Failing to Replicate the Public Good

* Maria Eugenia Panero, Deena Skolnick Weisberg, Jessica Black, Thalia R. Goldstein, Jennifer L.
Barnes, Hiram Brownell, and Ellen Winner, ‘Does Reading a Single Passage of Literary Fiction Really Improve Theory of Mind? An Attempt at Replication’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111 (2016), 46-64.
* Keith Oatley, ‘Fiction: Simulation of Social Worlds’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (2016), 618-28.

This post follows rather rapidly after the last, because on the day I pressed the ‘publish’ button I found myself reading about the Panero et al. piece listed above. It’s part of Psychology’s replication boom, which I have written about a bit here. The researchers set about trying to repeat the experiments described in a well known 2013 essay by Kidd and Castano. It is one of numerous attempts to show that reading literature makes us better at empathy; I mentioned it, and looked at the issues more generally, here.
      What makes Kidd and Castano’s essay most challenging is that they claim an effect on our mind-reading skills as a result of a short and specific exposure to fiction. Usually the claim is looser — correlation, not causation, or it is based on longer-term exposure to the improving influence of literature. In the piece where I mentioned Kidd and Castano I also cited various pieces by Keith Oatley, who consistently presses the general case. Indeed, there’s a recent essay in Trends in Cognitive Sciences by him (details above), which is interesting as ever. And yet I wasn’t going to feature it in the blog: partly because I have dealt with the empathy thing before, but also because I seem to steer clear of it, perhaps because it just seems a bit too neat for comfort.
      Anyway, the thing about the replication boom is that it’s a failed replication boom. As has happened in a number of notable cases, they did not get the same results. This then casts doubt on the conclusions drawn by Kidd and Castano, and Panero et al. follow through by considering whether there is any causal link between reading fiction and empathy skills. Maybe, they wonder, it’s the other way around: mind-readers seek out representations of minds to read. Now this is just one specific ebb against a broader flow in favour of the argument that, as I noted in my last post, was part of a case being made for literature as a ‘public good’. And I was already wary. But we literary types have to stay vigilant, and careful, even when the science is music to our ears.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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