Different Stories: How Levels of Familiarity with Literary and Genre Fiction Relate to Mentalizing

Author: Kidd, D., and Castano, E.

Publication Year:

Media Type: Periodical (article)


This report follows an earlier study that observed an increased ability to understand others’ thoughts and feelings after reading literary fiction. It looks at the prolonged effects of exposure to literary fiction and the resulting effects.


Our ability to infer and understand others’ thoughts and feelings, known as theory of mind (ToM), has important consequences across the life span, supporting empathy, pro-social behavior, and coordination in groups. Socialization practices and interpersonal interactions help develop this capacity, and so does engaging with fiction. Research suggests that lifetime exposure to fiction predicts performance on ToM tests, but little evidence speaks to the type of fiction most responsible for this effect. We draw from literary theory and empirical work to propose that literary fiction is more likely than genre fiction to foster ToM, describe the development of a new method for assessing exposure to literary and popular genre fiction, and report findings from 3 samples testing the specificity of the relation between exposure to literary fiction and ToM. Results indicate that exposure to literary but not genre fiction positively predicts performance on a test of ToM, even when accounting for demographic variables including age, gender, educational attainment, undergraduate major (in 2 samples), and self-reported empathy (in 1 sample). These findings offer further evidence that habitual engagement with others’ minds, even fictional ones, may improve the psychological processes supporting inter-subjectivity. We discuss their implications for understanding the impacts of fiction, and for models of culture more generally.

Arts & Intersections: Equity & Diversity

Categories: Cultural Diversity, Access and Equity


Series Title: Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts

Edition: Vol 11(4)



Pages: 474



Name: American Psychological Association

Website URL: