Why Men Should Read More Fiction

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At the Art of Manliness, we encourage our readers to read books. It’s through reading that we gain new perspectives and learn more about ourselves and the world around us. I’m a big believer in the saying that “Readers are leaders.” As I’ve studied the lives of great men throughout history, a common thread I’ve found is that most were bibliophiles who relentlessly pursued self-education throughout their entire lives.

While many men have stacks of books accumulating on their “to-read” pile, chances are that pile is composed primarily of non-fiction tomes. For the past 20 years or so, the publishing industry has noted a precipitous decline in the number of men reading fiction. Some reports show that men make up only 20% of fiction readers in America today.

There are a lot of reasons thrown around as to why many men today don’t read fiction. Perhaps they had a bad experience with it in high school and swore they’d never read a novel again as long as they lived. It’s possible that the male brain is just naturally more drawn to the straightforward, fact-driven nature of non-fiction. And some have suggested that men are getting their storytelling fix from the many excellent narrative non-fiction books that have come out in the past decade (e.g., The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Into Thin Air).

Whatever the reason, cognitive studies are beginning to show that men might be short-shrifting themselves by avoiding the fiction section in the bookstore and library. Today we make the case for why you need to put down those business books every once in awhile and pick up a copy of Hemingway.

Why Men Should Read More Fiction

In the past decade, several cognitive scientists have turned their attention to how fiction affects our minds. Leading this research is cognitive psychologist and fiction writer, Dr. Keith Oatley. Dr. Oatley and other researchers from around the globe have discovered that fiction not only activates, but also improves the cognitive functions that allow us to thrive socially.

Dr. Oatley argues in his book Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction that fiction is primarily about “selves in a social world,” and that fiction’s main subject is “what people are up to with each other.” Just as your understanding of history and finance is improved by reading lots of books on those subjects, reading fiction improves your understanding of social relationships — your thinking about what other people are thinking. In fact, Dr. Oatley calls fiction a simulation for the social world that allows you to experience (at least vicariously) a variety of social circumstances with different kinds of people than you might encounter in your actual day-to-day life.

Most of your success as a man, whether in love or work, depends on your ability to socialize adroitly. We’ve all heard the phrase, “Success depends not on what you know, but who you know.” As much as you’d like to think that’s not true, it is. You can be the most skilled and talented whatever in the world, but you’ll likely labor away in obscurity if you don’t know how to reach out and share those talents with others.

Unfortunately, men have gotten the short end of the evolutionary stick when it comes to our ability to socialize. Studies show that male brains are generally wired for dealing with stuff, while female brains are generally wired for dealing with people. This may explain why women often prefer fiction over non-fiction: their brains are already wired to want to read about “selves in a social world.”

Thus as men, we probably have the most to gain from reading fiction. Instead of seeing fiction as a bunch of made-up, waste-of-time baloney, look it as a simulator that allows you to exercise and strengthen the cognitive muscles responsible for socializing. Every time you pick up and read a novel, you’re molding yourself into a better, more socially adept man.

Below we flesh out what the research says about how exactly fiction improves our minds.

Reading Fiction Strengthens Your Theory of Mind

Theory of mind is a cognitive ability that humans use all the time, but take for granted. Basically, it’s our ability to attribute mental states (like thoughts, feelings, and beliefs) to others based on a whole host of input in order to predict and explain what they are thinking. Cognitive scientists call this ability “theory of mind” because when we interact with others, it’s impossible for us to know exactly what they’re thinking/feeling/perceiving, so we have to construct a theory of what they’re thinking/feeling/perceiving in their mind. Without theory of mind, social interaction would be awkward, clumsy, and nearly impossible.

Some examples of theory of mind in action:

  • We use theory of mind when we see a smiling huckster and think, “Sure, he’s smiling, but I think he’s actually trying to screw me here.” You see the smile, but you’re attributing an alternative mental state because of some other information you know about the guy.
  • Theory of mind pervades romantic relationships. “I think she thinks that I like her, but I really don’t. How do I let this girl down easily?” In this case, you are theorizing that a young lady has a thing for you, and that she thinks the feeling is mutual even though it isn’t. Now you have to figure out how to handle this situation.
  • We use theory of mind to strategize and deceive. The famous poisoned goblet scene in The Princess Bride is a perfect example of theory of mind in action:

Theory of mind isn’t something that we’re born knowing how to do. Children start developing theory of mind around three or four years old. Until then, infants and toddlers think that whatever they’re thinking/feeling/perceiving, is what others are thinking/feeling/perceiving too. It’s why my 18-month-old son Gus “hides” by simply covering his eyes with his hands. He thinks because he can’t see me, I can’t see him, even though he’s sitting right in front of me in his high chair. While certainly cute, it’s a big theory of mind fail.

Generally, girls develop theory of mind before boys do and teenage girls tend to do better than teenage boys on theory of mind tasks. The female advantage in theory of mind also extends into adulthood. Women’s superior theory of mind ability is probably a result of both evolutionary and sociological factors. Cognitive scientist Simon Baron-Cohen (He’s Borat’s cousin. Seriously!), postulates that autism affects men more often than women because those with autism have an “extreme male mind.” Those with autism often lack or have an underdeveloped theory of mind, which explains why they frequently struggle to interact socially — they lack the ability to read other people.

So what does theory of mind have to do with fiction? Well, studies show that when we read fiction, the parts of our brain responsible for theory of mind light up and are heavily engaged. Narratives require us to guess at the hidden motives of characters, figure out what their enemies or lovers may or may not be thinking (when the author doesn’t tell us explicitly), as well as keep track of all the social interactions between characters. Ernest Hemingway was famous for forcing his readers to guess the mental state of his characters by substituting words with actions. For example, at the super-sad end of A Farewell to Arms (Don’t read it if you’re a father-to-be. Trust me), the main character, Frederic Henry, doesn’t say anything at all — he just walks back to his hotel in the rain. End story.

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