Researchers hypothesized that people who read works of literature would be better at sensing what is going on in the inner worlds of others, but they wanted to test the notion.
So they asked some volunteers to read excerpts of recent award-winning novels or short stories, while others were asked to read either parts of Amazon.com popular fiction bestsellers or nonfiction pieces from Smithsonian Magazine.
The readers were then subjected to a series of five tests meant to gauge how well they could guess what a person was feeling, for instance by looking at a picture of a facial expression or answering questions about how a given character would act under certain circumstances.
The results showed that the best scores were obtained by those who had just read excerpts of literary fiction.
"Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration," wrote the study authors, PhD candidate David Comer Kidd and his adviser, professor of psychology professor Emanuele Castano of the New School in New York.
The findings could be useful in rehabilitating prisoners, or helping people with autism learn to communicate better with others, the researchers said.