What’s truer than facts? The social value of great fiction
I work in an organisation that revolves around social research and policy. I went to grad school to study the social sciences. And there is not currently a single novel in my to-read stack, except for the half-metre tower of Game of Thrones novels, courtesy of a colleague here at the RSA.
Which is why what I’m about to say surprises even myself: As a tool for understanding human behaviour, human society, the way we think, emote, love, hate, live – the humanities are much more useful. The largest social science library doesn’t hold a candle to a much smaller handful of classic works of literature.
Of course, it took a recent social science study to help me understand this. It showed that reading literary fiction – and not nonfiction, and not ‘mass-market’ fiction – improves people’s ability to display empathy and to accurately register the emotions of others. The study asked participants to read a randomly-assigned selection of text from sources such as Don DeLillo, Smithsonian Magazine, or popular romance novels, and then to answer questions designed to assess their ability to decode the emotions and expectations of others in a given scenario. They were also shown close-up photographs of a person’s eyes and asked to identify that person’s current emotional state. Those who had read just a few minutes of classic fiction did significantly better than all the others.
This study’s findings alone certainly don’t go quite so far as my claim above. Emotional intelligence on a personal level is not the same thing as the kind of meta-understanding of human behaviour that social science affords; Shakespeare can’t tell us a whole lot about, say, the impact of switching schools mid-year, or how young people view entrepreneurship. This analysis should perhaps be narrowed from comparing humanities and social sciences to comparing humanities and modern psychology, which – like great literature – does try to explain why we do, think and feel what we do.
But the study’s conclusions do bring up important epistemological questions. True as they may be, the findings contained in a research report can be difficult to internalise, and certainly difficult to personalise. Perhaps this is because the lessons we learn best are those we teach ourselves. The artfulness of great literature lies at least partly in the way it forces us to piece together various perspectives, to become the omniscient narrator-analyst the text itself lacks. Your supermarket spy novels give the reader too much, whereas in classic literature “there is no single, overarching authorial voice,” as David Comer Kidd, one of the researchers, told the New York Times. “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.”
I’m reminded of Tim O’Brien’s classic meditations on truth in The Things They Carried, his memoir of the Vietnam war: “Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” The nervous truth for social scientists may be that the product of all the polling, interviewing, data crunching and theory testing we do – all these facts – may contain less truth in the end than an artfully crafted story that never even happened.
That’s not to say I’d give up the ghost just yet. One lesson here may be to think of social science less as a way to explain human behaviour, and more as a way to explain and refine the plastic structures of civilisation built around it. The modern workplace, for example, affects our lives as much as the confounding intricacies of love and attraction; we need innovative ways to engage workers as much as we need Jane Austen. It would be great if literature could play a complementary role in social science research, although I don’t see citing Chaucer or Chekhov in research reports becoming fashionable anytime soon.