Genre Expectations and Mentalizing in Fiction vs Non-Fiction: Testing a New Theory of Mind Questionnaire

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Gabriele Vezzani @g.vezzani

:classical_building: Affiliation: Università di Verona

Title: Genre Expectations and Mentalizing in Fiction vs Non-Fiction: Testing a New Theory of Mind Questionnaire

Abstract (long version below): Theory of Mind occurs in literary reading when readers theorize about characters’ mental life. Lisa Zunshine proposed (2022a) that literary fiction is characterized by complex embedment of mental states and thus requires readers to heavily rely on their ToM to make sense of the text they are confronted with. This article starts from this idea to explore empirically whether or not genre expectation affects readers’ mentalizing activity. We then present the benefit of employing the Short Story Task proposed by Dodell-Feder et al. (2013) as a measure for character-specific ToM in empirical literary studies. The generalizability of such an approach to different kinds of textual stimuli is discussed.


:newspaper: Long abstract

In the context of literary reading, Theory of Mind (ToM) can be thought of as the process by which readers theorize about characters’ emotions, intentions, beliefs, or simply mental states. Lisa Zunshine’s theories (Zunshine 2006, 2022a, 2022b), backed by empirical evidence (see Kidd and Castano, 2013), suggest that one of the defining features of literary fiction can be found in the complexity of the mental states it portrays.

The argument we present here is centered on the concept of genre expectation, i.e., genre conceptualized as a set of features, the presence of which readers anticipate in a text. Such anticipation has an important cognitive role, since different types of texts require different types of processing, and for readers to know beforehand what “challenges” they are going to face while reading can be a great advantage in terms of comprehension (Einstein et al. , 1990). Starting from such premises, and assuming, as Zunshine suggests, that high-level embedment of mental states is in fact a defining feature of fiction, we can hypothesize that readers who approach a text knowing that it belongs to such a genre will be prompted to deploy their ToM, having learned from experience its importance for a correct processing of similar texts.

To test this hypothesis, we designed an experiment where participants (N = 95, 80 female, 14 male and 1 non-binary) were randomly divided in two groups (48 participants –41 female, 7 male– for group A, 47 –39 female, 7 male and 1 non-binary– for group B). Both groups read the same text (an excerpt from chapter 10 of Wolf’s Patterns of childhood), preceded by a paratext presenting it as part of a fictional novel for group A and as a biographical, non-fictional account for group B.

Given the characteristics of our research question, we needed a measurement capable of:

a) Returning an estimation of the degree of mentalizing deployed by participants during the reading act itself.

b) Seizing possible changes in ToM activity during just one reading session, a task to which measurements such as the RMET seem to be unfit (Samur et al ., 2018).

We decided to develop a novel questionnaire, adapting to our text the Short Story Task (SST) proposed by Dodell-Feder et al . (2013). A significant, though small correlation (ρ = 0.209, p < 0.042) between the scores of our questionnaire and the ones of the RMET, alongside the high internal consistency of the former (Cronbach’s α = 0.851), can be taken as an encouraging sign towards proving the generalizability of the SST, and thus towards the development of a ToM task tailored for literary reading.

With regards to our main hypothesis, we first run an independent samples t-test with manipulation of fictionality (fiction vs. biography) as the independent variable and ToM scores as the dependent one (t(93) = 0.119, p = 0.905) and then an ANCOVA, controlling for text comprehension and RMET scores (F(1, 91) = 1.093, p = .299, η2 = .012). Both tests were unable to detect any significant effect of genre expectation over ToM activity in readers.

Alongside a probable insufficiency in terms of sample size, a possible cause behind our inability to detect a significant effect could lie in the magnitude of the manipulation relative to the size of the text stimulus. It is generally accepted in the field of empirical literary studies that readers’ perception of fictionality is dependent both on the sociological positioning of a text, as it can be derived from external paratextual information, and on internal, stylistic features (see Hamburger, 1977; Lavocat, 2016; Green et al ., 2004). Studies that were able to obtain a significant effect by manipulating the first of these two dimensions (Hanauer, 2018; Zwaan, 1994) all worked with short texts, often consisting of just one paragraph. In our case, since we used as stimulus a three-page literary text, it is possible that many internal features pointing in the direction of its literariness have rendered almost ineffective the paratextual paragraph where it was presented as factual.


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