Does reading literary fiction make us empathic?

October 6, 2013 • 6:00 am

UPDATE:  I had forgotten that Steve Pinker talked about the link between reading fiction and becoming empathic in his book The Better Angels of our Nature (one commenter mentioned this below), but hey, the book is 800 pages long and I can’t remember everything! Pinker mentions his discussion, and his agreement that the Science paper is dicey, in a tw**t today:

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I don’t think literature is a “way of knowing,” at least a nonscientific way to find out truths about the cosmos and humanity, but it may be a “way of feeling.” That is—as suggested many times before—literature may hone our empathy, making us more keenly attuned to the feelings of other people. Or it may make us realize some things about ourselves, which I suppose you could construe as a “way of knowing” in a restricted sense.

But does literature really do that? According to two social psychologists at the New School for Social Research, the answer is “yes.” The new paper in Science by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano on this topic has gotten a lot of press, including a big piece in the New York Times that’s very breathless, and largely uncritical, about the results.

The NYT piece, by Pam Bellock, starts off implying that reading literary fiction has such long-term effects on your ability to empathize with others that it can even help you get lucky:

Say you are getting ready for a blind date or a job interview. What should you do? Besides shower and shave, of course, it turns out you should read — but not just anything. Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel.

That is the conclusion of a study published Thursday in Science.

Science is, of course, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals.

But that’s bad reporting, because the new study suggests nothing of the sort.  What it does suggest is this: after some literary fiction, compared to no reading, reading nonfiction, or reading “nonliterary fiction,” subjects generally score better on tests that allow them to “detect and understand others’ emotions,” which Kidd and Castano see the affective part of the Theory of Mind (our ability to enter into the subjective states of others).  The effects are measured immediately, after the subjects read passages from different works, and there’s no demonstration that these effects last longer than whatever time transpired between the reading and the psychological test—presumably an hour or so.

There were five tests each, say the authors, showing a significant effect in the expected direction (literary fiction makes you more able to read other’s emotions than does reading nonliterary fiction, nonfiction, or nothing at all). But in many cases the significance levels are marginal—p values around 0.04, when the cutoff boundary is 0.05—and one value of 0.08 (sometimes psychologists use higher cutoffs like p < 0.01). Those values represent the chance of getting the observed result given that there really is no effect on empathy of reading literary stuff. In all tests the authors also assessed each reader’s previous exposure to fiction using an “Author Recognition Test” (ART), which presumably gives you an idea of how much fiction reading the subject had done in his/her earlier life.

I won’t go into the types of readings used; you can read the original paper (judicious inquiry might net you a copy), or read the NYT summary.  There were five types of tests, with Test 1 comparing those who read literary fiction versus nonfiction.  In that case, the ability to read others was assessed by the a “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test, whereby subjects looked at pictures of faces and were asked to judge what emotions those faces were expressing. There was a significant effect of reading literary fiction in the expected direction (more accurate reading of faces), but, significantly, there was an even larger effect of the subject’s ART. The ART effect was a general finding in the study: previous recognition of authors led to better cognitive performance, often with high significance (p < 0.001).

While one can argue that the ART effect simply reflects the longer-term results of reading fiction beyond that seen in this paper’s short-term tests, it could also show the reverse causation: those with high ART scores read fiction because they are a priori more empathic and want to explore the feelings of others in literature. But the ART test itself does not distinguish between recognizing “literary” authors like Jane Austen or “nonliterary” authors like Dan Brown. That’s important because the authors’ results show that literary fiction creates better affective scores than reading nonliterary fiction.

As a colleague noted after reading the study, looking at faces is a weird way of assessing any empathy acquired by reading:

It’s suspicious that reading fiction improves the ability to read emotion from the eyes, since that’s exactly the aspect of theory-of-mind performance for which fiction ought to provide no help whatsoever.

The colleague suggested that reading literary fiction may simply require more concentration than the other types of readings, and that paying greater attention may carry over to the psychological tests.

