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Does Reading Novels Make Us More Empathetic?

Reading is bound to boost our vocabulary, but can it make us better at relating to others, too? A new study explored the unexpected connection between reading and empathy.
Does Reading Novels Make Us More Empathetic?
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As a kid, I would spend hours on weekends and school vacations curled up with a book on the worn leather couch in my living room. Who am I kidding — I still spend hours reading on lazy Sundays, although now the couch is a hand-me-down IKEA futon. Although my bookworm habit is hardly new, I only recently started wondering about the science behind the paperbacks. Can spending so much time reading novels reap real benefits (besides toned arms from schlepping books back and forth to the library)?

The answer, according to a new study, is “yes.” The study found that people who “got lost” in fiction books showed more empathy than those who were less engrossed in their reading material or who pored over nonfiction [1]. So what’s the science behind the science fiction?

What’s the Deal?

The study tested out how the transportation theory of psychology affects empathy. “Transportation” is the idea that relating to a fictional character (whether good, bad, or ugly) can affect how people behave even after they close the book. The researchers wanted to find out if becoming emotionally absorbed in a story (aka “transporting”) specifically affects empathy — not only toward the characters, but also in real life [2]. The results of the study suggest this theory might be on point: Readers who demonstrated a high level of emotional transportation also showed high levels of empathy, even a week after reading.

To test the theory, researchers ran two experiments. For the first, they recruited 66 Dutch students to participate in the study. The students were then separated into “fiction” and “control” groups. The 36 students in the “fiction” group read “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle. The 30 “control” participants perused two stories from a newspaper about current events topics like the riots in Libya and the nuclear disaster in Japan.

The second test was basically a repeat of the first experiment, but with more subjects and different reading material. Ninety-seven Dutch students were randomly assigned to read either the first chapter from José Saramago’s book “Blindness,” or five stories from a newspaper about riots in Greece and a national holiday in the Netherlands.

For both experiments, each student filled out an online empathy questionnaire and “emotional transportation survey.” The empathy surveys measured how much or how little the participants were moved by events outside themselves or felt sorry for other people in general, while the emotional transportation survey attempted to measure the extent to which the readers were “lost in” the story. The participants filled out the transportation surveys just once, but reported their empathy scores three times: before reading, right after reading, and a week after reading. No CliffsNotes here — the researchers quizzed each participant on details to make sure each person had actually done the reading!

The results were pretty specific. Readers with a high level of emotional transportation also showed high levels of empathy after reading. They were more empathetic than both the readers who were less enthused about the fiction stories and the students who caught up on current events instead of novels. In fact, the non-transported fiction readers actually became less empathetic after hitting the books. 

And what about the news stories? You’d think reading about strife in the real world would increase empathy, but it actually did the opposite. The researchers speculated that reading about true events made people feel guilty or obligated to do something to help instead of feeling empathetic.

Is It Legit?

Probably. Identifying with a protagonist is pretty common (I know I’ve caught myself thinking in an English accent more than once after reading “Pride and Prejudice”). There’s even a phrase for what happens when people simulate fictional characters’ ideas, emotions, behaviors: “experience-taking” [3]. These flights of experience can enable us to look at things from multiple perspectives and even change our behavior post-reading [3].

Of course, the study isn’t without limitations. The groups were fairly small, and the surveys were self-reported, so there’s the possibility that participants weren’t completely honest in their answers. But the results also make sense. If a reader can’t identify with the characters or finds a story boring, they’re probably more likely to become disengaged and frustrated — and this negative reaction might make them more absorbed in thinking about their own self. On the other hand, if a person identifies with the story and the protagonist, it affords them the ability to view the world from someone else’s perspective. This new study is important because it shows that getting sucked into the story — regardless of whether the main character is a good egg or a rotten one — can actually affect how people act in real life.

Do you think spending some time with Katniss Everdeen or Harry Potter makes people more understanding? Share your thoughts in the comments below or tweet the author @SophBreene

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Works Cited +

  1. How does fiction reading influence empathy? An experimental investigation on the role of emotional transportation. Bal PM, Veltkamp M. Department of Management & Organization, VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. PLoS One. 2013; 8(1):e55341.
  2. The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Green MC, Brock TC. Department of Psychology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2000 November; 79 (5):701-21.
  3. Changing beliefs and behaviour through experience-taking. Kaufman GF, Libby LK. Tiltfactor Laboratory, Department of Film & Media Studies, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, USA. Journal of Personal & Social Psychology. 2012 July; 103(1):1-19.

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