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If you want to follow book news, every few months you’ll come across an article or two extolling the virtues of reading for building empathy. But is it true? Does reading fiction help you better understand and empathize with those who are different from you? The answer is, frustratingly, both yes and no.
Many studies show that yes, in fact, reading fiction can help build empathy and emotional intelligence. But there are also scientific critics who say the data is unclear or that the interpretation of the data is not comprehensive.
On a personal and anecdotal level, I believe that being a voracious reader has indeed increased my empathy. In fact, I even bought a t-shirt that tells everyone who reads it that reading cultivates empathy. But my personal experience doesn’t mean that, on the whole, reading will actually cultivate empathy.
What is empathy? What do we mean by emotional intelligence?
Before we get too far into the woods, let’s define what we’re talking about when we talk about empathy:
“The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to and experiencing vicariously the feelings, thoughts and experience of another past or present without the feelings, thoughts and experience are fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
Emotional intelligence is a little more complicated to define. According to researchers, there are four levels: perceiving emotions, reasoning with emotions, understanding emotions, and managing emotions. Those with higher emotional intelligence have the ability to think before they react, have greater self-awareness, and have greater empathy.
While these may all seem like subjective traits, there are tests used to measure emotional intelligence, including Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test and the Inventory of emotional and social skills.
It all depends on the type of reading
One of the most cited works was done by researchers from The new school in New York. Social psychologist Emanuele Castano and doctoral candidate David Kidd conducted a total of five studies, each with between 86 and 356 participants. Most of these participants were given one of several reading assignments, including genre fiction, literary fiction, or non-fiction. Some study participants (the control group) received no reading materials.
When they finished reading, the participants took tests designed to measure their ability to understand the thoughts and emotions of others. The result? A noticeable difference between the different types of reading material.
The researchers found that those who read nonfiction, genre fiction or nothing had no difference in their test scores. However, those who read literary fiction (for example, The round house by Louise Erdrich) significantly higher succeed in understanding the thoughts and emotions of others.
Not everyone agrees with the results
As with most scientific studies you will ever see, there are detractors. In “Does reading a single passage of literary fiction really improve theory of mind? An attempted replythe researchers found they were unable to replicate the results.
They point to the difficulty of testing empathy in the first place, as well as the inability to extrapolate that results from other studies have really proven causation and not just correlation. Meaning: Do readers of literary fiction have more empathy or are people who have more empathy more likely to read literary fiction?
Why does literary fiction seem to increase empathy more than other types of writing?
Once the data is crunched, there are still questions. For example, why does literary fiction increase empathy when other types of writing don’t seem to have the same effect? Although there’s no way to know for sure, one theory is that literary fiction is only designed to increase empathy.
The theory goes like this: Genre fiction, such as romance, thriller, horror, or fantasy, often follows certain “rules” and formulas. The settings are unique and interesting and the plot is compelling, but generally the characters tend to be cohesive and predictable.
It’s the opposite of literary fiction, where the “point” is often the characters’ internal conflict. These are subtle and nuanced characters that can be difficult to understand. The reader is not given a roadmap and therefore must understand where the characters come from, what motivates them, and even the reliability of the narrator. It all adds up to force the reader to do a bit more work, to figure out things that aren’t explicitly stated. In short, a reader needs to be empathetic.
These results have been tested by other researchers, including a study that worked at check for three strokes: the openness, the tendency to be drawn into the stories and the genre. The study found that even after controlling for these traits, there was a correlation between empathy and fiction. This study found that non-fiction was correlated with loneliness and was negatively related to social support.
Why developing empathy is important
More than just an interesting thing to contemplate, building empathy through reading fiction can have a real impact. In a world where schools are pulling books off the shelves due to book challenges that are, to put it politely, a load of bullshit, it’s important to fight to make sure everyone’s experiences are accessible to those who are interested in it. Understanding that books can help build empathy for the very marginalized people who write them helps underscore how important it is to fight to keep these books in our schools and libraries.
People who work to better identify feelings, and those dealing with alexithymia, can find real solutions and understand in fiction. People who read on fictional immigrants show lower levels of negative prejudice towards people of different races and ethnicities.
In short, if we want better people, we want more empathy. And if reading fiction can help some of us get there, why don’t we encourage everyone to pick up a book a little more often?