Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy

By Julianne Chiaet for scientificamerican.com

boy-reading-comic-book

How important is reading fiction in socializing school children? Researchers at The New School in New York City have found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling.

Emanuele Castano, a social psychologist, along with PhD candidate David Kidd conducted five studies in which they divided a varying number of participants (ranging from 86 to 356) and gave them different reading assignments: excerpts from genre (or popular) fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction or nothing. After they finished the excerpts the participants took a test that measured their ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. The researchers found, to their surprise, a significant difference between the literary- and genre-fiction readers.

When study participants read non-fiction or nothing, their results were unimpressive. When they read excerpts of genre fiction, such as Danielle Steel’s The Sins of the Mother, their test results were dually insignificant. However, when they read literary fiction, such as The Round House by Louise Erdrich, their test results improved markedly—and, by implication, so did their capacity for empathy. The study was published October 4 in Science.

The results are consistent with what literary criticism has to say about the two genres—and indeed, this may be the first empirical evidence linking literary and psychological theories of fiction. Popular fiction tends to portray situations that are otherworldly and follow a formula to take readers on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and exciting experiences. Although the settings and situations are grand, the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader’s expectations of others. It stands to reason that popular fiction does not expand the capacity to empathize.

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