didattica alle età scolari. Testi di Susan Ledger, Margaret K. Merga, Jennifer Kohart Marchessault, Karen H. Larwin, Oladotun Opeoluwa Olagbaju, Olubunmi Racheal Babalola, Emanuele Castano, Alison Jane Martingano, Pietro Perconti, Marloes Schrijvers, Tanja Janssen, Olivia Fialho, Gert Rijlaarsdam. Il volume è curato da: Federico Batini, professore associato di Pedagogia sperimentale all’Università degli Studi di Perugia. (Federico Batini è autore di oltre 350 pubblicazioni scientifiche; tra le ultime sui temi di questo volume si segnalano: Ad alta voce. La lettura che fa bene a tutti (Giunti, 2021) e, con S. Giusti (a cura di), Tecniche per la lettura ad alta voce (2021, FrancoAngeli); Lettura ad alta voce (Carocci, 2022). Dirige il Master in Orientamento Narrativo e Prevenzione della Dispersione scolastica (Dipartimento FISSUF, Università degli Studi di Perugia) e le riviste LLL (Lifelong Lifewide Learning) ed Effetti di Lettura (Cepell). Responsabile scientifico del progetto Leggere: Forte! Ad alta voce fa crescere l’intelligenza della Regione Toscana, del progetto nazionale Leggimi ancora (Giunti Scuola), del progetto Lettrici e Lettori Forti (Fondazione Cariparma) e di Ad Alta Voce Porta Palazzo (Riconnessioni-Fondazione Scuola) e del progetto Educare alla lettura Ad Alta Voce (Salone del Libro - Cepell).
... These researchers measured theory of mind primarily through recognition tasks that mapped facial expression to affect (feelings), including the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" Test (RMET; BaronCohen et al., 2001). Additional studies have corroborated this finding, showing that multiple forms of literary fiction increase performance on the RMET and related tests (Black & Barnes, 2015a, 2015bvan Kuijk et al., 2018) and boost selfreported empathy (Bal & Veltkamp, 2013;Djikic et al., 2013;Pino & Mazza, 2016). Several other studies, however, have failed to replicate these findings (Panero et al., 2016;Samur et al., 2017), whereas a metaanalysis recently suggested that literary fiction exposure results in statistically significant, albeit small, increases in social cognition (DodellFeder & Tamir, 2018). ...
The number of women entering the field of psychology has steadily increased to nearly 75% over the past decade (APA, 2019). During this time, the number of women in psychology who identify as racial and/or ethnic group member has also increased (APA, 2019). The discipline of psychology prides itself on inclusivity and has worked to increase the retention of members with varying cultural and gender identities (APA n.d.b., & APA, n.d.c.). Shifts in composition, however, have not been reflected among higher ranking professionals within the field (e.g., faculty, supervisors; Office of Program Consultation and Accreditation, 2015). This disparity warranted a qualitative investigation on the experiences, emotions, and reactions to microaggressions for women emerging in psychology (n = 264). Although psychology-related professionals aspire to be more inclusive and maintain an explicit orientation to social change, microaggressions have a large purview from which no field is excluded. Findings from women’s narrative responses revealed 4 types of microaggressions, 11 elicited emotion themes, and 6 types of reactions to microaggressions. Results highlight how women manage their emotions and reactions to microaggressions in institutional environments while considering individual and collective stigma consciousness. Monitoring and documenting the social conditions of this field can increase support and allyship, which facilitates retention for women pursuing and earning doctoral degrees in psychology.
... Given our focus on memory, reviewing this large body of work is beyond the present scope; instead, we summarize some of the overarching themes here. Researchers have studied how reading in general and literary fiction in particular contribute to the development of social intelligence (Black & Barnes, 2015;Kidd & Castano, 2013) as well as to people's knowledge about the world (Marsh et al., 2003;Potts et al., 1989;Potts & Peterson, 1985). Consuming fiction can shift judgments about the world (Appel, 2008;Morgan & Shanahan, 2010;Shanahan & Morgan, 1999), persuading people and leading to changes in their behavior (Bandura, 2006;Green et al., 2003;Green & Brock, 2000). ...
