For years, a giant paper brick sat on my shelf. Its spine read The Count of Monte Cristo. I avoided taking it down because I had other things to do. It clocked in at over a thousand pages of small print – almost half a million words. It hung like a millstone around the neck of my cultural conscience. It was one of the dreaded “classics” that I should have read long ago but never did.
This was easy to justify. After all, how could a nearly 200-year-old tale of intrigue set in revolutionary France relate to my world of computers and space tourism and YouTube cat videos? I had other books to read, about real things, like how to organize my time.
Then one day, for reasons I can’t recall, I took the book off the shelf, started reading, and got hooked. I read page after page. Hours flew by. I would set it down, and whenever I encountered some unpleasant task, I’d find myself reaching for it again. The world around me disappeared as the count and his elaborate web of plans came alive. Eventually, I would reemerge and fret over the time I’d wasted. I had deadlines to meet, like the one for this column. I had bills to pay and a business to run. What could a made-up story have to do with that?
Everything, according to cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley. “I think lots of business schools are realizing that being able to understand other people is important, and that business is essentially a relational thing,” he told me when I called him at his office in Toronto.
“What we’ve found,” he went on, “is that reading more fiction enables you to understand other people better. Fiction is about exploring a range of circumstances and interactions and characters you’re likely to meet. Fiction is not a description of ordinary life; it’s a simulation.”
Oatley and his colleagues have performed several experiments that show how this works. In one study, they separated fiction readers from nonfiction readers and measured their social perceptiveness. The fiction group scored better at interpreting facial expressions and social cues. They also were less socially isolated and had more social support than nonfiction readers.
The obvious question is whether those who are already more socially adept read more fiction, or whether fiction makes them that way. To try to sort this out, Oatley’s colleague Raymond Mar asked people to read either an essay or a short story from the New Yorker, then gave them all two tests – one social, one logical. Both groups did equally well on the logic test, but the fiction readers did better on the social one, suggesting that the fiction was improving their social acumen. As Oatley put it to me, “If you’re going to fly a plane, you’d best spend some time in a flight simulator.”
In 2005, professors Warren Bennis and James O’Toole lodged a complaint in the Harvard Business Review about the world of business education, which they said had become too enamored of the “scientific model.”
“Though scientific research techniques may require considerable skill in statistics or experimental design,” they wrote, “they call for little insight into complex social and human factors and minimal time in the field discovering the actual problems facing managers.”
The two argued that business schools were leading people to become divorced from the real, complex world, where they often must make decisions without all the facts. They also implied that this focus on the cold-blooded, quantifiable side of business was one factor behind the scandals at Enron, WorldCom, and Arthur Andersen. A few years later, those scandals would look like dime-store thefts compared with the global meltdown, caused in part by that same focus on numbers and formulas to the exclusion of all else.
Bennis and O’Toole called on business schools to emulate Stanford professor James March, who taught a famous course on leadership using another door-stopping classic: War and Peace.
As Oatley writes: “History, [Aristotle] argued, tells us only what has happened, whereas fiction tells us what can happen, which can stretch our moral imaginations and give us insights into ourselves and other people.”
By letting us see how people interact and by shoring up our ability to imagine what another person is thinking or feeling, fiction lets our brains try out new perspectives, which helps us understand the minds of those around us. Oatley has shown in his experiments that fiction “measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves.”
Reading fiction is not some frivolous, time-wasting pursuit. It is a flexing of our social muscle.
It would be a gross oversimplification to say that having more fiction readers on Wall Street would have prevented the financial crisis. But in our technophilic era, it’s worth thinking about social smarts. As Bennis and O’Toole wrote, “The problem is not that business schools have embraced scientific rigor, but that they have forsaken other forms of knowledge.”
I finally did finish The Count of Monte Cristo (and this column). It was a satisfying book. As I put it back in its place on the shelf, my eye drifted to other books. Hmm, I thought, The Great Gatsby. I remembered almost nothing about it from my high school reading. The book wasn’t very long. I eyed the pile of work on my desk.
“Do I really have time to read this?” I asked myself.
But maybe a better question is: “Do I have time not to?”