Science Says Reading a Book Makes You a Better Friend
A new study is the latest evidence that being a bookworm makes you more social, not less
I am tired of the misconception that loving books means loving people less. In fact, I have spent a lifetime mistakenly calling myself an “introvert,” because I thought being a reader was synonymous with introversion. Thankfully science is here to help me and other socially-minded readers out there re-identify with our gregariousness. This week, NBC news highlighted research from Professor Melanie Green, a social psychologist at University of Buffalo who is studying how the transporting experience of “getting lost” in a story affects our social relationships. She’s discovered that our ability to be transported by a story actually says a lot about how we can comprehend, interpret, and empathize with the stories of those around us in real life. A quick tour through some social psychology journals proves she’s not the only one discovering that readers are the best people to swap BFF necklaces with.
The psychological study of reading stories is fairly new. In 2000, Jèmeljan Hakemulder at Utrecht University in Germany published The Moral Laboratory, one of the first books to examine the relationship between reading and empathy. In 2011, Raymond Marr published the results of a study that found that the same parts of the brain (known collectively as the mentalizing network) that light up “to infer the mental states of others” also light up during narrative comprehension — the process we use to understand stories we are reading. In 2013, another study in the APA journal of Psychology of Aesthetics Creativity and the Arts shared empirical evidence that suggests there is a positive correlation not only between reading and social cognition, but more importantly between reading and empathy.
Reading transporting stories helps us develop what psychologists call “prosocial behaviors”—any behavior that benefits others, like volunteering, cooperating, sharing, and contributing to the community. In other words, these studies are proving that reading makes us treat ourselves and others better. But how does reading make that happen?
Some argue reading is where we get to conduct our own social experiments and observe the results. Professor Keith Oatley has been studying the relationship between reading and social life for awhile. (One of his studies is titled “Book worms versus Nerds: Exposure to fiction versus nonfiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds” and was published in the Journal of Research in Personality. If that’s not a David Foster Wallace endnote waiting to be written, I don’t know what is.) He argues that reading lets us simulate social behavior we then put into practice in real life. Oatley measured the different responses to the way a story was structured — either fiction or nonfiction. Participants in the study reported feeling higher levels of emotion after reading the fiction story, and showed significant behavioral changes. It’s the act of reading, Oatley argues, that actually transforms us into better friends. Reading encourages people to develop in particular ways after personal reading experiences. As Oatley told NBC News: “It is very important in the social world to understand others, to understand ourselves, and not just get stuck.” Reading keeps us from getting stuck.
It’s the act of reading, Oatley argues, that actually transforms us into better friends. Reading encourages people to develop in particular ways after personal reading experiences.
So why do bookworms have a reputation for being antisocial? Maybe the misunderstanding comes from the assumption that because we readers are so good at finding friends in books, we don’t need anyone else. At least part of that is true: we are really good at finding friends in books. In another study conducted at the University of Buffalo (titled “Becoming a Vampire without Being Bitten” — these titles!), Professors Ariana Young and Shira Gabriel examined how reading helps satisfy the need for human connection. They had 140 students read Twilight or Harry Potter. Then, as they explained to The Guardian, using their “Twilight/Harry Potter Narrative Collective Assimilation Scale,” they asked the students to answer questions about how long they could go without sleep and whether or not they could imagine moving something with the power of their minds. Young and Gabriel recorded the results, and measured factors like mood, absorption into the stories, and general life satisfaction. Not only did the students who were absorbed in the stories report feeling levels of happiness and connection that mimic the same feelings we get in real social interactions, but they also identified with the traits of the characters they had read about in each book. Twilight readers self-identified as vampires, while Harry Potter readers self-identified as wizards. (These are, one might argue, not traits that usually make for social fluency. And yet!)
We already know that reading does a lot of good — it makes us live longer, and it reduces anxiety. And now we can say reading makes us better friends, too. To be clear, it’s totally cool if you’re an introvert. But if you’re a person who likes to read books and be around people, or you’ve been wondering why you naturally enjoy being around people who read a lot of books, you have science to back up the feelings. Go ahead, read and be friendly!