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Why Empathy Matters and How Reading Can Develop It

Empathy helps us enjoy the arts and form strong friendships. We are often told that reading fiction and watching drama – be it film or television or theatre – can develop our moral imaginations and help us better understand ourselves and people around us. Empathy not only assists us form working theories of how individuals tick – the ‘theory of the mind’ – but it also helps us understand how people work in groups and allows us to make predictions about group behaviour. Thereby we may become more socially adept.

But how can we tell this? Empathetic people may gravitate naturally to reading fiction. So simple correlations between reading and measured empathy may not be picking up causation but simply reflect selection. In other words, although more socially adept people read more, the reading they do hasn’t made them this way. They were innately that way inclined to begin with.

So what is the evidence that reading fiction affect our personalities? Is empathy innate or can it be developed, as has been suggested from the time of the earliest Greek dramatists and philosophers?

It will come as no surprise that psychologists are addressing themselves to these questions. There is space here to mention only two studies. The first is that of Keith Oatey and his colleagues at Berkeley University in the US.

In their study, the authors randomly assigned 166 individuals to read either a short story or an account of the same story written in a non-fiction format. Before having participants read the text, and afterwards, the experimenters measured readers’ personalities using a standard personality test. Here is how Oatey summarises their findings:

‘The literary story was “The Lady with the Little Dog,” by Anton Chekhov, who is generally acknowledged as the world’s greatest short story writer. It is about Dmitri Gomov, and a lady, Anna Sergueyevna, whom he sees walking with her little dog. They are both alone, on vacation at a seaside resort. They are both married to other people, but they begin an affair. At the end of their vacation they part. But their feelings for each other grow, and both are shocked to discover how much more important these feelings are than anything else in their lives. They encounter many difficulties, and overcome some of them. The story ends with this: “… their hardest and most difficult period was only just beginning.”

‘The version in a non-fiction format was written by Djikic as a courtroom report of divorce proceedings. It has the same characters and events, and some of the words, of Chekhov’s story. It is the same length and reading difficulty. Importantly, the readers of the non-fictional account reported that they found it just as interesting, though not as artistic, as Chekhov’s story.

‘We found that the personality traits of readers of Chekhov’s story changed more than those of the readers of the courtroom account. The changes in personality were not large, but they were measurable. They were different from the changes of belief spurred by a piece of writing meant to be persuasive, which tend to be all in the same direction as intended by the writer. Instead, Chekhov’s readers changed in different directions, with each change unique to the particular reader, mediated by the emotions that each individual felt while reading.

‘Why? We believe that as people read Chekhov’s story, they experienced empathy with the protagonists and identified with them so that each reader, in his or her own way, became a bit more like them, or decided not to think in the same ways as the characters. When we read “The Lady with the Little Dog,” we can be both ourselves and Gomov or Anna. Through stories, selfhood can expand.

Other psychologists have begun to investigate whether reading literary fiction and reading genre fiction might have different effects on readers’ empathy. Emanuele Castano and David Kidd conducted a study to explore this. (The results were published in Science on 4 October 2013, and also reported in The Scientific American in October 2013: The authors found that reading literary fiction had a significant positive effect on empathy (measured using psychologists’ standard tests) but that reading non-literary fiction had no effect.

So modern psychologists seem to agree that those Greek dramatists and philosophers of 2,000 years ago got things right. Measured by the criterion of empathy development, reading quality fiction is good for you.

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