It might feature such thought-stretching concepts as time travel and warp drives, but reading science fiction actually makes you read more “stupidly”, according to new research.
In a paper published in the journal Scientific Study of Literature, Washington and Lee University professors Chris Gavaler and Dan Johnson set out to measure how identifying a text as science fiction makes readers automatically assume it is less worthwhile, in a literary sense, and thus devote less effort to reading it. They were prompted to do their experiment by a 2013 study which found that literary fiction made readers more empathetic than genre fiction.
Their study, detailed in the paper The Genre Effect, saw the academics work with around 150 participants who were given a text of 1,000 words to read. In each version of the text, a character enters a public eating area and interacts with the people there, after his negative opinion of the community has been made public. In the “literary” version of the text, the character enters a diner after his letter to the editor has been published in the town newspaper. In the science fiction version, he enters a galley in a space station inhabited by aliens and androids as well as humans.
After they read the text, participants were asked how much they agreed with statements such as “I felt like I could put myself in the shoes of the character in the story”, and how much effort they spent trying to work out what characters were feeling.
Gavaler and Johnson write that the texts are identical apart from “setting-creating” words such as “door” and “airlock”: they say this should have meant that readers were equally good at inferring the feelings of characters, an ability known as theory of mind.
This was not the case. “Converting the text’s world to science fiction dramatically reduced perceptions of literary quality, despite the fact participants were reading the same story in terms of plot and character…