How Reading Fiction Increases Our Capacity for Empathy

How Reading Fiction Increases Our Capacity for Empathy

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 Slatepointed 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 Lacksor 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.

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

Further Reading:

Sharing Good Books: How Conversation Bridges Differences and Fosters Empathy

Idolizing Atticus, Empathizing with Scout

How Does Reading Affect the Brain?

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Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.