Why Art Matters, According To Science

I posted, after the election, about art mattering, and voices mattering. I believe this based on first principles alone – people matter, and what they have to say matters. But since then, I know a lot of my writer friends have struggled to believe that their writing makes any difference. Sure, we say (it’s me as well), maybe we need art right now, but mine isn’t political enough, isn’t persuasive enough, isn’t this enough, isn’t that enough. Mine isn’t going to help anyone in today’s world.

One of the nice things about being an academic who studies creativity is that I sometimes have new answers to these doubts.

As a case in point – and please remember, this case is only one specific way in which art can help people – I’m going to describe some research on fiction and personality change. This is mostly based on the work summarized in the paper “The Art in Fiction: From Indirect Communication to Changes of the Self” by Maja Djikic and Keith Oatley at the University of Toronto. But don’t worry! I am not going to write this like an academic paper! It’ll be fun!

Djikic and Oatley, along with other psychologists, have run experiments in which participants do personality tests, then read literary fiction, then do the tests again. These are compared with a control group in which the participants read something else – sometimes nonfiction, sometimes a dry, courtroom-style summary of the events in the  story.

Usually, personality traits are stable. They rarely change, and it’s very difficult to change them through direct persuasion. But psychologists running these experiments found something strange. After reading fiction, a person’s personality becomes temporarily destabilized. If you do a personality test immediately after reading something, your answers may be different to what you usually give.

Moreover, everyone’s personality will be destabilized in a different way. One person might become less conscientious and more open after reading a story. Another person, reading the exact same story, will change their answers in a completely different way. These changes are mediated – that is, they partly depend on – the emotions a reader experiences during the story, which are also specific to the reader. They aren’t necessarily based on what the author intended to reader to feel, but on the idiosyncratic way each person reacts to what they’re reading.

Does this personality change last? Well, yes and no. Normally, it’s temporary. But if someone’s personality is already going in a direction where it can change, the temporary destabilizations caused by things like fiction help to nudge it along.

And we do see lasting patterns over time that seem to result from fiction reading. In particular, habitual fiction readers end up showing greater empathy than non-readers – even when controlling for things like IQ and education, which would logically make fiction books more accessible to some people than others.

Cool, but if the logical content intended by the author isn’t what causes this change, then what does? Djikic and Oatley suggest that it’s specifically the “literary” aspects of a text that make the difference. Literary style – phrasing things in an unusual and compelling way – makes elements of a text stand out and seem special, and this facilitates readers having a personal emotional reaction that they didn’t expect. “Showing” a character’s emotions, through their actions or the implications of their words, rather than “telling” them, seems to increase empathy specifically, since the reader has to pay more attention to subtle cues to what the character is feeling. The increase in empathy is also strongest for people who become very mentally immersed in a story, visualizing the events of the narrative in their head.

It’s worth noting here that, if you read specific papers about the psychology of fiction, many make a sharp distinction between “literary” and “commercial” fiction. This can be a little hard for genre writers like us to take. It makes sense on its face that literary fiction contains more stylistic devices than commercial fiction. But a lot of researchers, insisting on this distinction between literary and commercial, don’t test it directly. That is to say, they don’t test literary fiction with a commercial fiction control group. Instead, as I mentioned, they test literary fiction against non-fiction, or against special versions of literary fiction with some or all of the literary devices taken out. We all know, though, that it’s possible to use literary devices in any genre.

And when researchers do measure specific genres against each other, the results are a little surprising. Science fiction without a literary style does rather poorly at generating empathy. Litfic does better – but the very best genre for generating empathy is romance. (Think of that next time you are tempted to turn up your nose at a romance author!)

Many of these effects have been documented for other art forms too, such as visual art, music, and film. Art in general seems to be uniquely positioned to expand our minds by generating emotions in a way that’s personal and individually relevant to us.

This isn’t even getting into the other things art can do. For example, so far I’ve only talked about increasing empathy in a general sense, not about generating empathy for specific groups (such as a marginalized group). And I haven’t mentioned some of the things that science fiction is especially good at, such as imagining new solutions to societal problems. This isn’t meant to be a statement of the only thing fiction can do, or even the most important thing. But it’s one thing.

Like the protagonist in “A Spell To Retrieve Your Lover From The Bottom Of The Sea”, a good story can’t force anyone to change. But what it can do is create a space for change. A space where, for those who are willing, change and understanding become a little bit more possible.

Maybe, for some of us, that can be enough.