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The Psychology of Fiction: Why Reading Transforms Us

How books can help us develop our key emotional and cognitive skills.

Key points

  • Reading fiction can spur growth and self-development.
  • Exiting our self-narratives and simulating others’ mental states is behind the mechanism of fiction’s transformational powers.
  • Reading fiction can help increase cognitive empathy and teach us about ourselves.

As a psychologist who studies personality development, one of Maja Djikic’s biggest insights about what it means to be human is this: Our optimal state is that of continuous growth. Perhaps by some clever design, life insists on treating us to a feast of (sweet and bitter) occasions to spur growth. We feel transformed through our experiences, our connections, our passions.

Then, there’s literature.

The mechanism behind fiction’s transformational powers

The path from page to heart is far from straightforward. It’s not as if by the time we reach the final word of a book, we metamorphose into kinder, wiser versions of ourselves. “The journey itself is my home,” wrote the Japanese haiku master Matsuo Basho of our fleeting existence. It appears that the journey itself is also where the magic of storytelling resides.

Source: CC0/ThePixelman/Pixabay

Isn’t it why we readily clasp hands with strangers and surrender to the decree of their imaginary fates?

Isn’t it why we pledge to follow our protagonists across continents and centuries, to fall and to triumph with them, to love, to grieve, to learn alongside them?

By the time we let go of their hands, two things are certain: we are no longer strangers; something inside us has been stirred. It could just be a quiver, like a spattering of dancing snowflakes in a snow-globe. It could also be a blizzard. This shake-up, whatever form it takes, is an integral component of fiction’s transformational powers.

“Before a change, there is often dysregulation or a period of instability caused by life events,” explains Djikic. “Good fiction generates this instability in a safe and controlled environment. If we are ripe for growth, it provides a gentler way towards transformation.”

This gentleness is partly due to the literary style of fiction as an art form. “Fiction is not a photograph,” says Djikic, who has been exploring the psychology of fiction at the University of Toronto. “Rather, it’s a metaphorical distillation of human behavior.” A work of fiction relies on non-direct communication to navigate us to new worlds. “But it doesn’t tell us where and how to land,” says Djikic, “because only you know where you need to grow.” If the writer decides the fate of his heroes and villains, we, as readers, have the final word on how the story resonates between the lines of our own lives.

According to Djikic, the mechanism behind the transformational potential of fiction involves a two-step process: an exit and a simulation.

“When we read fiction, we are asked to temporarily exit our identities and mentally step into different ones. Often, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, can prevent us from growing. Exiting our stories allows us to enter a state of potentiality that we often see in children, when we tell them ‘You can be anything!’ As adults, our self-narratives become more rigid. The invitation to put aside our identities and enter a space where we can simulate different ways of being can already be transformational. Then, by exploring other minds, we are given the opportunity to practice experiencing different emotions, thoughts and behaviors than what we otherwise live. When you find yourself re-engaging with the story and characters after you have finished reading a book, that’s when growth happens.”

Here are Dr. Djikic's five potential avenues for self-development through fiction:

1. Empathy

Empathy is a multidimensional construct that includes the ability to infer the mental states of others and to experience the emotions that others are feeling. When we read fiction, we are practicing reading other minds. This process of simulation where readers are trying to understand the characters’ motives, thoughts, and emotions can improve cognitive empathy. As a key aspect of emotional intelligence, cognitive empathy is the ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling. Cognitive empathy can be developed throughout our lifetimes, and reading fiction is one way of doing it.

2. Social skills

Social skills involve the willingness to do something with our knowledge about what other people are thinking and feeling to improve social interactions. For example, if as a host we notice that there’s tension between guests, we could intervene to improve their communication. Based on our understanding of others’ mental states, we can figure out how to be with others that make our interactions more authentic and genuine. Cognitive empathy, thus, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of good social skills. We still need to put it into practice. As novelist and psychologist Keith Oatley has written, “If fiction is a simulation of the social world, one can become more skilled in that world by engaging with more fiction.”

3. Learning about ourselves

Isn’t contrast the most wonderful way to learn? We often don’t realize our tendencies and patterns until we see them contrasted against other lives and other experiences. Fiction provides this opportunity, as a result, helping us learn more about our own idiosyncrasies. When stories transport us into different worlds, we are not only introduced to a multitude of ways to live and be, but we may also recognize how tied we are to our own identities. Moreover, reading about others can bring us face to face with our common humanity, as we realize that despite our vast differences, humans everywhere are concerned with similar things.

4. Personality

Personality refers to any stable way we interact with the world. However, personality is not always static and pre-determined. Instead, it is often reinforced by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, which can constrain us. Fiction can help us to mentally exit these self-narratives and practice being in a state where we are not bound by broad generalizations about ourselves. Reading teaches us nuance and complexity not only about the world but also about the personalities living in the world. As a result, we might become more fluid in how we see ourselves. For example, in our research, we found that after reading fiction, people ended up with somewhat different ideas about their personalities compared to their initial self-reports. It’s almost like reading about other characters loosened the constraints of their stories about their own traits and allowed more fluctuation in who they thought they could be.

5. Cognitive skills

As a feature of information processing, cognitive closure refers to the state in which the individual has made a decision about something, ambiguity is cleared away and they have arrived at a conclusion based on their understanding of the situation. People vary in their need to obtain an answer, any answer, to end further information processing. A high need for cognitive closure can have a negative effect on various information processing strategies, including creativity. Our findings show that reading fiction can reduce the need for cognitive closure and help keep minds open. In turn, an open mind can improve thinking and creativity, because it helps prevent premature cognitive closure.

Books offer as many rewards as there are reasons for reading them. To know that the pages we keep turning can reveal a masterclass in the human experience that could transform our own lives is comforting and rousing all at once. Just as the remarkable stories themselves.

Many thanks to Maja Djikic for her time and insights. Maja Djikic is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and HR Management and the Director of Self-Development Laboratory at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.

References

Djikic, M., Oatley, K., Zoeterman, S., & Peterson, J. B. (2009). On being moved by art: How reading fiction transforms the self. Creativity Research Journal, 21(1), 24-29.

Djikic, M., Oatley, K., & Moldoveanu, M. C. (2013). Opening the closed mind: The effect of exposure to literature on the need for closure. Creativity Research Journal, 25(2), 149-154.

Oatley, K. (2012). The cognitive science of fiction. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 3(4), 425-430.

Chirumbolo, A., Livi, S., Mannetti, L., Pierro, A., & Kruglanski, A. W. (2004). Effects of need for closure on creativity in small group interactions. European Journal of Personality, 18(4), 265-278.

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