Lit fiction, Pop fic, Theory of Mind, and Leadership

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litdawg

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*Not sure where to put this article for discussion, so mods please move if there is a better place.*

Reading Literary Fiction Boosts Leadership Qualities
By Emanuele Castano
December 2020 Proceedings Vol. 146/12/1,414

https://www.usni.org/magazines/proc...-literary-fiction-boosts-leadership-qualitieshttps://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2020/december/reading-literary-fiction-boosts-leadership-qualities

As both a literature professor and a military officer, I found elements of this article rang true. Without getting hung up on the controversial dichotomizing of literary and popular fiction, I find Theory of Mind a decent description of why my work tends to be more character-driven than plot-driven. As a writer, I'd like to provide this sort of fodder to readers.
 
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Chris P

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I didn't have time to read-read this (will do so later), but from skimming what looked like the most central paragraphs, this is as sound an idea as any. The Theory of the Mind resembles all the motivational leadership seminars and trainings I've attended, where you are encouraged to present ideas in a variety of ways so that you connect with as many of your audience members as possible.

How I've used literary fiction (but also famous non-fic works) is I have more examples I can roll out, more hook lines, and considering other ways of thinking as presented in those works trains me to consider other approaches. I honestly can't say it's super paid off in terms of getting others to march to my drum, but I've been a more productive team contributor too, as I can march to another's drum too.
 

Chris P

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Okay, I've read-read this now, and they're on to something. I figured the effect was about learning empathy through vicarious experiences, in addition to what I'd said above about literary allusions and understanding other perspectives. I will add, though, that it's easier to see life first then art, than art first then life. In Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, Uriah Heep reminded me of certain people I already knew, and it would have been much harder for someone to remind me of Uriah Heep after reading it. Still, I think the article's main point is sound.

I do have some questions about their methodology, however. I don't have a problem with the methodology, I'd just like to know more about it.

For instance:

Since the early 2000s, thanks to Toronto-based scholars Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley, we have known that reading stories, and fiction in particular, is associated with ToM capacity. These scholars showed that people more familiar with authors such as John Irving or Tom Clancy also scored higher on a well-known and widely used test of ToM called Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, or eyes-test for short. The eyes-test consists of guessing which mental state, among four possible responses, is being experienced by a person.

I looked up this test, and the subject is exposed to 25 pictures of the eyes and eyebrows of both male and female actors then are asked to choose between two words describing the emotion the actor is feeling (described here). My question for the developers of the test, is how did they control the emotion the actor was actually feeling? It seems to me an actor might be trained to exaggerate certain features so the emotion looks more convincing on camera. This is to the extreme in silent-era films, where without words the actors wore garish make-up and over-reacted so the audience can see what's happening. In short, does it make a difference in the test scores if the actors were "true-angry" or "acting-angry"?

Perhaps my questions get away from the purpose of the test, which might be to determine how facial expressions are interpreted, rather than some sort of instinctual gut response to human facial expression. Lots of that is cultural, too. When I lived in Uganda, I found Ugandans extremely difficult to read because of social norms regarding "appropriate" levels of expressiveness. (To Ugandans, Westerners are non-verbally screaming at them all the time with our hand motions and facial contortions while speaking--we can be quite comical to them, I'm told).

In studies similar to those originally carried out by Mar and Oatley, instead of computing one score for the Author Recognition Test, my collaborators and I computed two separate scores: one for recognizing literary fiction authors and one for recognizing popular fiction authors. What we found is that only the literary fiction score predicts performance on the eyes-test; the more you read literary fiction, the stronger your ToM skills. Being familiar with popular fiction, on the other hand, had no impact.

...snip...

Most important, the same effect emerges in highly controlled experiments, where instead of measuring people’s familiarity with different kinds of fiction, we make them read one type or another and then measure their performance on ToM tests.

My next question deals more with my lack of familiarity with these types of data. Although the blog author gives a competent qualitative delineation of popular versus literary fiction, it is not a quantitative one that can be measured. In the type of science I am trained to do, the greater the quantitative difference in the two forms of the independent variable (here, popular versus literary) the greater the response of the dependent variable (Author Recognition test score). This would require a measurable difference to be found between the two types of literature, and increasing the difference in the literature samples provided would lead to a greater difference in the test scores among different groups given different sets of literary reading material (Comparing the popular of Danielle Steele to, say, either the upmarket Art of Racing in the Rain as a "near-popular" example and the "deep-literary" of Finnegan's Wake).

Thanks for posting this! Perhaps not the discussion you expected to have, but thought provoking nonetheless.
 

ap123

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In because I love any opportunity to discuss lit fic that isn't bashing it or bashing genre readers/writers.

It was an interesting article, thank you for posting, but I'm not sure about the author's conclusions. Let me be clear first: I read and write lit fic, but am not a professor, what anyone would call a leader, nor do I have any lit degrees so maybe I'm misreading.

When I participate in any of the discussions that inevitably devolve into lit vs genre, the one thing I always say is that people read (and write) for different reasons. That being my belief, I suspect the people who are drawn to reading lit fic already possess the qualities that increase those Theory of the Mind scores. I'm more interested in who and why than what and how, always was. Does that make sense?

And one bit bothered me,
Literary fiction is more concerned with the inner life of the characters: their idiosyncrasies, uniqueness, and consciousness.
not exactly, imo. Lit fic uses unique characters and their idiosyncrasies to explore commonalities, not those specific, unique characters. The human condition and all that jazz, right?
 

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