Editorial: A reading assignment before budget vote

Jun. 25, 2013 @ 01:00 AM

Before members of the Lenoir City Council meet this afternoon to adopt a budget whose final outcome is greatly uncertain because of legislative malfeasance in Raleigh, maybe they should read some short fiction.

There is some solid research that shows that the reading won’t make the budget any better, but it might make the council members feel better about their predicament.

Researchers at the University of Toronto conducted an experiment in which 100 students were given either a piece of short fiction or a factual essay to read; all of the work was by accomplished writers. After reading, each student was given a survey measuring their emotional need for certainty and stability – they had to agree or disagree with statements such as “I dislike questions that can be answered in many different ways.”

Those who read the short fiction gave answers expressing less need for order and more comfort with ambiguity, the researchers reported in the Creativity Research Journal.

That sounds like the very definition of the situation that council members find themselves in today. Depending on the whims of legislative leaders in negotiating the details of the state’s budget well past the deadline for local governments to adopt theirs, the Lenoir’s budget could be well funded, or it could develop a deficit of hundreds of millions of dollars. No one knows for sure.

The researchers aren’t sure why reading fiction would make a person more comfortable with ambiguity, but they suggest a possibility: “The thinking (that) a person engages in while reading fiction does not necessarily lead him or her to a decision.”

Perhaps as important, the researchers wrote, “while reading, the reader can simulate the thinking styles even of people he or she might personally dislike.”

So the reading might inspire empathy in the council members, so they could avoid stewing with resentment toward legislators for putting them in this position.