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Does Reading Fiction Boost Creativity?

by on 2013/09/04

What did the Researchers Say?

This research is not directly focused on creativity, but on the need for closure. This isn’t quite the “closure” that soap opera characters crave when extricating themselves from a messy relationship, but there is a similarity there. The closure the researchers are looking at is “cognitive closure”, about which they say

Cognitive closure is the need to reach a quick conclusion in decision-making and an aversion to ambiguity and confusion.

Djikic, Oatley & Moldoveanu (2013). Opening the Closed Mind – The Effect of Exposure to Literature on the Need for Closure. Creativity Research Journal, 25(2), 149-154. doi: 10.1080/10400419.2013.783735

Broadly speaking, this means that if you crave this closure, you are more likely to make a snap judgement, and less likely to change your judgement as new evidence comes to light (sometimes referred to as “freezing”).

Previous studies have shown that craving cognitive closure is linked to being less rational when decisions need to be made, using less information when making decisions, and using overly simple ideas and concepts to interpret the world. There is also a well catalogued effect on creativity – in one study, having a strong need for cognitive closure led to producing objects and figures that were less creative (when inspected by an impartial judge).

So, with this connection in place, the researchers are looking to manipulate the need for cognitive closure using literary fiction. The researchers argue that fiction can act like a simulation of real world events – instead of the simulation being run on a computer, it is run instead inside the mind of the reader, who can empathise with the characters, or even assume their identity. Also, fiction does not necessarily demand the reader make a decision–indeed, some fiction relies on the reader being unsure of what happened at the end! This can be true for non-fiction too–history books can be frustratingly incomplete, as can the fossil records of the Earth as they are described in a textbook.

The authors set out to determine whether fiction or non-fiction (or both) affects the need for cognitive closure. They gathered one hundred participants, who were given one of sixteen pieces to read. Eight were essays, and eight were short stories, with the content carefully matched for difficulty (e.g. word length, sentence length). The sixteen pieces are listed in the paper. They then asked the participants to fill out a Need For Closure Scale, which asks the participants to agree/disagree with statements such as “I don’t like situations that are uncertain” or “I dislike questions that can be answered in many ways”.

The authors found that reading short stories, compared to essays, reduced the participants’ need for cognitive closure. The effect seemed to be stronger if the participants described themselves as prolific readers of either fiction or non-fiction.

What Did the Media Say?

This article was picked up by a variety of news outlets. The Daily Mail makes clear that the study investigated closure, not creativity, even mentioning some of the pieces given to the participants, and correctly reports the authors’ findings. The Mail livens up the article by mentioning the reading habits of Marilyn Monroe and JFK, and ends on a well-crafted aphorism from George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones (in a clever piece of linkbaiting). The Mail’s only real failure here is that it doesn’t link to the journal article, which would have been nice.

The Salon article (originally from Pacific Standard) does link to the article, and mentions more of the writers featured in the study. They also mention all the authors of the journal article, not just the lead author as the Daily Mail did. Articles from other vendors have added in their titles that reading literary fiction increases the empathy of the reader, but this refers to previous research by the group.

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