People consume, remember, and discuss not only memories of lived experiences, but also events from works of fiction, such as books, movies, and TV shows. We argue that these memories of fiction represent an important category of event memory, best understood within an autobiographical memory framework. How do fictional events yield psychological realities even when they are known to be invented? We explored this question in three studies by comparing the memory content, phenomenological qualities, and functional roles of naturally occurring personal memories to memories of fiction. In Studies 1 and 2, we characterized the subjective experience of memories of fiction by adapting established measures of autobiographical remembering, such as the Autobiographical Memory Questionnaire (Rubin et al., 2003), Centrality of Event Scale (Berntsen & Rubin, 2006), and items from the Thinking About Life Experiences Scale (Bluck et al., 2005; Pillemer et al., 2015). In Study 3, we investigated similarities and differences in personal memories and memories of fiction for events from childhood or the recent past. In doing so, we observed the impact of a unique property of memories of fiction: their ability to be repeatedly reexperienced in their original form. Taken together, we argue that memories of fiction can be considered similar to other forms of autobiographical remembering and describe a theoretical framework for understanding memories of fiction in the context of other event memories. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved).
... Results showed that participants in the literary fiction condition scored higher on the test compared with those in the popular fiction condition. The literary fiction condition participants also scored higher than those who were either in a non-fiction reading condition or in a condition in which they did not read anything at all ; see also Black and Barnes, 2015;Kidd et al., 2016;Pino and Mazza, 2016;Kidd and Castano, 2018;van Kuijk et al., 2018; but see Panero et al., 2016;Castano, 2017, 2018; for a meta-analysis, see Dodell-Feder and Tamir, 2018). ...
Full-text available
We investigated the impact of exposure to literary and popular fiction on psychological essentialism. Exposure to fiction was measured by using the Author Recognition Test, which allows us to separate exposure to authors of literary and popular fiction. Psychological essentialism was assessed by the discreteness subscale of the psychological essentialism scale in Study 1, and by the three subscales of the same scale (such as discreteness, informativeness, and biological basis) in Study 2 that was pre-registered. Results showed that exposure to literary fiction negatively predicts the three subscales. The results emerged controlling for political ideology, a variable that is commonly associated with psychological essentialism, and level of education.
... It was found that reading fiction (as opposed to non-fiction) improved their theory of mind. This finding was replicated in several studies where the participants was asked to read a fiction story (Black and Barnes, 2015a), or to watch a fiction TV-drama (Black and Barnes, 2015b) with further RMET testing. In all cases the participants' scores in RMET were improved as opposed to those of people who read nonfiction. ...
Full-text available
Theory of mind is a cognitive ability that enables us to understand mental states of others, important in real-life communications as well as in aesthetic cognition. The present research investigated whether understanding intentions and emotions is related to aesthetic appreciation. Study 1 tested whether there is a link between aesthetic appreciation of cinematic films and attempts to understand the intentions and emotions of the artists and the film characters. It showed that a self-reported understanding of emotions and intentions is positively associated with aesthetic appreciation. Studies 2 and 4 investigated a causal relationship between the attempt to understand emotions and an aesthetic appreciation of artistic photos. Study 3 investigated an actual understanding of emotions and aesthetic appreciation of movie shots. The results show that when people evaluate the emotional state of the characters, they aesthetically appreciate artistic photos more, compared to when they evaluate non-mental characteristics of these photos (age of the characters, the colour of the photos). Moreover, better understanding of another’s emotions is related to greater aesthetic appreciation.
Full-text available
An innovative account that brings together cognitive science, ethnography, and literary history to examine patterns of “mindreading” in a wide range of literary works. (This full text has been made available by the MIT Open Access program; for a hard copy go to:
Full-text available
Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Yet little research has investigated what fosters this skill, which is known as Theory of Mind (ToM), in adults. We present five experiments showing that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective ToM (experiments 1 to 5) and cognitive ToM (experiments 4 and 5) compared with reading nonfiction (experiments 1), popular fiction (experiments 2 to 5), or nothing at all (experiments 2 and 5). Specifically, these results show that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM. More broadly, they suggest that ToM may be influenced by engagement with works of art.
