How Reading Fiction Increases Our Capacity for Empathy

How Reading Fiction Increases Our Capacity for Empathy

Image: Robert William Buss, Dickens’s Dream, 1875, Charles Dickens Museum, London [Public Domain] via Wikimedia  Commons

A 2013 study from the New School concludes that “reading literature improves theory of mind” – “the capacity to identify and understand others’ subjective states.” As the authors note, theory of mind is critically linked to empathy, that all-important ability to intuit and experience the feelings of another. Together with the cognitive component of theory of mind (“the inference and representation of others’ beliefs and intentions”), empathy is a crucial element of “positive interpersonal and intergroup relations.” We need to practice it, in other words, to be effective and considerate people at home, at work and throughout our lives.

Reading fiction had previously been shown to increase empathy by “[expanding] our knowledge of others’ lives, helping us to recognize our similarity to them.” But in this study, authors David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castono argue that literary fiction helps people practice empathy because of its complexity, too. Because it requires more mental processing, readers of literary fiction are tasked with interpretation or critical thinking. Literary fiction, they posit, has the power to “disrupt our stereotypes”; what’s more, it is full of “complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.”

Literary fiction, that is, requires of us the same kinds of interpretive tasks that we undertake when engaging with other people. At the same time, it reminds us to look beyond the stereotypes we are all guilty of relying upon, if for nothing more than to get through our days.

Upon its release, the study was highly reported, resulting in headlines like “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov,” and “Why Reading Fiction Makes You a Better Person.” But as Mark Liberman for Slate pointed out, the study was by no means flawless. Key among those flaws are the authors’ limited sample sets and their selection of what constitutes “literary,” indicating a need for further and much broader study of the issue. 

Flaws notwithstanding (and what study is without some flaws?), studies like this one do the necessary work of legitimating readerly practices in a culture that sometimes devalues reading – and it also helps explain, in a firm way, what actually happens to us when we read. But if you are a reader, you probably don’t need a study to tell you that books open us to others and make us better in our own lives. I would challenge anyone to read Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or any number of other books, and walk away from them unchanged.

Because stories change us – often for the better. When I think of this, I am always reminded of the moment, midway through Charles Dickens’s novel, Bleak House, when a child character dies. The scene is famous for its extreme sentimentalism: it’s designed to provoke emotion, to require readers to empathize with the impoverished, orphaned, sick and dying child. It ends with the child falteringly repeating the Lord’s Prayer:

Cover to the First Serial Edition, 1852, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Cover to the First Serial Edition, 1852, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

“I’ll say anythink as you say, sir, for I knows it’s good.”
“Our Father! – yes, that’s wery good sir.”
“Art in Heaven – is the light a comin, sir?”
“It is close at hand. HALLOWED BE THY NAME!”
“Hallowed be – thy –”

The light is come upon the dark benighted way. Dead!

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.

This scene is so heavy-handed that, if weren’t for the dying child, it could almost be Dickensian comedy. It’s not perfect writing – the child himself, throughout the novel, is never portrayed in any depth. His accent, with it’s “anythink” and “wery” might as well be stereotype. But it is affecting. The scene is a touchstone for me. That last, condemning sentence, “And dying thus around us, every day,” rings in my head, reminding me of my own failures of compassion and empathy, reminding me to be better. It’s proof in one, small, individual way, that narratives continue to act on us long after we put them down. That stories, powerfully told, alter us. While that influence may well come from the act of navigating challenging prose and confronting the unknown, it also comes from the line that speaks to us, the knowledge that touches our hearts.

Further Reading:

Sharing Good Books: How Conversation Bridges Differences and Fosters Empathy

Idolizing Atticus, Empathizing with Scout

How Does Reading Affect the Brain?


Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Communications and Marketing Director of That Can Be Me, Inc., facilitator of Books@Work.