Discovering a Novel: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy

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What is the importance of reading fiction in the socialization of schoolchildren? Researchers at The New School in New York have found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s ability to understand what others are thinking and feeling.

Emanuele Castano, social psychologist, and doctoral student 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 , documentary or nothing. After completing the excerpts, participants took a test that measured their ability to infer and understand the thoughts and emotions of others. The researchers found, to their surprise, a significant difference between literature and genre readers.

When study participants read non-fiction or nothing, their results weren’t impressive. When they read excerpts from genre novels, such as Danielle Steel’s The sins of the mother, their test results were doubly insignificant. However, when they read literary fiction, such as The round house by Louise Erdrich, their test scores improved markedly – ​​and, by implication, their ability to empathize also improved. The study was published on October 4 in Science.

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 depict otherworldly situations and follow a formula to take readers on a rollercoaster ride of thrilling emotions and experiences. Although the settings and situations are grand, the characters are inherently consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader’s expectations of others. It goes without saying that popular fiction does not increase the capacity for empathy.

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

The results suggest that reading fiction is a valuable social influence. Data from the study could inform debates about how much fiction to include in educational curricula and whether to implement reading programs in prisons, where reading literary fiction could improve functioning social and inmate empathy. Castano also hopes the discovery will encourage people with autism to engage in more literary fiction, in the hopes that it could improve their ability to empathize without the side effects of medication.

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