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Anti-SF Bias Leads to Poorer Reading Comprehension, Study Finds

Do you know how some look down on science fiction and other genre fiction as being less serious or literary? It turns out that they might not be seeing what’s actually in front of them.

New research shows that a reader’s biases about SF influence their ability to comprehend a work. In what is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy, the reader finds exactly the work they expected, whether it was actually there or not.

From the Guardian:

In a paper published in the journal Scientific Study of Literature, Washington and Lee University professors Chris Gavaler and Dan Johnson set out to measure how identifying a text as science fiction makes readers automatically assume it is less worthwhile, in a literary sense, and thus devote less effort to reading it. They were prompted to do their experiment by a 2013 study which found that literary fiction made readers more empathetic than genre fiction.

Their study, detailed in the paper The Genre Effect, saw the academics work with around 150 participants who were given a text of 1,000 words to read. In each version of the text, a character enters a public eating area and interacts with the people there, after his negative opinion of the community has been made public. In the “literary” version of the text, the character enters a diner after his letter to the editor has been published in the town newspaper. In the science fiction version, he enters a galley in a space station inhabited by aliens and androids as well as humans.

After they read the text, participants were asked how much they agreed with statements such as “I felt like I could put myself in the shoes of the character in the story”, and how much effort they spent trying to work out what characters were feeling.

Gavaler and Johnson write that the texts are identical apart from “setting-creating” words such as “door” and “airlock”: they say this should have meant that readers were equally good at inferring the feelings of characters, an ability known as theory of mind.

This was not the case. “Converting the text’s world to science fiction dramatically reduced perceptions of literary quality, despite the fact participants were reading the same story in terms of plot and character relationships,” they write. “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.”

You can read more about the study on Gavaler’s blog (one, two).

Gavaler said that he was inspired by that 2013 study because (in my words) it lacked rigor, that the sample texts used in the 2013 study were arbitrarily labeled as either genre or literary. “I think their study has so many problems. I also teach creative writing and contemporary fiction with a particular interest in hybrid ‘literary genre’ works, so I was especially annoyed by how their category divisions weren’t accurate. For example, my short story Is was published in the literary journal New England Review and then later in the genre anthology Best American Fantasy.”

In response, he developed an experiment which isolated and tested the impact of a single variable: a handful of words that defined a text either as narrative realism (non-genre fiction, essentially) or SF.

The study found that readers got the story they expected.

“While this wouldn’t be true of all readers, for those who are biased against SF, thinking of it as an inferior genre of fiction, they assume the story will be less worthwhile, one that doesn’t require or reward careful reading, and so they read less attentively. This then lowers their scores on objective comprehension tests because they miss so much. Interestingly, they don’t even realise it, because they still report that the story required less effort to understand. It’s a self-fulfilling bias – except we can now show objectively that the weakness is with the reader, not the story itself,” said Gavaler.

“So when readers who are biased against SF read the word ‘airlock’, their negative assumptions kick in – ‘Oh, it’s that kind of story’ – and they begin reading poorly. So, no, SF doesn’t really make you stupid. It’s more that if you’re stupid enough to be biased against SF you will read SF stupidly.”


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Fahirsch November 23, 2017 um 7:52 pm

Typo in firts line: says sconce, should say science

Nate Hoffelder November 23, 2017 um 8:38 pm

don’t look down on my fetish

Rebecca Allen November 24, 2017 um 9:41 am

Nice study and analysis! I had similar feelings about the litfic makes people more empathetic but genre reading doesn’t study. But I wasn’t energetic enough to go out and design and implement a really brilliant study that exposes the problem. I have learned from my book group experiences that Science Fiction Identified Words (such as airlock and similar) definitely cause some readers to just sort of shut down. In fact, just having unfamiliar character names turns out to result in members of the group not making much effort to read the book. (I instituted a rule in this group years ago that just because you didn’t read much or any of the book didn’t mean you shouldn’t participate in the discussion. I really wanted to better understand what stops people from reading and/or enjoying books, and this has helped me enormously. Can’t speak for anyone else, of course.) I remember when I was a child, and as an older person reading things in languages I am not very fluent in, that unfamiliar words and names slow me down a lot. So I wonder just how pervasive this effect is. It also suggests to me at least that pedagogical efforts to get kids to learn more vocabulary / read “harder” books is “good” for them might actually be doing permanent damage to some kids interesting in reading. Lots to think about here! Thank you!

Rebecca Allen November 24, 2017 um 9:42 am

Also, apologies for numerous typos and at least one egregious grammar fail in post above.

Sharon November 25, 2017 um 5:18 am

I think fantasy produces similar reactions in a lot of people – I get that all the time, 'Oh, I’d love to read your books but I don’t like fantasy.' And those that do read a fantasy book will often just shut down when they get to the paranormal/magic aspects. Which is why certain big-name authors (we all know who they are) don’t want their work categorized as fantasy or SF even though it is.

And then there are those who just lump everything into SF that is not mundane and it’s all bad to them.

Nate Hoffelder November 25, 2017 um 7:07 am

that’s certainly true with me

Heresolong November 25, 2017 um 10:26 am

New to the site, enjoying what I’ve read so far.

So Gavaler thought that the 2013 study was poor, did his own study, and concluded the exact same thing? Not clear from your article or his quotes. I read both studies to say that the difference didn’t depend on the reader but on the perceived type of story.

Interesting, however, that they both found that labeling a story (or just including a couple SF words changed the perception. I know an English teacher who hates SF, doesn’t consider it to have any redeeming value. I wonder whether college professors have anything to do with this stereotype (rhetorical question, of course they do)?

Nate Hoffelder November 25, 2017 um 11:49 am

What I got from his work was that the conclusions of the 2013 study were biased by the labels hung on the writing samples. The test subjects' own biases kept them from learning the same empathy lessons from genre fiction that they got from litfic.

Mackay Bell November 25, 2017 um 4:43 pm

Reminds me of a study that took popular zombie apocalypse novels and submitted them to literary publishers simply by substituting the word “zombie” with “English professor,” the words “eat brains” with “drink white wine” and the word “apocalypse” with “unfulfilled angst.” The results won three national literary book awards and one got short listed for a Pulitzer prize.

Nate Hoffelder November 25, 2017 um 4:59 pm


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