The other four experiments used different tests, but three of them also involved looking at faces—as well as non-visual assessments of affective behavior.  These other tests also incorporated a no-reading control as well as reading nonfiction. In all cases literary fiction improved affective Theory of Mind behavior more than reading other stuff or not reading at all.

The general results, as the authors note, supported their hypothesis:

The results of five experiments support our hypothesis that reading literary fiction enhances ToM [Theory of Mind]. Existing explanations focused on the content of fiction cannot account for these results. First, the texts we used varied widely in subject matter. Second, it is unlikely that people learned much more about others by reading any of the short texts. Third, the effects were specific to literary fiction. We propose that by prompt-ing readers to take an active writerly role to form representations of characters’ subjective states, literary fiction recruits ToM. The evidence we report here is consistent with this view, but we see these findings as preliminary and much research is needed.

. . . our findings demonstrate the short-term effects of reading lit-erary fiction. However, taken together, the relation between the Author Recognition Test and ToM performance and the finding that it is specifi-cally literary fiction that facilitates ToM processes suggest that reading literary fiction may lead to stable improvements in ToM. Since the Au-thor Recognition Test does not distinguish between exposure to literary and popular fiction, additional research with refined methods is neces-sary to test this important hypothesis.

While the NYT report on this paper mentions one of my worries: that the psychological results of reading literary fiction were measured just minutes after reading the passage, it doesn’t mention the even larger results of the Author Awareness Test, which either might or might not support the authors’ theory. The TImes piece is simply worshipful, incorporating praise from evolutionary psychologists, English professors, and, of course, a “literary” author, Louise Erdrich, who said this:

“This is why I love science,” Louise Erdrich, whose novel “The Round House” was used in one of the experiments, wrote in an e-mail. The researchers, she said, “found a way to prove true the intangible benefits of literary fiction.”

Yes, we do love science when it “proves” what we want to believe, don’t we? But surely the the Times reporter could have dug deeply enough to find some criticism.  After all, I’m reporting the views of two critics in this piece alone.

And indeed, in their last paragraph the authors seem to say that their results support the use of literature in existing programs designed to “promote social welfare”:

Literature has been deployed in programs intended to promote social welfare, such as those intended to promote empathy among doctors and life skills among prisoners. Literature is, of course, also a required subject throughout secondary education in the United States, but reformers have questioned its importance: A new set of education stand-ards that has been adopted by 46 U.S. states (the Common Core State Standards) controversially calls for less emphasis on fiction in secondary education. Debates over the social value of types of fiction and the arts more broadly are important, and it seems critical to supplement them with empirical research. These results show that reading literary fiction may hone adults’ ToM, a complex and critical social capacity.

As my colleague said dryly about that, “Anything that flatters highbrows (and which has an obvious political agenda, which they reveal in the last paragraph) should indeed be looked at with suspicion.”  I agree.  While the paper is suggestive, it’s nowhere near as conclusive as the Times reports, and I’m surprised it was published in Science.  It needs replication with more types of controls, tests that don’t involve looking at faces, and, most important, more replication.

Now don’t get me wrong. I do think that reading literary fiction makes us more empathic toward our fellow humans.  One example is The Death of Ivan Ilych by Tolstoy, one of my favorite stories.  That novella, though psychologically wrenching, makes you ponder not only the transience and meaning of life, but, as I was told by critic James Wood, was once used in medical schools to teach students what it felt like to die.  The authors of that Science paper may indeed be right, but I’d feel better if my subjective feeling was supported by stronger research.


Kidd, D. C., and E. Castano. 2013. Reading literary fiction Improves theory of mind. Science DOI: DOI:10.1126/science.1239918. Published online Oct. 3

65 thoughts on “Does reading literary fiction make us empathic?

  1. Though he didn’t distinguish between “literary” and “non-literary” fiction, Steven Pinker that it was POSSIBLE (a reasonable conjecture) that fiction helped humans become less violent; that reading it helped us empathize a bit and start thinking “gee, maybe I wouldn’t like to be broken on the wheel”, etc.

