The Frontal Cortex

Novels and Empathy

George Eliot famously declared that “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, then it does nothing.” Eliot would be glad to know that she was right: reading novels really does make us nicer. As the British Psychological Society Digest notes:

The more fiction a person reads, the more empathy they have and the better they perform on tests of social understanding and awareness. By contrast, reading more non-fiction, fact-based books shows the opposite association. That’s according to Raymond Mar and colleagues who say their finding could have implications for educating children and adults about understanding others.

The experiment was relatively simple. The scientists asked people if they recognized various authors, some of whom wrote and fiction, and some of whom wrote non-fiction. Then, they scored the subjects on a variety of social awareness and empathy tests. The more authors of fiction that a participant recognised, the higher they tended to score. Interestingly, recognising more non-fiction authors tended to correlate with low empathy scores.

The researchers hypothesized that novels increase empathy by providing us with “social knowledge”. When we read Jane Austen, we learn what to do when invited to a Victorian dance, or how to interpret the subtle emotional signals of Darcy. In other words, we get better at understanding the intentions and thoughts of others. As Eliot wrote, “A picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves…Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”

Non-fiction readers, by contrast, “fail to simulate such experiences, and may accrue a social deficit in social skills as a result of removing themselves from the actual social world”.

Comments

  1. #1 Craig Helfgott
    October 24, 2006

    I have serious problems with this study on a number of levels.
    These problems may just be due to the way you’ve presented the study (as I do not at present have access to the online journal you linked to).

    First off, they seem to be assuming a causal relationship where they have, at best, demonstrated a correlation. According to you, they hypothesize that reading fiction over non-fiction improves your empathy and social awareness. It could just as easily work the other way around: If you are naturally empathic and socially aware, you are more likely to want to read stories about other people (i.e. fiction) rather than non-fiction. It could also just as easily be the case that neither one causes the other, but that they are often found together for some other reason.

    Secondly, the experimental protocol you describe is suspect, and quite possibly selects based on education, economic aspects and other factors as opposed to level of fiction reading vs. non-fiction reading. Perhaps the people who registered as non-fiction readers actually read a great deal of fiction — just none of the authors on the experimenters’ lists.

  2. #2 Jonah
    October 24, 2006

    You are absolutely right to point out numerous problems with the study. I’m particularly wary of the causation issue. My own experience is that people I consider more “empathetic” tend to read novels, although I would never attribute their empathy to their Austen infatuation. As you point out, people that read novels are generally more interested in the sorts of emotional cues and melodramas that are the subject of every good novel. That said, I know that many novels have increased my own sense of “sympathy,” and let me imagine what it’s like to be many other people besides myself.

  3. #3 steve
    October 26, 2006

    I agree that the causal relationship isn’t necessarily proven in this study, but I do remember reading something very convincing on the subject (either in proust or referring to him) about how in life even those closest to us are opaque to us, and it is only in reading a story and constructing the character in a transparent way in our own minds that we can fully comprehend them and (i would imagine) therefore probably properly empathize with them. I would guess that the experience of constructing and understanding characters fully in our minds would contribute to understanding and empathizing with the real people around us, but I doubt that one could come up with a study to scientifically prove something like that.

    s.

  4. #4 Christian Jarrett
    October 27, 2006

    The paragraph you quote beginning “The more fiction a person reads…” is taken directly from my write-up of this study at The BPS Research Digest – please credit and link as appropriate.

  5. #5 Jonah
    October 27, 2006

    My sincere apologies. While writing the post, I mistakenly credited that paragraph to the authors of the study, and not to the British Psychological Society, as I should have. The post has now been corrected.

  6. #6 Eric Irvine
    October 28, 2006

    This study could probably be studied experimentally: just randomly assign groups to reading one type of novel or another and see how their empathy scales change; then you can actually untangle causation (barring methodology problems).

    I would also be interested at how introversion-extroversion correlates with the kinds of books read and empathy.

  7. #7 Xcott
    November 1, 2006

    I would hate for someone to judge my fiction-reading by the number of well-known authors I recognize.

    On the one hand, I have barely ever read fiction since high school, but being in AP English in high school gave me a good deal of general knowledge of major works of American and English literature. I know a lot of trivia about major works even though I read almost no fiction.

    On the other hand, people might read tons of fiction in specific genres (fantasy fiction, detective fiction) that give them no ability to recognize popular authors.

    On the third hand, I wouldn’t imagine you could gain much empathy from reading some types of fiction, like detective fiction. Much of detective fiction amounts to a crossword puzzle with a plot stapled to it, where death is just an excuse to present a brain-teaser, and its human aspects are minimized. If we learn any lesson from golden-age detective fiction, it’s that people are props who die instant non-gory deaths, to give everyone an excuse to traipse around the old mansion looking for clues. If anything that would sap my empathy.

    Likewise, what “social knowledge” do we gain from fantasy or science fiction? They certainly teach us lessons about society in general, abstracted from any specific real-life civilization; but they do not illustrate smaller human situations specific to our own culture a la Jane Austin.

  8. #8 Larry Kryske, Commander, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
    January 14, 2010

    Interesting suggestion concerning novels and empathy. I’m dealing with an exceptionally bright student who exhibits minimal or no empathy. I was contemplating having him read some novels in which the protagonists demonstrated empathy. We’d then discuss the novel and use it as a vehicle to identify empathy and what kinds of responses an empathetic person might make.

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