One Writer’s Journey

July 22, 2015

Fiction: The connection between reading and empathy

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:02 am
Tags: , ,

brain on booksScientists are finding connections between what we read and how we interact with other people.  Here are some of their findings:

  • People who read fiction, and put themselves in the character’s shoes, are more empathetic than people who do not read fiction. This is because text can not only paint vivid pictures, it can also allow you to experience strong emotions. Experience it at some level and you are more likely to be able to identify it.
  • Researchers found that students who read the Harry Potter books showed more sympathy toward people who are stigmatized in our society, such as the LGBT community or immigrants.  Not surprisingly, there was a catch. The kink?  This empathy only existed in children who identified with Harry who was an outcast but also befriended other marginalized people.
  • Readers of literary fiction were more empathic than either readers of pop fiction or nonfiction.  Researchers believe that this may be because the characters in literary fiction are often complex and harder to get to know, ie. they are more like real people than cardboard cut outs of people. (To find out more about these studies, read the entire article here.)

While this isn’t entirely good news for those of us who are nonfiction writers, it is interesting to note that scientists are proving what writrs have argued all along.  Give a child a good book, and you can shape his mind.







  1. The problem is that it is getting harder to find a “good” book, as the data here shows:

    Comment by Michael Dalvean — July 26, 2015 @ 7:31 am | Reply

    • Sorry, but I don’t agree. You would first have to determine the ideal idea density for creating empathy as well as demonstrate a consistent link between the two (idea density and empathy). I am not aware of any scientific data concerning the above. Personally, I believe that empathy has a lot more to do with being able to identify in some way with the characters as well as being taught to identify both the emotions themselves and with the people having them. That said, I have no scientific data to back up this hunch.

      Comment by suebe — July 26, 2015 @ 5:48 pm | Reply

      • Sue, I think I agree with you. I think literature must evolve, in the sense that it needs to resonate with the people who are living and reading at a given time. Why should we be superior to people living one, two, or more generations ago? If we aren’t does that mean we are all inferior? Is a desire to be superior really a legitimate goal? To inspire empathy, the author simply must make the reader care. And it seems clear to me that there are many writers successfully connecting with readers today. I’m not sure it makes sense to consider writing good only insofar as it conforms to some arbitrary notion of legitimacy. Good is what makes people care. We know it when we see it.

        Comment by Lisa Haag Kang — July 27, 2015 @ 11:16 pm

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