How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy?


Last week, I discussed some fascinating questions regarding Empathy, Fiction and Imagination

Those essays were theoretical, not empirical. I thought it would be interesting to see if there is any empirical evidence that reading fiction increases one's empathy or kindness. (What the lab shrinks like to call "prosocial behavior," as opposed to "anti-social behavior.") 

I found a plethora of evidence that it does.

Am I surprised?

Not at all. I could have guessed as much based on the reading habits (or lack) of people I know. But of course, anecdotes aren't scientific, even if they do provide for pretty good "rules of thumb."

Science reported in 2013 on a study done by Kidd and Castano that reading fiction increases one's ability to "comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one's own beliefs and desires."

In other words, reading fiction improves your "theory of mind": your innate capacity as a human being to model the minds of others. 

They also claimed to show that reading literary fiction improved compassion more than "popular fiction." Unfortunately, the report I read on the study didn't provide the details of precisely what literary fiction was compared to what "popular" fiction. Personally, I find it hard to believe that Stephen King has any less insight into the human mind than Dostoyevsky.

Other studies, for instance, one by Dan R Johnson and one by P. Matthjis Bal and Marttijin Veltkamp, might shed some light on this.

These studies each in their own way aimed to investigate not only reading fiction, but how deeply "transported" the reader is into the story.

The foundational question is still whether reading fiction can lead to changes in a reader's empathy. The study was based on the "transportation theory," which suggests that when people read fiction, and they become emotionally absorbed in the story, they may become more empathic. The researchers predicted that people who were more emotionally transported into the story while reading would experience an increase in empathy.

The Bal and Veltkamp study consisted of two experiments that were conducted over the course of one week. The participants were randomly assigned to either read a fictional story or a non-fictional story (the control condition). In both experiments, the researchers measured the participants' level of emotional transportation into the story and their level of empathy before and after reading the story.

The results of the study showed that when people read a fictional story and were emotionally transported into the story, they experienced an increase in empathy. 

However, this effect was not observed in the control group that read non-fiction. 

Furthermore, when the participants were not emotionally transported into the story, the researchers observed lower levels of empathy.

The researchers concluded that fiction can influence a reader's empathy, but only under the condition of low or high emotional transportation into the story. The study suggests that reading fiction can have a positive impact on people's ability to empathize with others, but only when they become emotionally invested in the story.

Johnson performed two studies. In both studies, participants were asked to read a short fictional story. After reading the story, their subjective, behavioral, and perceptual responses were observed. 

In study 1, the researchers found that participants who were more emotionally transported into the story exhibited higher affective empathy, which refers to the ability to feel and understand another person's emotions. These participants were also more likely to engage in prosocial behavior, such as helping others.

In study 2, the researchers found that reading-induced affective empathy was related to greater bias toward subtle, fearful facial expressions, which suggests that participants were more attuned to other people's emotions after reading the fictional story. 

However, the researchers also found that participants' perceptual accuracy of fearful expressions decreased, indicating that their emotional perception may have been influenced by the story they read. Despite these effects, participants in study 2 were still more likely to engage in prosocial behavior after reading the fictional story.

Importantly, these effects were observed even after controlling for an individual's dispositional empathy and general tendency to become absorbed in a story. This suggests that reading fiction has a unique impact on empathy, emotional perception, and prosocial behavior.

So far, what we're finding is that reading fiction does give you greater insight into other people's minds, although it may also risk you reading more emotion onto others than is warranted. (You may become over-empathic?) 

And the imagination of the reader and/or the skill of the writer may vary how well you can "transport" yourself into the story... which also impacts how much you learn about human nature from the story.

I would be curious to know what if any differences between "literary" and "popular" books there are, and if this difference is real, what causes it? Is it the quality of the writing or the quality of the reader? Or perhaps it's the focus of the story? Literary books are more likely than some genres (say, Thrillers) to linger on characters' psychological motivations. 

On the other hand, I would guess that some Mysteries and Romance have as much to teach the reader about the minds of others as any literary novel. Though quality may count for much.

There may be features beyond the obvious focus on characterization that does make literary fiction a superior vehicle for arousing empathy.If vivid transportation and imagery makes it easier for a reader to delve into the story fully, perhaps all that minute description one tends to find in literary novels serves to truly paint the images of the book in the readers' mind, which helps the reader delve fully into the story.