July 14, 2008

Reading Fiction Improves Empathy

Stephen Abram pointed out a fascinating article from the (Toronto) Globe and Mail, citing some research which shows that folks who read fiction have "exceptionally strong" social skills. The Globe and Mail interview Keith Oatley about his research, and they quote him as saying:
"Fiction is really about how to get around in the social world, which is not as easy as one might think," said Keith Oatley, one of the researchers and a professor in the department of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto. "People who read fiction give themselves quite a bit of practice in understanding that. And also, I think reading fiction sort of prompts one to think about these questions - you know, what are these people up to?"
The newspaper refers to a June 2008 New Scientist article in which Oatley describes work done in his (and others') 2006 article "Bookworms Versus Nerds: Exposure to Fiction Versus Non-Fiction, Divergent Associations with Social Ability, and the Simulation of Fictional Social Worlds." They identified fiction readers as those who knew names of novelists compared with those who were mostly familiar with non-fiction authors (hmmm, what about readers' advisors?) and gave them two tests. The first, Simon Baron-Cohen's "mind-in-the-eyes" test, measures empathy and social acumen, while the second is an "interpersonal perception" test. They found that fiction readers "had substantially greater empathy and performed somewhat better on the interpersonal perception test" than those who were more familiar with nonfiction authors. (emphasis mine)

Oatley wonders which was the cause and which the correlation; that is, perhaps people who are more empathetic are drawn to fiction, rather than the idea that reading novels promotes empathy. In fact, Mar randomly assigned subjects to read a short story or a non-fiction essay and found "that those who read the story performed better on social reasoning" and that the effect is immediate. Oatley and colleagues performed a similar exercise on 166 participants and found that those who read a Chekhov short story "... underwent larger changes in personality than those who read the control text... Results from the emotions questionnaire indicated that the personality changes were mediated by the emotions experienced while reading: a person's emotional state is known to influence their scores on personality tests."

Oatley suggests that fiction is "a simulation that runs on the software of our minds. ... Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life." (emphasis mine)

Ah, fiction. Fiction is good for you. I'm going to read my novel, now.

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~Crimson said...

Interesting. Thanks.

You have been linked ;)

Terry Finley said...

It is good to see that fiction is good for something besides enjoyment.

I like your blog.

Terry Finley


Lisa Conti said...

Maybe there's hope for creative non-fiction.

gnome482 said...

Thank you so much for posting this! Your list of sources is really great, too. It looks like you work with the adult population, but this is also huge for youth services librarians. There are so many studies out there that attribute the decrease in young people's empathy to a lack of fiction reading. All librarians, I feel, can use information like the studies you have posted here, to fight for more focus on teaching all types of reading with a greater sense of urgency-reading fiction can make kids better citizens!