Psychology Major Pits Literary Fiction vs. Non-Fiction in Theory of Mind
Published on April 22, 2014
There are many great reasons to read. But does what you read matter to how you learn about the people around you?
Susquehanna University psychology major Jessica Takats from West Islip, N.Y., worked with fellow students Danielle Huscher and Alexa Dreese to try to determine if either literary fiction or non-fiction had a bigger influence in a person’s Theory of Mind, which is a person’s ability to consider their thoughts and feelings and differ them from someone else’s thoughts and feelings. The trio presented their research as part of Susquehanna’s Senior Scholars Day at the Charles B. Degenstein Campus Center.
Two different components to the tests were administered to participants of the study. One focused on feelings, while the other centered on thought projection.
First, each participant read one of two passages. Either a piece of literary fiction—“The End of Something” by Ernest Hemingway—or an example of non-fiction—“The Story of the Most Common Bird in the World” by Rob Dunn. Then participants were asked to look at 36 images closely cropped on a pair of eyes. Each photo corresponded to a correct choice in a multiple choice set of four aimed at identifying the feeling. The options varied with each photo. The second part of the test was aimed at anticipating someone else’s thoughts in a situation.
“They were presented with a false-belief reasoning test, or how you differ your thoughts from someone else’s,” Takats said. “In this study there was a main character named Vicki who has a violin. She puts her violin in a box and someone comes into the room and moves the violin and the box. Participants were asked which box to look in, so they would either look in the box they knew the other person put the violin in, or they would differ their thoughts and realize that Vicki had no idea and would look in the original box.”
But a study is only as good as its subjects, so while Takats and her colleagues used accepted methods of administering the tests, including testing for author recognition to test the amount of knowledge participants came into the study with, there were an unusually high number of non-compliant participants.
“In the end, we found that there were no significant results, but we think this is because we had a lot of non-compliant participants,” Takats said.
The research was still useful, though, for Takats, who is graduating in just three years.
“Every psychology major has to take directed research and I’m graduating a year in advance, so this was something I was really interested in because I’m going into human resources,” she said. “It’s interesting to see how you can differ your own feeling from someone else, especially having to be in a mediating situation.
“We learned so much about how people make judgments. When we started we weren’t sure what we were going to learn.”