Failed replication study shows reading literary fiction doesn’t boost social cognition, says a headline in PsyPost.

The new article debunks Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of the New School of Social Research. (TeleRead cited the Kidd-Castano study earlier in a post titled Harry Potter vs. Donald Trump: Yes, reading good novels can build empathy.)

But wait. The issue is a lot more complicated than the PsyPost headline suggests. Granted, it appears that one quick exposure to good fiction won’t create empathy. But that’s not the same as the benefits of a lifetime of reading.

Here’s the real take-away from the source paper for the article, Does Reading a Single Passage of Literary Fiction Really Improve Theory of Mind? An Attempt at Replication, appearing in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

…we found no significant advantage in RMET scores for literary fiction compared to any of the other conditions. However, as in Kidd and Castano and previous research, the Author Recognition Test, a measure of lifetime exposure to fiction, consistently predicted RMET scores across conditions. We conclude that the most plausible link between reading fiction and theory of mind is either that individuals with strong theory of mind are drawn to fiction and/or that a lifetime of reading gradually strengthens theory of mind, but other variables, such as verbal ability, may also be at play.

So what about cause-effect? Well, guess what can strengthen verbal ability. Books. What’s more, studies show that criminal offenders reading the right books stand less chance of repeating their crimes. Given all the billions spent on crime prevention, imprisonment and rehabilitation, greater use of bibliotherapy could be highly cost-effective—especially if we think of it as a proactive measure, not just an after-the-crime one. National digital library endowment, anyone? Of course, there are scads of other reasons for the endowment.

Related: Novel approach: reading courses as an alternative to prison (six years old but still of interest) from The Guardian, Should reading replace prison time? from The Christian Science Monitor, To reduce recidivism rates, give prisoners more books from Quartz, and Literature Class Helps Young People On Probation Build New Relationships And Lives from WBUR.

Image source: Here.

(Via The Digital Reader.)