Read any good books lately? If so, friends and family might feel an indirect benefit. It seems that reading literary fiction temporarily improves our ability to empathize with others.
Our ability to sense and understand the emotions of others and infer their beliefs and intentions is known as theory of mind. David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of New York’s New School for Social Research tested whether exposure to literary fiction – stories with more complex characters – stimulates this.
They randomly assigned volunteers to one of three groups – readers of literary fiction, readers of popular fiction, and a group of non-readers. The former read excerpts from shortlisted texts for the US National Book Award, while the latter read excerpts from Amazon.com bestsellers – popular fiction books with characters likely to be two-dimensional and simple to understand.
The three groups were then asked to identify the emotions behind the facial expressions – a standard test of empathy. Those who had read literary fiction showed an increased capacity for empathy compared to other groups. The result was the same when they performed different tests with different volunteers (Sciencedoi.org/n5p).
“I like the study, and one would like to believe the results, but at the same time there are a lot of questions,” says Matthijs Bal of VU University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, who is also studying the link. between reading fiction and empathy.
“The study wasn’t clear on what the stories included – so which aspects of a story really make a difference?” Bal says. Literary fiction may be harder to read and therefore require more cognitive effort, he says.
Bal’s work suggests that it takes several days for reading to affect empathy, which makes the instant results of the new study surprising, he says.
“If I had to guess, I’d say the effect is short-lived, dissipating at best within hours or days,” Castano says. “This research, we hope, marks a first step towards a better understanding of the psychological consequences of living in communities that support and promote literature.”
And while the results are preliminary, other recent studies have reported similar findings, making calls in the United States for less emphasis on fiction in education potentially worrying, Castano says. It also indicates that reading programs for prisoners could offer real benefits.
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