STUDY: Why Is Science Fiction Perceived as Less Valuable to Readers Than More Literary Works?

Studies reveal that people as a whole seem to prefer literary styles of writing to science fiction styles, in terms of the word choices and language employed. They even unconsciously put less effort into reading science fiction, due to learned perspective on how these types of stories should unfold.

It turns out that we may read science fiction less thoughtfully than we do literary writing.

According to a paper published in the journal, Scientific Study of Literature, professors Chris Gavaler and Dan Johnson of Washington and Lee University found that when mentally classifying text under science fiction, readers automatically assume the text is less valuable — in a literary sense. For this reason, humans unconsciously put a decreased level of effort into reading works of science fiction than they would apply to literary writing.

Inspired by a 2013 study by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano that found literary fiction produced greater empathic responses among readers, Gavaler and Johnson set out to uncover more about human perception and interpretation of language.

Their paper, called “The Genre Effect,” is based on the results derived from 150 participants who were given 1,000 words to read. The narrative of each text was the same: a character enters a public eatery and socializes with the people there, directly following public knowledge of the character’s criticism of that community. In the “literary” format, the protagonist enters a diner after his critical op-ed is published in a local newspaper. In the science fiction version, the character instead enters a galley in a space station full of aliens, androids and humans.

Both Gavaler and Johnson attest to the consistency of the two versions of the texts, aside from the words that established setting, like door versus airlock. They maintain that participants should have shown equal ability to infer the feelings of the characters they read — a theoretical psychological phenomenon called theory of mind.

Post-read, participants of the study were questioned as to how closely they aligned with statements like, “I felt like I could put myself in the shoes of the character in the story,” as well as the effort each participant imparted in empathizing with the characters.

Instead, the researchers explained that the conversion of the text to science fiction actually greatly reduced readers’ perceptions of literary value, even though the participants were reading the same plot and character relationships.

They said, “In comparison to narrative realism readers, science fiction readers reported lower transportation, experience taking, and empathy. Science fiction readers also reported exerting greater effort to understand the world of the story, but less effort to understand the minds of the characters. Science fiction readers scored lower in comprehension, generally, and in the subcategories of theory of mind, world, and plot.”

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