Reading Literary Fiction Expands Empathy – Making Empathy Present for the Reader

Time was when it was a bold statement of the obvious that reading a good book expands one’s empathy. It’s summer in the city of Chicago. People are going to the beach, the park, leaving town for the wilderness or Paris, and destinations of the imagination and mind. Whether audio book or hard copy, don’t leave home without

AnaxagorasReadingLiteraryFiction

Anaxagoras reading literary fiction by Ribera


– a compelling read.

Though the idea has apparently been available for years, I am catching up on my reading; and hereby add the following empathy lesson to the growing list: Reading literary fiction expands one’s empathy.

No I have been known to say: We don’t need more data; we need expanded empathy. But it’s also the age of evidence-based everything; and, truth be told, we need both data and empathy; and it is especially nice, though rare, when the two trends converge. That happens here!

Evidence-based research establishes the correlation. Literary fiction and empathy go hand-in-hand. The really interesting question is what is the cause – how does reading enhance empathy (if it does so)? On that issue, the published research is indeed detailed enough to suggest an answer. However, the researchers are in most ways in no better a position to establish the causality than a well-read student of the novel or literary fiction.

I suggest what quality, literary fiction can do is to make empathy present in the here-and-now. The interaction between the reader and the world of the narrative brings forth empathy itself as a living presence. It is not magic, but sometimes it seems that way. We relate to works of art such as literature the way we relate to other human beings – with empathic openness, a desire to understand, a tendency to interpret and an empathic responsiveness.

In one set of experiments correlating empathy and literary fiction, Matthijs Bal and Martijn Veltkamp give people (test subjects) psychological tests that measure attitudes, emotional involvement, and empathic concern, have them read fiction selections, and give the same people the same tests immediately afterwards and then a full week later.

Bal and Veltkamp conclude that self-reported empathic skills significantly changed over the course of one week for readers of a fictional story by fiction authors Arthur Conan Doyle or José Saramajo. Furthermore, “Increase of emotional transportation enhances empathy for fiction readers while it does not [do so] for nonfiction readers […]” [p. 8][1]

Especially interesting is the condition that an incubation period of about a week is required for the fiction to percolate in order to have its effect on empathy. Perhaps it takes time for reader’s expectations to shift or be transformed. From a biological perspective not considered in the research perhaps the protein synthesis needed for long-term memory requires time to be completed.

Significant work is done in this research by “transportation.” As I understand it, the key to expanding empathy is the reader’s being automatically caught up in the imaginative world of the narrative. The reader is “transported” in imagination to the extent that the individual becomes inattentive to the passage of time or whatever else is going on in her or his environment.

Being transported into the world of the narrative is not reducible to empathy but contains aspects of empathic openness to the experiences and emotions experienced by the characters, temporary identification with their hopes and aspirations, and having a stake in the outcome of the narrative. This “transporting” is closely related to the “making present of empathy” called out above.

In a different set of experiments, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano correlate literary fiction with a version of empathy called “theory of mind” (ToM). It is significant that the researchers emphasize “affective” ToM. This is the capacity to identify and understand other’s subjective states, including people’s affects such as emotions and sensations of pleasure and pain. Importantly, this is not mere cognitive perspective taking of different points of view, but includes emotions such as sadness, fear, anger, and so on.

In concluding that the results of their five experiments support the hypothesis that reading literary fiction enhances ToM,[2] Kidd and Castano point out that literary fictions disrupts our stereotypes. This may be why it works to expand empathy. They argue that whereas many of our mundane social experiences are scripted by convention and informed by stereotypes, those presented in literary fiction often disrupt our expectations. “Readers of literary fiction must draw on more flexible interpretive resources to feelings the feelings and thoughts of characters. That is, they must engage ToM processes […]”[3]

In other words, literary fictions points the way to overcoming conformity, inflexibility, and bias by putting us in a position to exercise our empathic understanding. We may transiently identify with the police or soldier who has to make a split second decision – and dramatically makes the wrong one – creating a conflict in which we too experience the moral ambiguity of the situation. We come away, not only with a new perspective, but also with an experience of the struggle that is not available merely in thinking.

Two significant take-aways. The first from an educational perspective: The new set of education standards that were initially adopted by 46 U.S. states (the Common Core State Standard) controversially calls for less emphasis on fiction in secondary education. While we need to do better in science and math, to be sure, but it is not clear that the trade-off is a rewarding one. Less emphasis on fiction – and less empathy?

Second, if one can expand empathy, one can also contract it. Bal and Veltkamp note that reading nonfiction, including upsetting but dramatic current events, does not enhance empathy. They speculate this may be because people read about suffering and want to help out but are unable to do so (for many reasons). They react in frustration or alienation by turning off or tuning down their empathic responsiveness. This is no reason not to stay current with the news; but heads up that there is a cost and impact when keeping up with the (bad) news becomes obsessive.

Though the evidence-based research on this dynamic is limited, I speculate that reading narratives that glorify violence, promote hatred of ethnic, racial, or gender distinctions, cause one’s empathic capabilities to shrink. This is less of a concern with the mainstream media, which of necessity continues to report on the latest atrocities. However, fringe publications on the web and social media continue to graphically promote dehumanizing, devaluing, and hate-filled narratives, and this damages the soul – and empathy.

The reader who is persuaded by this call to action may usefully ask: “But with what novel should I start?” Rather than get into a debate about the criteria for literary versus popular novels and authors at this late point, I suggest relying on the jury-of-experts approach. The Nobel Prize in literature includes novels as well as poetry and biography[4]; but the National Book award directly lists specific titles of novel.[5] That’s a great place to start. Everything from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, or Phil Klay’s Redeployment, to Jesmyn Ward’s Sing. Unburied. Sing. Something for just about everyone can be found there. Go to the library: expand your empathy.

[1] Bal, P. M , Veltkamp, M. (2013). How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation. PLoS ONE 8(1): e55341, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0055341; David Comer Kidd, Emanuele Castano. (2013). Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, Science 18 October 2013, Vol. 342, Issue 6156, pp. 377–380, DOI: 10.1126/science.1239918; Kelly Servick. (2013). Want to Read Minds? Read Good Books: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2013/10/want-read-minds-read-good books.

[2] David Comer Kidd, Emanuele Castano. (2013). Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, Science 18 October 2013, Vol. 342, Issue 6156, pp. 377–380, DOI: 10.1126/science.1239918; Kelly Servick. (2013). Want to Read Minds? Read Good Books: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2013/10/want-read-minds-read-good books. [The page # is not available on the web versions; but they are short articles.]

[3] Ibid

[4] https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/

[5] 81 Fiction Winners: http://www.nationalbook.org/nba77fictionwinners.html#.WzGavVLMxPO

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

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Categories: Emotions, empathic interpretation, empathic receptivity, empathic responsiveness, empathic understanding, Empathy, empathy training, empathy trends, Reading literary fiction

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