Reading nuanced fiction greatly improves empathy
They randomly assigned volunteers to one of three groups – literary fiction readers, popular fiction readers and a non-reading group. The first read extracts from texts shortlisted for the US National Book Award, while the second read extracts from Amazon.com bestsellers – popular fiction books with characters that are likely to be two-dimensional and straightforward to understand.
All three groups were then asked to identify the emotions behind facial expressions – a standard test of empathy. Those who had read the literary fiction showed a heightened ability to empathise compared with the other groups. The result was the same when they ran different tests with different volunteers (Science, doi.org/n5p).
"I like the study, and one would want to believe the outcomes, but at the same time, there are a lot of questions," says Matthijs Bal at VU University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, who also investigates the link between fiction reading and empathy.
"The study was not clear on what the stories included – so which aspects of a story really make the difference?" says Bal. It might just be that literary fiction is more challenging to read and so requires more cognitive effort, he says.
Bal's work suggests it takes several days for reading to affect empathy, which makes the instant results in the new study surprising, he says.
"If I were to guess, I would say that the effect is short-lived, dissipating within hours or days at best," says Castano. "This research, we hope, marks a first step towards better understanding the psychological consequences of living in communities that support and promote literature."
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