At the American Psychological Association's 122nd Annual Convention, which wrapped up the week in Washington, DC, York University psychologist Raymond Mar led a presentation on the important and oft forgotten role of narrative fiction, highlighting its ability to instill empathy.
Taking into account the opinions of others, anticipating their reactions and realizing their mental states are all examples of empathy and they can help navigate one's way to social success.
"Even though fiction is fabricated," says Mar, "it can communicate truths about human psychology and relationships."
Mar zeroed in on children's books, noting that even among the most obscure stories in which inanimate objects are personified, over 75 percent of them reference complicated mental states like false-belief, taking on sophisticated genres such as irony.
"Children between the ages of 3 and 5 years old acquire a theory-of-mind, in other words, an understanding that other people have thoughts, beliefs and desires that may differ from their own," says Mar. "Around the same ages, children also begin to understand what characters in stories are feeling and thinking."
Mar recalled the findings of a 2010 study in which he and his colleagues concluded that parents familiar with children's literature were able to predict their sons' and daughters' performance on theory-of-mind tests.
Theory-of-mind assesses a child's ability to differentiate between the preferences of others and his personal desires.
Familiarity with adult books on the part of parents made no difference in their ability to predict their children's performance on the test.
Although Mar remained cautionary about the work, stating that these are mere correlations and do not demonstrate causation, he cited numerous references shedding light on the importance of children's fiction.
Noting that results of studies on adults' response to fiction have been inconsistent, Mar highlighted one study in which adults who respond empathetically to fiction are able to infer mental states from photographs.
"Experiences that we have in our life shape our understanding of the world...and imagined experiences through narrative fiction stories are also likely to shape or change us," says Mar. "But with a caveat -- it's not a magic bullet -- it's an opportunity for change and growth."