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Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy

28 March 2016

From Scientific American:

How important is reading fiction in socializing school children? Researchers at The New School in New York City have found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling.

Emanuele Castano, a social psychologist, along with PhD candidate David Kidd conducted five studies in which they divided a varying number of participants (ranging from 86 to 356) and gave them different reading assignments: excerpts from genre (or popular) fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction or nothing. After they finished the excerpts the participants took a test that measured their ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. The researchers found, to their surprise, a significant difference between the literary- and genre-fiction readers.

When study participants read non-fiction or nothing, their results were unimpressive. When they read excerpts of genre fiction, such as Danielle Steel’s The Sins of the Mother, their test results were dually insignificant. However, when they read literary fiction, such as The Round House by Louise Erdrich, their test results improved markedly—and, by implication, so did their capacity for empathy. The study was published October 4 inScience.

The results are consistent with what literary criticism has to say about the two genres—and indeed, this may be the first empirical evidence linking literary and psychological theories of fiction. Popular fiction tends to portray situations that are otherworldly and follow a formula to take readers on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and exciting experiences. Although the settings and situations are grand, the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader’s expectations of others. It stands to reason that popular fiction does not expand the capacity to empathize.

Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations,” Kidd says. This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.

The results suggest that reading fiction is a valuable socializing influence.

Link to the rest at Scientific American and thanks to Will for the tip.

Books in General

28 Comments to “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy”

  1. I agree. Every time I read litfic, I feel intense empathy for the millions of people tortured by boring, pedantic, pompous prose. Won’t someone please think of the children, and hand them a Hunger Games novel instead?

    • Ahahaha! I was thinking the same thing. 😀

    • Isn’t there a short story about a perfect world, were everyone gets to read really terrific genre fiction and is happy, but it is all only possible because one poor miserable girl in a basement is forced to read literary fiction? Or maybe I’m forgetting exactly how it went…

  2. Flawed research. First, he chose Excerpts. That alone is baised.

    Second, the question is: How important is reading fiction in socializing school children?

    But the test subjects were all adults (guessing from the books selected). Adults are a different animal than children. I have 2 children and they read genre fiction. I don’t think a 4 year old can comprehend (or will be entertained by) lit fic. She can learn a lot about being a good friend/sharing etc. from Winnie the Pooh though.

  3. I’m so impressed they found people 356 years old to read their literary fiction samples and report back. 86 was a great age to use as their lower limit – we have FAR too many studies done only with college students.

  4. I look forward to attempts by unaffiliated groups to repeat this study. I’m sceptical of the results as my anecdotal experience is that some who espouse the benefits of literary fiction are below average in ability to infer and understand other’s thoughts and emotions. Of course, even if that is an accurate observation there could be any number of confounding factors, such as general pratness.

    I see two immediate points of concern in the study. First the use of excerpts. People do not generally read excerpts, and reading excerpts may not have the same effect as reading complete works. Second the proxies used in the follow-up test to measure the ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. Sub point one: are the proxies valid? Sub point two: is it possible that, for example, by a similarity of language and situation between the proxies and the literary excerpts that the literary excerpts train the subjects to respond “correctly” to the proxies without altering underlying behaviour? (The teaching to the test problem.)

  5. Studies like this have zero value. Their construction is almost always flawed in some way. They aren’t replicable, and some followup studies will “prove” exactly the opposite. They usually fail to follow up, post-study, and when they do, there is no lasting effect on people’s behavior or beliefs.

    In general, psychological studies have come under serious question lately, and it’s about time. Psychology isn’t even really a science. It uses the language and methods of science, but in an area that is constantly shifting and ungraspable–the human mind.

    • Thank you. I first cottoned to the lack of science rigor when I found out the population psychologists were using for their “repressed memory” bunk: not POWs, not Holocaust survivors, not gulag survivors, not victims of war crimes, nor anyone who unquestionably suffered major trauma. No, the subjects were just upper middle class women who had come in for therapy and agreed to be hypnotized.

      I’ve been suspicious ever since. This new “study” isn’t helping.

  6. I feel like the designation of a book as “literary’ vs. ‘genre’ is sufficiently unscientific to make this result unavoidably subjective.

    • Strongly agree.

    • Yes. Kipp claims of literature that “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations.” But I have two words for him: Lizzie Bennett. Are her thoughts opaque? Her state of mind mysterious? Her motivations vague? Nope.

  7. First of all, they gave school children excerpts from Sins of the Mother, a women’s fiction novel, and The Round House, a native-American *coming of age* novel (the protagonist is 12-13) with a violent crime committed against the family.

    Well OF COURSE there was more empathy from the lit fic — it was about someone they could relate to *to begin with,* while the genre fiction was about someone their mom’s age, whether that be the matriarch or her adult children–yes, the entire book is about relationships between adults; the “mother’s” grandson is college age.

    Great googly moogly, could the researchers have done a worse job if they’d been paid to mess it up? And Scientific American picked up this [unprintable adjective] study and reported it as if it had any merit whatsoever.

  8. Well, this is a load of garbage.

    • Malcolm, The correct term is a Consignment of Geriatric Shoe Menders (CGSM); that is, a load of old cobblers. 😉

      • You may or may not have noticed that my first version of this comment was more, shall we say, vulgar; not knowing how this audience would take that sort of language I thought it wise to change it.

  9. “reading programs should be implemented in prisons, where reading literary fiction might improve inmates’ social functioning and empathy”

    Or cause havoc with an enormous number of prisoners trying to break out!

    • Reality Observer

      Actually, I think this is prohibited by the Constitution. Something about cruel and unusual punishment…

  10. The genre fiction they chose was written by Danielle Steel… That’s what they consider genre fiction? I didn’t know the kids these days were reading hard romance. Maybe if you gave them Ender’s Game, or Starship Troopers, they might have a little more empathy.

  11. Is it possible people have more empathy after a short nap?

  12. Psychologists can do good work unravelling the human mind, but this study was not it. I wonder if journals have the Huffpo equivalent of ‘click bait’?

  13. I’ve heard this before about reading in general and in studies of prisoners and elsewhere, but never one restricting the findings to “literary fiction.” Seems that the audience most needful of developing empathy are those least likely to read it.

  14. i think maybe helping others less fortunate, even being with, reading even their life stories probably deepens compassion. Not sure, but I think people are born with compassion; all those babies in nursery weeping together because one started to weep. I know some would put that to neuro response alone. But… I think little kids are wired for so much that gets taken from them, often, not too much later in life. Shouldnt happen that way. As my friend Gaveen said, Everyone ould be able to keep the jive and deep ye came wit’.

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