Speaker: Lynn Eekhof @LynnEekhof
Affiliation: Radboud University
Title: Does Reading about Fictional Minds Make Us More Curious about Real Ones?
Abstract (long version below): We investigated the possibility that reading a narrative increases social curiosity directly afterward, which might explain the short-term boosts in social cognition reported by others. 222 participants were randomly assigned to read either an excerpt of narrative fiction or expository nonfiction. Unexpectedly, we found that those who read a narrative exhibited less social curiosity than those who read an expository text. Our experiment demonstrates that reading narratives likely engages and depletes social-cognitive abilities, leading to a temporary decrease in social curiosity. This depletion account is in line with theories describing how narratives result in better social cognition over the long-term.
The idea that narratives play a role in our understanding of other minds has a long history. Encouragingly, empirical studies have confirmed that life-time exposure to narratives predicts better performance on measures of empathy and theory of mind (Mumper & Gerrig, 2017). Experiments have also been conducted to test if a single exposure to narrative fiction directly causes an improvement in social-cognitive abilities (e.g., Kidd & Castano, 2013). However, the results from these experiments are mixed. Moreover, the underlying mechanism that explains how reading a single narrative affects social cognition remains unclear. This experiment examines whether reading a piece of narrative fiction increases social curiosity in the short-term, a construct that might explain any temporary improvements in social cognition induced by reading narratives sometimes observed by others.
Our study was pre-registered (http://www.aspredicted.org/WB5_BD8) and our materials, data, and code are publicly available (https://osf.io/4ejcu/?view_only=834b82670c5f40a9961f1f87ae19d409).
After data cleaning, our sample consisted of 222 native speakers of English (110 men, 110 women, 2 other), aged between 18 and 75 years (M = 40.63, SD = 14.49), who participated in return for £3.07, using the online crowd-sourcing platform Prolific Academic.
We presented chapters from books, with participants reading one of four possible chapters for either the narrative (n = 115) or expository condition (n = 107). For both conditions, we selected single chapters that were around 2000 words, could be understood in isolation, and were not difficult for the average reader. After reading, we measured participants’ state social curiosity with our newly developed State Inventory of Social Curiosity (SISC).
Participants were presented with six profiles consisting of a picture of a person and an accompanying short description of their profession and hobbies, and were asked to rate their interest in learning more about this person using three items. We also measured trait social curiosity using the 10-item Social Curiosity Scale (SCS; Renner, 2006). Both SISC and SCS items were presented with 7-point Likert scales (1 = totally disagree, 7 = totally agree).
The data were analyzed in RStudio (version 2022.02.0, R version 4.1.2; R Core Team, 2020). Internal reliability was good for both SISC scores, reflecting state social curiosity (ω = .91, [95% CI: .88, .93]), and SCS scores, reflecting trait social curiosity (ω = .81, [95% CI: .68, .87]).
A linear regression model with condition (narrative vs. exposition) and gender (as a control variable) as our predictors revealed an effect of condition, but in the opposite direction of what we had predicted: participants who read a piece of narrative fiction were less socially curious (M = 4.00, SD = 0.81) than participants who read expository nonfiction (M = 4.25, SD = 0.93).
To explore the potential moderating role of trait social curiosity in the association between condition and state social curiosity, we constructed another linear regression model with the interaction between condition and trait social curiosity (SCS) added. In this model, the previously found effect of condition was no longer statistically significant. There was a statistically significant positive effect of trait social curiosity on state social curiosity, which validates our novel task. As evidenced by the lack of a statistically significant interaction, the effect of condition on state social curiosity was not moderated by trait social curiosity.
To see whether the effect of condition in the first model was actually caused by differences in trait social curiosity between the two conditions, we compared the levels of trait social curiosity between the two conditions. There was no significant difference in trait social curiosity between the narrative (M = 4.62, SD = 0.91) and expository condition (M = 4.74, SD = 1.00, t(214) = -0.90, p = .37, d = -0.12 , 95% CI [-0.39, 0.14]).
Contrary to our expectations, we found that reading a piece of narrative fiction decreases social curiosity compared to reading a piece of expository nonfiction. This result is inconsistent with the idea that reading a narrative put readers in a social-processing mode (e.g., Eekhof et al., 2022; Mar, 2018). An alternative explanation could be that because narratives are inherently social and engage social-cognitive abilities, reading a narrative might deplete these abilities resulting in a reduction in either capacity or motivation to engage them. Although this does not explain why some previous studies did find an immediate effect of reading a narrative on social-cognitive abilities (e.g., Bal & Veltkamp, 2013; van Kuijk et al., 2018), it is consistent with the possibility that long-term exposure to narratives does contribute to social cognition: reading narratives might deplete social-cognitive abilities in the short run, but can nevertheless train these abilities in the long run. This would explain why the long-term associations between reading habits and social cognition are rather robust (Mumper & Gerrig, 2017), whereas the evidence in favour of an immediate effect of narratives is not (Quinlan et al., 2022).
Bal, P. M., & Veltkamp, M. (2013). How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation. PLoS ONE, 8(1), e55341. How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation
Eekhof, L. S., van Krieken, K., & Willems, R. M. (2022). Reading about minds: The social-cognitive potential of narratives. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 29, 1703–1718. Reading about minds: The social-cognitive potential of narratives | Psychonomic Bulletin & Review
Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science, 342(6156), 377–380. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1239918
Mar, R. A. (2018). Evaluating whether stories can promote social cognition: Introducing the Social Processes and Content Entrained by Narrative (SPaCEN) framework. Discourse Processes, 55(5–6), 454–479. https://doi.org/10.1080/0163853X.2018.1448209
Mumper, M. L., & Gerrig, R. J. (2017). Leisure reading and social cognition: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11(1), 109–120. APA PsycNet
Quinlan, J. A., Padgett, J. K., Khajehnassiri, A., & Mar, R. A. (2022). Does a brief exposure to literary fiction improve social ability? Assessing the evidential value of published studies with a p-curve. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. APA PsycNet
R Core Team. (2020). R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing. https://www.R-project.org/
Renner, B. (2006). Curiosity About People: The Development of a Social Curiosity Measure in Adults. Journal of Personality Assessment, 87(3), 305–316. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327752jpa8703_11
van Kuijk, I., Verkoeijen, P., Dijkstra, K., & Zwaan, R. A. (2018). The Effect of Reading a Short Passage of Literary Fiction on Theory of Mind: A Replication of Kidd and Castano (2013). Collabra: Psychology, 4(1), 7. The Effect of Reading a Short Passage of Literary Fiction on Theory of Mind: A Replication of Kidd and Castano (2013) | Collabra: Psychology | University of California Press