Improve Your Relationship Skills by Reading Literary Fiction


Reading literary fiction may do more for you than provide enjoyment, distract you from stress, relieve your tension, or lift your mood. It may also boost your social skills by sharpening your ToM, or Theory of Mind.

Theory of mind is the ability to recognize different mental states – intentions, desires, knowledge, beliefs – in yourself and others, and to realize that others have intentions, desires and beliefs that are different from your own.

People with ToM capabilities are good at the complex social skill of "mind-reading," or discerning another individual's motivations, attitudes, moods or emotional states. This makes them adept at navigating social situations and relationships.

Stories Make Good Teachers

Reading literary fiction as a therapeutic tool, called bibliotherapy, is hardly new. A good novel can help us view others in situations similar to our own, see things from new or different perspectives, and express our feelings by identifying with a story’s characters.

So the notion that reading a novel can help us hone our people skills, or ToM, is not too surprising.

The Research

At The New School for Social Research, the ToM of study participants was measured after they read three different types of writing: popular fiction (taken from’s bestseller list), nonfiction (selected from Smithsonian Magazine), and literary fiction excerpts (from recent National Book Award finalists).

The research results showed that reading literary fiction improved an individual’s performance on several ToM measurement tasks. According to researchers David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano:

Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of ... stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers. Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.

Literary Fiction Suggestions

Autumn is a good time to curl up in a chair and devour a good book or two. Here are five literary fiction titles you may enjoy that will also sharpen your complex relationship skills, or ToM.

  1. The Round House by Louise Erdrich
    A woman living on a North Dakota reservation is attacked, traumatized and unable to reveal what happened to her. Her 13-year-old son struggles to come to terms with the changes in his family and to find justice for his mother.
  2. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
    The story of a young hard-head whose longing for love is matched by his recklessness; his journey with the amazing women he loves and loses.
  3. A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
    The story of a struggling business man fighting to hold himself and his splintering family together in economically difficult times.
  4. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
    After fighting Iraqi insurgents, eight surviving men of Bravo squad are sent by the Bush administration on a nationwide Victory Tour to engage public support for the war. They are slated, on a chilly Thanksgiving Day, to be part of the Dallas Cowboys halftime show.
  5. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
    Two young soldiers in Iraq do what they can to support each other despite physical fatigue, insurgents and intense mental stress. This becomes increasingly difficult as the line between reality and hazy nightmare begins to blur.

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” ~ William Styron

Source: Science Magazine, National Book Awards


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