Full-text available
Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (2001) 233-250 It may seem a strange proposition that the study of human evolution is integral to the study of literature, yet that is exactly what this paper proposes. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, the practice of storytelling is ancient, pre-dating not only the advent of writing, but of agriculture and permanent settlement as well. Secondly, narrative is ultimately a product of the mind, which in turn is the product of a long history of evolution by natural selection. Thus, an understanding of why and how humans create and consume narrative requires an understanding of (1) features of ancestral environments and (2) features of the mind that made the emergence of this phenomenon possible. There can be little doubt that narrative emerged in human prehistory. Language, an obvious prerequisite for storytelling, is likely to have emerged by at least 50,000 and possibly 250,000 years ago, depending upon whether one places one's trust in archaeological or anatomical evidence. The most reasonable estimate is offered by Geoffrey Miller, who points out that, given its universality, the language faculty must have emerged by the time ancestral Homo sapiens began migrating out of Africa approximately 100,000 years ago. Although the oldest known written narrative (The Epic of Gilgamesh) dates back only 5,000 years, the written literary traditions of many ancient cultures are known to be rooted in longstanding oral traditions. The fact that many modern foraging peoples have rich and complex oral traditions further suggests that the emergence of narrative is not linked to the development of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Moreover, other forms of symbolic expression, such as the cave paintings, Venus figurines, and engraved bone and antler that have been found at various sites throughout Europe, date back approximately 30,000 years, and rock paintings in Australia may date back even farther. Since humans were physiologically capable of speech long before they began producing these artifacts, storytelling is likely to be at least as ancient as these other representational forms. Indeed, one scholar situates the "dawn of the oral tradition" within this period (Pfeiffer, p. 189). Given, then, that modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) have been in existence for approximately 100,000 years and are the only hominid species or subspecies known for certain to exhibit storytelling behavior, we can safely say that oral narrative is a product of our hunting-and-gathering past, likely to have emerged between 30,000 and 100,000 years ago. The universality of narrative is further testimony to its being an ancient cognitive phenomenon. Literate or not, all known cultures, past and present, practice storytelling. Moreover, all normally developing humans acquire the ability to process and generate stories: studies of Western children indicate that the ability to tell stories emerges spontaneously between the ages of two-and-a-half and three, and children as young as thirty months can distinguish between narrative and non-narrative uses of language. In contrast to reading, writing, and arithmetic, no special education is required for narrative competence to develop, nor is there any evidence that oral literacy is acquired through contact with other cultures; although subject matter is often exchanged between groups, the practice of storytelling itself arises independently among even the most isolated peoples. Nor does any type of culture have a monopoly on narrative sophistication: the stories of hunter-horticulturalist societies are no less observant, insightful, or artful than those of agrarian or industrial societies. As with language, narrative takes the same basic form across cultures, which David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson define as "a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time." Given the preponderance of human agents in narrative, most narrative theorists would probably modify this barebones description to include character (usually understood to have a human psychology), goal-oriented action, and resolution. Frank Kermode, for example, defines the "proprieties" of narrative as "connexity, closure, and character," and John Black and Gordon Bower argue that the essence of storiness is the description of problems and of characters' plans for solving them. Research by cognitive psychologists on the intuitive rules by means of which stories are assembled, called story...
Full-text available
Fiction literature has largely been ignored by psychology researchers because its only function seems to be entertainment, with no connection to empirical validity. We argue that literary narratives have a more important purpose. They offer models or simulations of the social world via abstraction, simplification, and compression. Narrative fiction also creates a deep and immersive simulative experience of social interactions for readers. This simulation facilitates the communication and understanding of social information and makes it more compelling, achieving a form of learning through experience. Engaging in the simulative experiences of fiction literature can facilitate the understanding of others who are different from ourselves and can augment our capacity for empathy and social inference. © 2008 Association for Psychological Science.
Full-text available
The potential of literature to increase empathy was investigated in an experi-ment. Participants (N = 100, 69 women) completed a package of questionnaires that measured lifelong exposure to fiction and nonfiction, personality traits, and affective and cognitive empathy. They read either an essay or a short story that were equivalent in length and complexity, were tested again for cognitive and affective empathy, and were finally given a non-self-report measure of empathy. Participants who read a short story who were also low in Openness experienced significant increases in self-reported cognitive empathy (p < .05). No increases in affective empathy were found. Participants who were frequent fiction-readers had higher scores on the non-self-report measure of empathy. Our results sug-gest a role for fictional literature in facilitating development of empathy.
