Why Reading Tolstoy Will Make You A Better Boss

Literature sharpens your social skills. And who doesn't need their social skills sharpened?

Reading literature isn't only good for showing off how smart you are to your friends; it can also advance your career.

That's because, as a new study published in the journal Nature shows, the right books can give you training in empathy. According to the New York TImes Well blog:

(The study) found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence—skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.

Why should we have The Brothers Karamazov tucked under our arms on our way to work?

Because the "soft skills" of empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence are major difference makers. First of all, they're things that robots can't (yet) do better than us. Second, if you're in a company loaded with conceptual brainpower—like, say, Google—then soft skills will differentiate you from the eggheads. And third, people are recognizing that empathy is a primary leadership tool—the surest way to co-investment—so anything that trains us in empathy is an asset.

The way the researchers found this out is fascinating.

How to find a feel for feeling

Psychology professor Emanuele Castano and doctoral student David Comer Kidd found subjects via Amazon's Mechanical Turk, the bookseller's marketplace for small jobs at small pay—which got their sample set beyond the usual collection of college students. So folks between 18 and 75 were paid $2 or $3 to read a few minutes. Some were given excerpts of high-end literary fiction (think Don DeLillo), while others read a best seller like Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, or an article from Discover magazine.

Then, after reading, the participants took tests that measured their ability to understand how people were feeling by their expression. In a test called "Reading the Mind in the Eyes," participants studied 36 photographs of pairs of eyes and chose one of four adjectives to best describe the emotion therein.

The folks that read the ]literary fiction had the best scores, the nonfiction readers were in the middle, and the readers of popular fiction did as bad as those who read nothing. So much for Shades of Grey.

What about serious fiction that makes it so good for our emotional intelligence?
A novel simulates life in the same way that a driving game simulates a race.

Albert Wendland, a director of the master's program in writing at Seton Hill University, explained as much to the New York Times:

Reading sensitive and lengthy explorations of people's lives, that kind of fiction is literally putting yourself into another person's position—lives that could be more difficult, more complex, more than what you might be used to in popular fiction. It makes sense that they will find that, yeah, that can lead to more empathy and understanding of other lives.

Add that to the business case for the English major.

Hat tip: New York Times Well blog

[Image: Flickr user daBinsi]

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6 Comments

  • Jmhosey

    Might I say that volunteering in your community will also sharpen your social skills, increase empathy and help develop a better understanding of a skill set that can only be had through experience.

  • Stephen McLeod Blythe

    what's the definition of 'literary fiction' as opposed to 'popular fiction' for these purposes? 

  • Brannon Marshall

    As cubicle-dweller who spent 7 years educating himself in "the soft skills," this is encouraging. I'm learning how to lead with empathy - a real challenge today. Thanks for the insight!