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”.