Full-text available
Phonological processing skills have been shown to account for some, but not all, of the variance in the word recognition ability of both children and adults. In two studies with adult subjects in the United States, the authors investigated whether orthographic processing ability--the ability to form, store, and access orthographic representations--can account for some of the additional variance in word recognition and spelling skill. A new measure of individual differences in exposure to print--the Author Recognition Test--was developed and validated in the two studies. This measure was designed to be relatively free of a confound that has plagued most print exposure indicators used in studies of adults: the tendency of respondents to give socially desirable answers. The Author Recognition Test was shown to be a remarkably robust and independent predictor of word processing ability. In Study 2, subjects' performance on this measure was shown to predict variance in orthographic processing independent of phonological factors. The results of the two studies were supportive of the idea that there are individual differences in reading and spelling caused by variation in orthographic processing skills. Moreover, these orthographic processing skills appear to be linked to print exposure, and thus to be environmentally mediated, rather than being simply indirect products of differences in phonological processing ability. Both studies demonstrate the potential usefulness of the Author Recognition Test as an indicator of print exposure in research on the cognitive consequences of literacy. /// [French] Les recherches antérieures ont montré que certaines habiletés de traitement phonologique comptent pour une partie de la variance dans la reconnaissance de mots aussi bien par les adultes que par les enfants. Deux expériences ont été menées auprès d'adultes américains pour voir dans quelle mesure le traitement orthographique peut compter pour une partie de variance supplémentaire dans la reconnaissance de mots et l'épellation. Une nouvelle mesure du degré d'exposition à l'écrit a été développée et validée dans les deux expériences: Le test de reconnaissance d'auteurs (ART). Cette mesure a été développée pour contourner le problème posé par les méthodes habituellement utilisées dans les recherches auprès d'adultes, qui font qu'ils ont tendance à répondre en conformité avec ce qu'ils jugent socialement acceptable. Le test de reconnaissance d'auteurs s'est révélé un prédicteur extrêmement robuste et indépendant de l'habileté à traiter des mots. Dans la seconde expérience, les résultats des sujets à cette mesure ont permis de prédire une partie importante de la variance pour le traitement orthographique indépendamment des facteurs phonologiques. Les résultats aux deux expériences appuient l'idée qu'une partie des différences individuelles en lecture et en épellation est due aux habiletés de traitement orthographique. De plus, ces habiletés de traitement orthographique apparaissent liées au degré d'exposition à l'écrit ce qui permet de poser comme hypothèse que l'acquisition de ces habiletés est conditionnée par l'environnement et n'est pas uniquement le produit des différences individuelles dans les habiletés de traitement phonologique. Les deux expériences ont confirmé l'utilité du test de reconnaissance d'auteurs comme mesure du degré d'exposition à l'écrit dans les recherches sur les conséquences cognitives de la littéracie. /// [Spanish] Las habilidades de procesamiento fonológico han explicado algunas, pero no todas, las variaciones en la habilidad para reconocer palabras tanto en niños como en adultos. En dos experimentos con sujetos adultos en los Estados Unidos, los autores investigaron si la habilidad de procesamiento ortográfico puede explicar la varianza adicional en el reconocimiento de palabras y su habilidad ortográfica. Una nueva medida de diferencias individuales en la exposición a materiales impresos--La prueba de reconocimiento de autores (ART)--fue desarrollada y validada en dos experimentos. Esta medida fue diseñada para estar relativamente libre de un problema que han sufrido la mayoría de los indicadores de exposición a materiales impresos que se usan en estudios de adultos--la tendencia de los sujetos a dar respuestas que ellos piensan son las que se esperan de ellos; las socialmente deseables. La prueba de reconocimiento de autores demostró ser un predictor notablemente robusto e independiente para predecir la habilidad de procesar palabras. En el Experimento 2, el desempeño de los sujetos en esta medida demostró que