Reading fiction can make us kinder
A growing body of research strongly suggests that people who read fiction tend to better understand and share in the feelings of others — even those who are different. Reading fiction can also shape how we relate to each other.
Keith Oatley, a novelist and professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, argues, “Reading novels enables us to become better at actually understanding other people and what they’re up to. [It] enables you to sample across a much wider range of possible people and come to understand something about the differences among them.”
Psychologists say empathy is innate, even in babies. And while some people are naturally more empathetic than others, most people become more so with age. Beyond that, some research indicates that if you’re motivated to become more empathetic, you probably can. Although there are many ways to cultivate empathy, they largely involve practising positive social behaviours, such as getting to know others, putting yourself in their shoes and challenging your own biases. And fictional stories offer another way to step outside yourself.
Fiction has the capacity to transport you into another character’s mind, allowing you to see and feel what they do. This can expose us to circumstances very different from our own. Through fiction, we can experience the world as another gender, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, profession or age. Words on a page can introduce us to what it’s like to lose a child, be swept up in a war, be born into poverty, or leave home and migrate to a new country. And taken together, this can influence how we relate to others in the everyday world.
“Fiction and stories do a lot of things for us,” says psychologist William Chopik from the University of Michigan. “They expose us to uncomfortable ideas . . . and provide us with the opportunity to take other peoples’ perspectives in a safe, distanced way. In that way, fiction serves as a playground for exercising empathic skills.”
In 2006, Oatley and his colleagues published a study that drew a strong connection between reading fiction and better performance on widely used empathy and social acumen tests. Among the tests used was the Mind of the Eyes assessment, which tests people on their ability to detect and understand visual cues of other people’s thoughts and emotions, specifically matching emotions to photos of people’s eyes.
Since then, research has shown that the act of reading itself is what promotes a change in people. It’s not that people who are naturally more empathetic gravitate toward fiction, or that those who read fiction have specific personality traits primed for greater empathy. “When we subtract all these things out, which we did [in our research], this idea that reading fiction enables people to understand others better was still there,” Oatley says.
Over the years, some studies have also demonstrated that literature influences how we relate to people more than other types of books. For instance, a 2013 study published in Science assigned people to read either literary fiction, genre fiction, non-fiction or nothing. Then, researchers measured participants’ improvement on Theory of Mind tests, which scores our ability to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires, and that they might be different to our own. People who were assigned to read literary fiction showed the most improvement. People assigned to read non-fiction, popular genre fiction or nothing at all didn’t get a boost in scores.
The researchers also noted there were distinctions between literary fiction and genre fiction that might explain differences in scores. Works of literary fiction tend to place greater emphasis on character development. The people and scenarios depicted in literature are more likely to disrupt reader expectations. Classic examples of literary fiction would be Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. On the other hand, genre fiction — think Danielle Steele romance novels or a John Grisham legal thriller — takes a more plot-driven approach. Although they’re often entertaining page-turners, these books stick to more consistent and predictable themes that tend to reinforce readers’ views rather than challenge them.
Reading fiction also influences attitudes toward stigmatised groups. For example, a 2014 study showed that school students in Italy and the United Kingdom became more empathic toward immigrants, refugees, and gays and lesbians after reading Harry Potter. In their work, the researchers explained that “the world of Harry Potter is characterised by strict social hierarchies and resulting prejudices, with obvious parallels with our society.” People without magical powers are discriminated against in the series, for instance.
That same year, another research team found that people who read Saffron Dreams — a fictional account of a Muslim woman of Middle Eastern descent in New York who was the victim of racist attacks — showed less negative bias toward people of different races or ethnicities. But participants who only read a summary of the book or a work of non-fiction didn’t show a similar shift in views.
Memoirs, biographies and some historical non-fiction shouldn’t be entirely ruled out, Oatley notes. As long as there are powerful stories about people and their circumstances, they can resonate and leave a lasting impression. And watching a story unfold in a movie also might have a similar effect on empathy as a book would.
But what people do with that extra empathy isn’t well understood, says Sarah Konrath, a researcher at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. “There is less research on the effects of reading on pro-social behaviours like giving, volunteering and helping,” she says. “But since empathy is one of the main motivations of such kind behaviours, I do think reading books can help promote more kindness overall.”