Why Reading Tolstoy Will Raise Your Social Skills

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Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina | © SabrinaDanPhoto/Flickr

If you want to improve your ability to read the emotions of people in your life, you may consider reading books by Tolstoy, Dosoyevsky or Faulkner or some other contemporary writers like the new Nobel laureate Alice Munro.

A new study conducted by two psychologists at the New School for Social Research published their fascinating conclusions on Science. They compared the effects of reading high-quality fiction like Munro’s, popular bestsellers such as Danielle Steel romance, nonfiction science articles and no reading at all.

After reading selections that represented one of these options, participants took a variety of psychological tests. In one test, called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” participants were shown 36 photographs featuring a pair of eyes and were asked to match adjectives such as “doubtful,” “suspicious” and “flirtatious” to each picture.



Those who read literary fiction performed best on the eyes test and other measures of what psychologists call “theory of mind” – the ability to infer what others are feeling. The researchers described the study as “preliminary” but noted that it raises good questions at a time when a new U.S. core curriculum calls for reading more nonfiction and few novels.

The New York Times has a good overview of the study in which it features a quote by Albert Wendland who puts the relationship between literature and emotional intelligence into clear terms:

“Reading sensitive and lengthy explorations of people’s lives, that kind of fiction is literally putting yourself into another person’s position — lives that could be more difficult, more complex, more than what you might be used to in popular fiction. It makes sense that they will find that, yeah, that can lead to more empathy and understanding of other lives.”

Maybe popular fiction is a way of dealing more with one’s own self, maybe, with one’s own wants, desires, needs.”In popular fiction, said Mr. Kidd, one of the researchers, “really the author is in control, and the reader has a more passive role.

In literary fiction, like Dostoyevsky, “there is no single, overarching authorial voice,” he said. “Each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.”

If you don’t know where to start, check out this post: The Best Books Everyone Should Read by Tolstoy