podía predecir la variabilidad en el procesamiento ortográfico, de manera independiente de los factores fonológicos. Los resultados de dos experimentos apoyan la idea de que hay diferencias individuales en lectura y ortografía causadas por la variación en las habilidades del procesamiento ortográfico. Además, estas habilidades de procesamiento ortográfico parecen estar relacionadas con la exposición a materiales impresos, y de esta manera estar mediados ambientalmente más bien, que ser simplemente productos indirectos de diferencias en la habilidad del procesamiento fonológico. Ambos estudios demostraron la ayuda potencial que la prueba de reconocimiento de autores tiene como un indicador de exposición a materiales impresos en la investigación de las consecuencias cognitivas del alfabetismo. /// [German] In der Vergangenheit war gezeigt worden, daß die Fähigkeiten der phonologischen Verarbeitung nur für einen Teil des Unterschieds in der Fähigkeit des Worterkennens zwischen Kindern und Erwachsenen zuständig waren. In zwei Experimenten, die mit Erwachsenen in den Vereinigten Staaten durchgeführt wurden, untersuchten die Verfasser, ob die Fähigkeit der orthographischen Verarbeitung für einen Teil des weiteren Unterschieds im Worterkennen und in der Rechtschreibkenntnis verantwortlich zeichnen kann. Für das Messen individueller Unterschiede bei der Wahrnehmung gedruckter Texte wurde ein neuer Maßstab aufgestellt und in zwei Experimenten bestätigt: der Test über Erkennen des Verfassers (ART). Dieser Maßstab wurde so aufgestellt, daß er relativ frei von einem Durcheinander ist, das die meisten Studien mit Erwachsenen, in denen Anzeigen über das Wahrnehmen gedruckter Texte untersucht wurden, negativ beeinflußte: die Neigung seitens der Teilnehmer, Antworten zu geben, die sie gesellschaftlich für erwünscht heilten. Es stellte sich heraus, daß der Verfassererkennungstest eine bemerkenswert beständige und unabhängige Voraussage der Wortverarbeitungsfähigkeiten leistete. Im zweiten Experiment zeigte sich, daß die Leistungen der Teilnehmer bei diesem Maßstab Unterschiede in der orthographischen Verarbeitung, die von phonologischen Faktoren unabhängig war, voraussagte. Die Resultate beider Experimente unterstützen die Vorstellung, daß beim Lesen und Buchstabieren individuelle Unterschiede bestehen, die durch Verschiedenheiten in den Fertigkeiten der orthographischen Verarbeitung hervorgerufen werden. Zusätzlich scheinen diese Fertigkeiten in der orthographischen Verarbeitung mit einer Wahrnehmung gedruckter Texte in Verbindung zu stehen und deshalb durch die Umgebung vermittelt zu sein--und nicht etwa einfach nur Nebenprodukte der Unterschiede in der Fertigkeit der phonologischen Verarbeitung zu sein. Beide Studien bewiesen die potentielle Nützlichkeit des Verfassererkennungstests als Textwahrnehmungsmaßstab in der Forschung über kognitive Auswirkungen in der Beherrschung der Schriftsprache.
Fiction has often been viewed as requiring imaginative input on the part of the audience, but relatively little empirical work has examined the role that fictional characters and worlds play in the imaginings of adolescents and adults, outside of the text itself. Here, I provide an overview of existing research on fanfiction, or extratextual stories written for pleasure by fans, based on an existing media property. I suggest that fanfiction is a form of imaginary play that reflects both emotional engagement with and resistance to the source material. I draw comparisons between writing fanfiction, daydreaming, and childhood pretend play and argue that there is a need for research that explores this phenomenon using more rigorous psychological methods. Such research may shed light on a range of issues in the psychology of fiction and why we read for pleasure.
Some scholars have suggested that fiction builds upon our capacity for daydreaming and imagination, while others have proposed that it appeals to our capacity for getting inside the minds of others. However, very little research has investigated the way that individuals with deficits in imagination and social cognition view and develop preferences for fiction. Here, I review research on one such population: individuals with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) and present an experiment that investigates fiction preferences in ASC. As a whole, this work suggests that both fictionality and social content may play an important role in the appeal of fiction—and that the scientific study of fiction could benefit by taking into account the perspectives of individuals who view the world in different ways.