Reading fiction fosters empathy, research shows

Studies show that fiction makes you a more empathetic person

It could be time to retire the myth that bookworms are "social misfits," Susan Pinker writes for the Wall Street Journal.

Research shows that fiction—particularly literary fiction—can foster empathy in its readers.

For instance, Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar, psychologists at the University of Toronto, in a 2006 study gave participants author recognition tests to assess how much fiction their subjects had read, and then studied their levels of empathy. "The more fiction people read, the better they empathized," Oatley said, noting that reading nonfiction was not associated with the same effect.

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In 2009, Oatley and Mar's team reproduced the study with 252 adults, to which they issued "objective test[s]" of empathy. The tests, which the researchers called the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test," determined that exposure to fiction over a long period of time can influence a reader's ability to empathize with real-world people.

After controlling for gender, IQ, age, English fluency, personality type, stress, and loneliness, the researchers again found that reading fiction was associated with empathy. They also found that those who read fiction were more likely have rich social networks.

In 2013, research conducted by Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd of the New School for Social Research dug deeper into this phenomenon, pinpointing the type of fiction that results in the greatest ability to understand others' emotions.

The research found that the type of fiction that most affects empathy is literary fiction, since it requires readers to constantly make guesses about character motivations.

As Oatley noted, "If you're enclosed in the bubble of your own life, can you imagine the lives of others?" (Pinker, Wall Street Journal, 11/11).

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