Does Reading Fiction Really Increase Empathy? The Science Says Yes . . . . and No

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Tracy Shapley Towley

Staff Writer

Tracy is a freelance copywriter, all-around ne’er do well, very-adult graduate of the University of Iowa, and occasional waterer of plants. Her hobbies include writing fiction, reading fiction, mixing together various flavors of soup, and typing letters to her friends on an old red typewriter that doesn't have a working period so all sentences must end in questions marks or exclamation points? She has read every Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and has a lot of thoughts on them. Her old Iowa farmhouse is shared by her husband Sean, a pair of cats, a pair of dogs, and the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut.

If you’re keen to follow bookish news, every few months you’ll run across an article or two extolling the virtues of reading for boosting empathy. But is it true? Does reading fiction help you better understand and empathize with those who are different from you? The answer is, frustratingly, both yes and no.

There are plenty of studies showing that yes, in fact, reading fiction can help boost empathy and emotional intelligence. But there scientific detractors, too, who say that the data is not clear or that the interpretation of the data is not comprehensive.

On a personal, anecdotal level I believe that being a voracious reader has indeed increased my empathy. In fact, I even bought a t-shirt that declares to all who read it that reading will cultivate empathy. But my own personal experience does not mean that, on the whole, reading will in fact cultivate empathy.

What is Empathy? What Do We Mean by Emotional Intelligence?

Before we get too deep in the woods, let’s define what we’re talking about when we’re talking about empathy:

“The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

Emotional intelligence is a little trickier to define. According to researchers there are four levels: perceiving emotions, reasoning with emotions, understanding emotions, and managing emotions. Those with greater emotional intelligence have the ability to think before reacting, have greater self-awareness, and have greater empathy.

While these might all seem like subjective traits, there are tests used to measure emotional intelligence, including the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test and the Emotional and Social Competence Inventory.

It’s All About the Type of Reading

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One of the most quoted bodies of work was completed by researchers at The New School in New York City. Social psychologist Emanuele Castano and PhD candidate David Kidd conducted a total of five studies, each with between 86 and 356 participants. Most of those participants were given one of several reading assignments, including work of genre fiction, literary fiction, or nonfiction. Some study participants (the control group) were not given any reading material at all.

When they were done reading, the participants took tests designed to measure how well they were able to understand the thoughts and emotions of others. The result? A notable difference between different types of reading material.

The researchers found that those who read non-fiction, genre fiction, or nothing had no difference in their test scores. However, those who read literary fiction (for example, The Round House by Louise Erdrich) scored markedly higher in successfully understanding the thoughts and emotions of others.

Not Everyone Agrees with the Findings

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As is true of most any scientific study you’ll ever seen, there are detractors. In “Does Reading a Single Passage of Literary Fiction Really Improve Theory of Mind? An Attempt at Replication,” researchers found that they were not able to replicate the results.

They point to the difficulty in testing empathy in the first place, as well as the impossibility of extrapolating that the results in other studies have truly proven causation and not just correlation. Meaning: do readers of literary fiction have more empathy or are people who have more empathy more likely to read literary fiction?

Why Does Literary Fiction Seem to Increase Empathy More Than Other Types of Writing?

Once the data is crunched, there are still questions left. Like, why does literary fiction increase empathy when other types of writing don’t seem to have the same effect? While there’s no way to know with certainty, one theory is that literary fiction is uniquely set up to increase empathy.

The theory goes like this: Genre fiction, such as romance, thrillers, horror, or fantasy often follows certain “rules” and formulas. The settings are unique and interesting and the plot is compelling, but generally speaking the characters tend to be consistent and predictable.

This is the opposite of literary fiction, in which the “point” is often the internal conflict of the characters. These are subtle, nuanced characters that can be difficult to understand. The reader is not given a roadmap and therefore must figure out where the characters are coming from, what is motivating them, and even how reliable the narrator is. This all adds up to require the reader to do a bit more work, to understand things that are not explicitly laid out. In short, it requires a reader to empathize.

These results have been tested by other researchers, including one study that worked to control for three traits: openness, the tendency to be drawn into stories, and gender. The study found that even after controlling for these traits, there was a correlation between empathy and fiction. This study found that nonfiction correlated with loneliness and was negatively related to social support.

Why Building Empathy Matters

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More than just an interesting thing to contemplate, the building of empathy through the reading of fiction can have a real impact. In a world in which schools are removing books from shelves due to book challenges that are, to put it politely, a load of horseshit, it’s important to fight to ensure that the experiences of all people are available to those who are interested in them. Understanding that books can help build empathy for the very marginalized people who write them helps highlight just how important it is to fight to keep these books in our schools and libraries.

Persons who are working to better identify feelings, and those who are dealing with alexithymia, can find real solutions and understanding in fiction. People who read about fictional immigrants show lower levels of negative bias toward people of different races and ethnicities.

In short, if we want better people then we want more empathy. And if reading fiction can help some of us get there then why wouldn’t we encourage everyone to pick up a book a little more often?