Empathy by the Book: How Fiction Affects Behavior by Susan Pinker

When I want to escape I pick up a good novel. But does this habit provide more than a quick getaway?

We’ve long known about the collateral benefits of habitual reading—a richer vocabulary, for example. But that’s only part of the picture. Mounting evidence over the past decade suggests that the mental calisthenics required to live inside a fictional character’s skin foster empathy for the people you meet day-to-day.

In 2006, a study led by University of Toronto psychologists Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar connected fiction-reading with increased sensitivity to others. To measure how much text the readers had seen in their lifetimes, they took an author-recognition test—a typical measure for this type of study. “The more fiction people read, the better they empathized,” was how Dr. Oatley summarized the findings. The effect didn’t hold for nonfiction.

Still, no one knew whether reading fiction fostered empathy or empathy fostered an interest in fiction. Other factors could have been at play too, like personality.

So, in 2009, part of the Oatley-Mar team involved in the 2006 study reproduced it with a sample of 252 adults—this time controlling for age, gender, IQ, English fluency, stress, loneliness and personality type. The researchers also assessed participants’ “tendency to be transported by a narrative”—the sense that you’re experiencing a story from within, not watching it as an outsider.

Finally, participants took an objective test of empathy, called the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. The aim of all of this was to see how long-term exposure to fiction influenced their ability to intuit the emotions and intentions of people in the real world.

The results? Once competing variables were statistically stripped away, fiction reading predicted higher levels of empathy. Such readers also lived large in the flesh-and-blood social sphere, with richer networks of people to provide entertainment and support than people who read less fiction. This finding put to rest the stereotype of bookworms as social misfits who use fictional characters as avatars for real friends and romantic partners.

Later studies confirmed that reading fiction does cause a spike in the ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions—at least in the short term. In a series of experiments published in 2013 in Science, social psychologist Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd of the New School for Social Research tried to figure out whether the type of fiction mattered.

“This finding put to rest the stereotype of bookworms as social misfits who use fictional characters as avatars for real friends and romantic partners.”

The researchers handed subjects—in groups ranging in size from 69 to 356—different types of genre fiction, literary fiction or nonfiction, or nothing to read at all. They then assessed participants on several measures of empathy. Nonfiction—along with horror, sci-fi or romance novels—had little effect on the capacity to detect others’ feelings and thoughts. Only literary fiction, which requires readers to work at guessing characters’ motivations from subtle cues, fostered empathy.

In these studies, the reading of nonfiction not only failed to spur empathy but also predicted loneliness and social isolation, especially among men. Of course, nonfiction reading has its virtues. Other research suggests that various kinds of nonfiction can prompt empathetic feelings—as long as the narrative is moving and transformative.

In recent studies, neuroscientist Paul Zak at Claremont Graduate University and colleagues showed participants heartfelt stories, such as a video narrated by a father of a toddler with brain cancer. The video induced a spike in observers’ levels of oxytocin—a hormone that promotes trust, nurturing and empathy—and larger donations to charity. Watching a straightforward travelogue-type video of the same father and son visiting the zoo didn’t have that effect.

Apparently, what matters is not whether a story is true. Instead, as Dr. Oatley says, “If you’re enclosed in the bubble of your own life, can you imagine the lives of others?”


susanpinker-by-susie-loweSusan Pinker is a Montreal-based psychologist, writer and columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Her most recent book is The Village Effectwww.susanpinker.com

This piece was originally published in The Wall Street Journal.

Photo Credits: Zak Greant (top); Susie Lowe (headshot)

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4 thoughts on “Empathy by the Book: How Fiction Affects Behavior by Susan Pinker

  1. As a regular non-fiction reader, upon reading this non-fiction article, I disagree. Because I am more “rational” (reading “factual” non-fiction develops skills of detecting fictional delusions), I think the argument is flimsy. Irrational “fiction lovers” end up living daydreams, imagining people to be like characters in “novels”. Realistically, people are NOT caricatures of fictional heroes (or villains). Living in a dream world is what fiction is all about. “More empathy”? Less “common sense”? Less “reality”? Incidentally, I write poetry and some fiction, but I’m somewhat fierce in my written “commentary”. To quote Woody Allen, “Mixing dissent with commentary leads to dysentry.”

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    1. Reading and belonging to a library change my life every day. My curiosity continues to grow, even as I have retired. My mind remains open and fresh because new ideas and whole new subjects are crossing my path on a continuous basis. I used to love fiction, flashlight under the covers as a kid, an adult turning pages of Tom Clancy or John Fowles “The Magus” all through the night, wanting to know all about the beautiful train wreck. Nowadays, I value my sleep, and sometimes reading before bed is just the ticket to get the eyes closing.

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