A closer look at the social cognitive potential of stories

Date of news: 30 March 2022

One of the things that makes us unique as human beings is our urge and ability to communicate with each other through stories. It is often claimed that stories have an effect on, among other things, empathy, but studies into this effect have so far produced mixed results. Together with fellow researchers, linguist Lynn Eekhof (Centre for Language Studies, CLS) developed a new research strategy to look at the possible relationship between reading and social cognition in a nuanced way.


From ancient myths to bedtime stories, and from narrative commercials to literary fiction: stories are omnipresent in our lives. The social and emotional nature of stories has led some researchers to argue that exposure to them can improve our ability to understand others. For example, stories can act as a kind of simulation, in which readers train their social-cognitive skills by empathising with the characters of a story. In addition, stories can also convey useful social knowledge. In this way, the role of stories is greater than just entertainment: they can influence our personal development and even society.


Previous empirical studies initially seemed to show that exposure to literary, fictional stories does indeed improve our ability to understand others. But when other researchers tried to replicate the studies, they failed. This cast doubt on the socio-cognitive benefits of stories. ‘The subject was much in the news a few years back, but was somewhat nipped in the bud by this doubt’, says linguist Lynn Eekhof.

'The subject was much in the news a few years back, but was somewhat nipped in the bud by doubt’

Eekhof and colleagues Dr Kobie van Krieken and Dr Roel Willems delved into the subject again. Instead of doing another replication study, they opted to look at previous studies to identify several questions and challenges that remained unsolved. What types of stories, exactly, affect our social cognitive abilities? What types of readers are susceptible to these effects? What aspects of social cognition are affected by narrative reading? ‘We felt that we needed to pause for a moment’, Eekhof explains. ‘The idea of our research was to evaluate what we actually know about this subject instead of collecting more data. What are the questions we still want to know the answers to? Once we know that, we can do much more focused research.’

'What are the questions we still want to know the answers to?'

Eekhof and her colleagues conclude that previous research has paid too little attention to the diversity of stories, readers and the social-cognitive processes involved in stories. Eekhof: 'Actually, many studies assumed that one story would have the same effect on everyone, but we know that there are actually many differences in how readers react to stories. We are therefore proposing a new research strategy in which we look in a more nuanced way at the possible relationship between reader, story and social cognition.’


First, according to the researchers, future studies should focus on unravelling the text features that drive narrative effects on social cognition. Most studies have focused on general categories such as an entirely fictional story versus a news report, or a story that has won a literary prize versus a story in the style of a romance novel, but it would be better if studies focused on more specific narrative text features such as perspective markers and characteristics of protagonists. In addition, it is important to take into account individual differences between readers, as not all readers can be expected to respond to a story in the same way. For example, stories could possibly have a greater effect on people who still have room for improvement in the social-cognitive area, such as children or people with a disorder on the autism spectrum.

Strategic knowledge

Finally, the researchers hope that more research will be done in the future on reading and social cognition in the broader sense. ‘Previous research has focused on the influence of stories on empathy, the ability to share another person's feelings, but there may be many more skills that reading has an effect on, such as our ability to better understand our own emotions or to flexibly switch between different people's perspectives,' says Eekhof. ‘If we understand how and when stories make a positive contribution to social cognition, we can also use that knowledge strategically. We believe that the mixed findings of the studies on the effects of stories on social cognition do not give cause for pessimism. Our recommendations can guide the design of future studies that will help us understand how, for whom, and in what respect exposure to stories works.’

The article Reading about minds: The social-cognitive potential of narrativeswas recently published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.