Want more socially intelligent workers? Hire novel readers

If you want to hire more workers who understand the human condition, you might set up a recruiting table near the fiction shelves of your local library or bookstore.

Emeritus professor Keith Oatley (University of Toronto) is among those studying the effects of novel reading on the emotional development of readers. He and others are finding that, contrary to popular belief, those who immerse themselves in fictional worlds and characters may be more empathetic, open minded, and socially aware than those who do not.

Oatley gathered these emerging insights in a Scientific American Mind piece (Nov.-Dec. 2011), “In the Minds of Others.” Here’s a snippet:

Recent research shows that far from being a means to escape the social world, reading stories can actually improve your social skills by helping you better understand other human beings. The process of entering imagined worlds of fiction builds empathy and improves your ability to take another person’s point of view. It can even change your personality. The seemingly solitary act of holing up with a book, then, is actually an exercise in human interaction. It can hone your social brain, so that when you put your book down you may be better prepared for camaraderie, collaboration, even love.

Although the full article is not freely available from the magazine’s website, a brief summary and ordering information may be accessed here.

Workforce implications

Oatley’s article doesn’t dwell on the implications for the workforce, but it’s pretty easy to take that step.

At a time when we seem preoccupied with finding workers who possess technological and computer skills, let’s not overlook qualities of social intelligence in evaluating job applicants. Indeed, if you spend any time talking to those who interview prospective employees, they’ll tell you that sometimes it’s hard to find people who can carry on a decent conversation and relate to others.

Also, these findings buttress the case for how a liberal arts education can prepare people to enter the workforce and even to play leadership roles. It reminds me of a blog post I wrote three years ago suggesting “that the study and application of philosophy can help managers sort through difficult decisions at work.”

Call me “old school,” but when it comes to hiring new co-workers, Oatley and his colleagues may make a strong case for hiring the young person who just finished Moby Dick over her college classmate who spent that time texting furiously about like, u know, whatever.


The Scientific American Mind issue containing the article is worth ordering if this topic interests you. It’s a full feature that also lists suggestions for further reading.

5 responses

  1. Bless you and Keith Oatley for this messge — I couldn’t agree more — as if any activity that makes you more of a full human being doesn’t also give you more to contribute in the workplace. Unfortunately, often it is seems that the opposite is valued in the workplace — just know your own technical specialty and let the whole rest of the world fall away (including the value of treating employees with respect and dignity). All too often, a recipe for workplace abuse.

  2. I can see where that might have a positive influence. Has anyone seen where NYS has passed a anti bullying law to take effect july 1, 2012 for schools in NYS? The law is way overdue and i hope it puts us one step closer to a law for employees.

  3. I agree! Another clue might be to hire workers who have volunteer experience, hobbies, evidence of interests outside their workplaces, friends and “connections” with varied backgrounds…I’m sure there are other clues that would indicate an applicant or employee was a well-rounded human being!

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