Read Classic Books to Build Emotional Intelligence

We take a look at research that has ignited debate in the psychological and literary communities. Can reading classical literature improve your emotional intelligence?

Read to build communication skills

Like many other people when I was at school I was often told that the more I read the better my grammar, spelling and spoken English would become.

I believed it then, and the evidence of my career in HR, interacting with a wide range of people has proven to me that I am correct to believe it now as well.

Experience leads to improvement

There is a lot of logic to this.

After all, if you experience something that is better than your current level of ability you are going to see a better way of doing things.

Without thinking about it your own ability will improve as a result of that experience.

It is one of the reasons why athletes train with someone who is just a little bit better than them.

So, it is logical that increasing your reading will improve the quality of your own use of language.

Improving other skills or knowledge.

Although it the impact that reading has on communication skills is widely acknowledged the impact that reading can have on the development of other skills is not universally accepted.

When in 2013 David Comer Kidd, and Emanuele Castano two psychologists from the School for Social Research in New York published an article in Science magazine suggesting that reading could improve emotional intelligence they created quite a stir amongst the psychological community.

Not all reading is good

The research from 2013 suggested that it wasn’t just reading that created this improvement but what the person read that was important.

Reading a few pages of literary fiction such as novels by Don DeLillo, Lydia Davis or Louise Erdrich, led to enhancing the reader’s ability to understand the emotions of others from looking at photographs of their eyes.

Reading lighter fiction including authors like Danielle Steele, Rosamunde Pilcher and Gillian Flynn did not result in an improved ability to identify someone’s emotions.

Literary fiction not popular fiction

Three years on and Comer Kidd and Castano have looked again at their research using a different technique and according to their paper published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts reached the same conclusion, reading literary fiction, but not popular fiction, is linked to higher ability to identify emotions in others.

Research approach

In 2013, the research had involved participants reading a few pages of literary or popular fiction online and then attempting to discern people’s emotions from looking at their eyes.

This study technique was criticised for using too small a selection of literature of both kinds and for not having a sufficient number of participants to justify being called serious scientific research.

One of the critics Mark Liberman wrote in his Language Log blog that he was surprised that the research had been accepted for publication and described its findings as an over generalisation to draw conclusions about all literature from such a small sample of texts.

The paper published in 2016 by David Kidd and Emanuele Castano is based on research that involved more than 2000 more people participating in the same emotion assessment test from looking at pictures of eyes.

Assessing emotions

The test used involves assessing the emotions of a person from just looking at a photograph of their eyes.

Participants were asked to select from a list of four complex words the one which best described the emotion that they saw in the eyes.

Participants were recruited not from the ranks of undergraduates, but from a cross section of society using links in an article published by the New York Times and from a link in Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website.

Types of reading

The type of reading the participants normally undertook was assessed by asking them to categorise authors as being either literature or popular fiction.

If a participant identified more literary authors, then the researchers concluded that they read more of that type of fiction.

Patterns identified

David Comer Kidd, and Emanuele Castano identified a pattern between the number of literary authors that participants could identify and their performance in the emotion recognition test.

The more literary authors they knew the better they performed in the test.

Emotion recognition

The link between reading and emotion recognition was maintained even when the influence of other factors that might be connected to both emotion skills and reading more literary fiction, such as past educational attainment, gender and age were taken into account.

The researchers attempted to identify if people with naturally higher levels of empathy are more likely to read classic literature rather than popular fiction.

They conducted a further study of 300 more people who had been recruited online and were asked to assess their own empathy levels.

The results followed the same pattern as the initial study.

Consistency in results

The findings were described by Kidd and Castano as being consistent across three samples and show the robustness of the patterns that they identified.

Complex characters

Although the study did not provide direct evidence to support any conclusions for the reasons for the differences the researchers attributed the higher levels of emotional recognition in the participants who read classic literature to the development of more rounded and complex characters by those authors.

Classic novels tend to require readers to make and adjust character assessments as the story develops, whereas popular fiction tends to rely on more two dimensional predictable characterisations.


This research is not without its critics; Simon Reichley writing on the Melville House website described the research as the revenge of the ‘lit-nerds’ and being ‘pretty high-flown and unscientific’

Christian Jarrett Editor of BPS Research Digest highlighted as the authors themselves said that their research should not be taken as evidence of “the superiority of literary fiction”.

Rather, that all types of fiction are likely to have an effect on people’s emotional understanding, but in different ways.

In some ways, the affect that literature has on the emotional skills of readers depends upon the society in which that reader lives.

Popular literature tends to use stereotypical characters which as Jarrett says ‘might encourage the “other strategy of social perception”, which is to understand people “in terms of their social identities and roles” – an approach likely to be favoured in less individualistic cultures.’

A good idea

After looking at both sides of the debate it is possible to align yourself with either side.

But that would be to over analyse the idea.

The team here at Work Work Work are pretty convinced that taking the quality of the books you read up a notch might very well impact your emotional intelligence.

Even if you still struggle to understand why some of your colleagues behave in such a strange way, you’ll probably have enjoyed a very good book.

So, what have you got to lose?

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