This study relied in part on the repondents’ self-reporting of what they read as children, but it was a complex study that approached the core issue from multiple angles. The researchers note that an “association” is not a “cause” — yet the correlation is still worth reflecting on: Those people who did not read fiction in early life have a fundamentally different worldview than those who did.
Research has demonstrated that people who read more fiction tend to have better perspective-taking abilities. Now, new research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin has found that reading more fiction early in life is associated with a more complex worldview and increased empathic abilities.
“By introducing readers to difference, even if that difference is not expressed as a different cast of mind, we argue that fictional experience can nevertheless remind readers that the world is complex, not simple; with powerful psychological effects,” explained study author Nicholas Buttrick and colleagues. “Fiction, in other words, does more than just give people social practice—by presenting difference, novelty, and even confusion, it underlines the idea of the world as a radically complicated place.”
People have differing levels of attributional complexity, which is one’s comfort with ambiguity and willingness to understand behavior in the context of a complex system. Readers of literary fiction, which is characterized by the introduction of a problem or difficulty in a world, may then have differing worldview complexity compared to non-readers.
Current fiction reading habits were not associated with attributional complexity or essentialist beliefs. However, reading more fiction currently was associated with more psychological richness and decreased beliefs in system legitimacy. Exploratory analyses suggest that reading more fiction in early life was associated with more intellectual humility and increased endorsement of simple certain knowledge.
“Across four studies (total [number of participants] = 5,176), including one preregistered replication with a nationally representative sample, we found that greater reading of literary fiction in early life predicted a more complex worldview in the present day among Americans,” the researchers said.
The authors cite some limitations to this work, such as the reliance on self-report for early life reading habits. Perhaps one’s memory of their early reading habits is less precise than that of their current reading habits. Further, we cannot say from these data alone whether the reading of fiction in early life caused these current changes in worldview, or vice versa. Perhaps people who are naturally empathic or inclined toward attributional complexity were more likely to seek fiction in early life.