Say you’re stopping at a library the day before a job interview. If you find yourself wavering between the latest pulpy potboiler or the book that’s a darling of the literati, you might want to go with the NPR favorite. New research suggests that literary fiction enhances a person’s ability to read another person’s emotions – and, by extension, their ability to navigate complex social relationships.

Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd, psychologists at the New School for Social Research, are interested in what’s called the Theory of Mind. ToM is a particular kind of social skill that involves being able to guess what another person is thinking or feeling. It’s a pretty useful tool to have in a broad range of human interactions: having a delicate conversation with a romantic partner, collaborating with co-workers on a project, or gauging how well a job interviewer’s reacting to your answers.

“Obviously you cannot really have an empathy response without a theory of mind, because then you wouldn’t know what someone is going through,” Castano said in a phone interview.

Other studies have found a connection between fiction and empathy; one recent paper published in the journal PLoS ONE found that the more a person is “emotionally transported” into a story, the more empathetic they felt afterward. But one problem with studies that measure empathy by itself, Castano says, is that you have to rely on people’s self-reported accounts of how empathetic they are. People generally think they’re very nice. Examining how well a person scores on Theory of Mind offers more objective results.

“It’s a performance-based test: to what extent am I able to recognize emotions on a person’s face, or to guess what they’re thinking,” Castano says.

Castano and Kidd performed several experiments to see how reading different kinds of literature can affect a person’s ability to attune to others’ emotions. Their results appear in a paper published in the journal Science on Thursday.

One of the tests Castano and Kidd used to gauge how well a person can read another person’s emotions is called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes.” Study participants are shown close-up photographs of actors’ faces -- with just the eyes and nose in frame -- and asked to choose which of four emotions the person is conveying with their face.

In their experiments, groups that read literary fiction (samples included Alice Munroe’s “Corrie” or Wendell Berry’s “Nothing Living Lives Alone”) were, on average, better at recognizing emotions than groups that read either popular fiction (“Space Jockey” by Robert Heinlein or Danielle Steel’s “The Sins of the Mother”) or nonfiction texts (“How The Potato Changed the World,” an article by Charles C. Mann in Smithsonian Magazine).

What makes literary fiction better at enhancing our sensitivity? While Castano acknowledges that dividing fiction up into categories like “literary” and “popular” could be argued as a matter of taste, he points to one general principle: Popular fiction tends to tell more than show; for literary fiction, it’s the reverse.

“Popular fiction tends to focus on the plot -- you know exactly what characters are thinking, you know from first moment who the good guys are,” Castano says. “On the other hand, if you pick up Jonathan Franzen’s ‘The Corrections,’ it’s really not about the plot. Ninety percent of the book is diving into characters’ minds, and these characters tend to be very human in sense of they’re very incomplete and complex in the way they’re described.”

Castano suspects this difference in characterization -- being offered up a character on a silver platter, versus a more incomplete, shaded description -- is key to literary fiction’s superiority at boosting our empathy skills. It gives the reader a harder emotional workout by making him or her work a little more to connect with characters.

“A reader of these kinds of novels really has to participate and build the mind of the character; an effort has to be made,” Castano says.

Dissecting the character of Holden Caulfield may be just the thing to prepare you for empathizing with people in your daily life.

“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,” Kidd and Castano write in their paper. “The worlds of fiction, though, pose fewer risks than the real world, and they present opportunities to consider the experiences of others without facing the potentially threatening consequences of that engagement.”

Reading literary fiction isn’t necessarily going to be a cure-all for a lack of empathy, Castano says. But he thinks there’s enough evidence that suggests a good book can help steer a person toward more prosocial behaviors. Other studies seem to concur. For example, there’s a lot of research showing that the third year of medical school usually leaves budding doctors much less empathetic than before. But when third-year students at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School were required to take a humanism course that included fiction discussions, their empathy scores did not take a nosedive.

The empathy-boosting effects of literature could prove useful in other arenas too: prison reading programs, or in people with certain social disorders. Castano notes that one of the subjects in his current study later revealed that she falls on the autism spectrum. She told the researchers that her voracious novel-reading habit had helped her better understand people and paved the way for a social life.

Plus, as far as therapies go, reading’s a fairly low-risk intervention.

“Literary fiction can be almost free, and has very few side effects,” Castano says.

SOURCE: Kidd et al. “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” Science published online 3 October 2013.