    This was in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

    1. Yes and I found that one of the most interesting parts of Better Angels. Pinker was talking about how the novel and greater literacy may have led to an understanding of people we either may have seen as less than human (slaves – in reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin) or those whose lives we just were not exposed to (any of the books about the lives of fancy women like Emma, etc.). At this time in history, there would be much less exposure to unfamiliar lives where now we have so many other opportunities for discussion and awareness (the world has really shrunk)….so when I read the NY Times article, I wondered why the literary fiction part; I think exposure to way more things like popular fiction, television shows, movies, the Internet, etc. would equally affect empathy.

      However, I tend to lean toward the idea that those who are more empathetic to begin with, will read fiction and watch movies and I am very curious to find out if sociopaths are genuinely interested in such pursuits.

      1. Stephen Greenblatt’s excellent The Swerve: How the World a Became Modern, posits that the printing press allowed everyday folks (i.e. not just monks) to read about all kinds of new ideas and places beyond their often very constricted lives ( of course this is assuming they had learned to read).

    2. Yes, the first thing I thought of when I read about this study were the passages in Better Angels of Our Nature which linked the 18th century Rise of Literacy, the Reading Revolution, and the Republic of Letters to the growing humanitarian impulses associated with Humanism and its concern for universal human rights.

      As Pinker argues, literature — especially the novel — made it customary for people to learn to think, empathize, and experience things from the point of view of someone else. While this may seem obvious to us, it was actually quite revolutionary in the course of history.

      “The philosophes of the Enlightenment extolled the ways novels engaged a reader’s identification with and sympathetic concern for others.”

      Pinker admits that the rise of the novel may simply have been the result of people becoming increasingly empathetic for other reasons, but also writes

      “But the full-strength causal hypothesis may be more than a fantasy of English teachers. The ordering of events is in the right direction: technological advances in publishing, the mass production of books, the expansion of literacy, and the popularity of the novel all preceded the major humanitarian reforms of the 18th century. And in some cases a best-selling novel or memoir demonstrably exposed a wide range of readers to the suffering of a forgotten class of victims and led to a change in policy.” (BAOON, pg 177)

      Of course, in his book Pinker also argues that the critical issue in the rise of the modern humanitarian point of view (and subsequent lowering of violence) involves the emphasis on reason as much or more than an increase in empathy. But in addition the reading of fiction also inherently forces people out of their parochial or self-absorbed inner status — and into other worlds — and that quite probably contributes to an ability to not just feel more deeply, but think more generally.

      The study may have flaws, but it’s an interesting scientific approach to supporting (NOT undermining) the values of the humanities.

      By the way, a few years ago I had a visor custom-embroidered at one of those shops on Navy Pier: I had them inscribe “Third Culture.” Reference to The Edge and the coming together of science and the humanities. I wear it around town occasionally. I suspect nobody gets it (and nobody has ever asked.)

      1. As a high school teacher that has seen the Common Core swoop into my classroom and with it the commencement of having my students concentrate on “informational text” 70% of the time, it seems necessary for scientists to fight back (and potentially try to prove that empathy increases when reading literature as opposed to non-fiction) because schools are turning into communicators of facts. We no longer grade our elementary students on important things like, “Plays nice with others”. That is why our Congress can’t work together. No one can see the other person’s side and even if they could they would probably still be too unempathetic to try and understand a different perspective. We have been taught for far too long that there is only one right answer. This is not true. This is what literature teaches us. That there are many voices and that those voices each have a distinct pathway, future and past. And that these pasts are not all the same. It is a common experience that we share, but not an identical one.

        Thank you for your response. The Renaissance didn’t just happen. It wasn’t just born. It was the concerted effort of humanists to make people better understand the human condition.

        1. As Llyod Alexander always says on his dedications, “To all of us who know we are human, but try to be nothing less.”

  2. There is so much wrong with this, I hardly know where to begin.

    But, the most obvious problem, to me, is that the terms “literary fiction” and “non-fiction” cover so much ground that it’s pretty easy to see that, depending on the specific tomes the researchers choose, they could get almost any result under the sun.

    Does reading a chemistry text make you more or less empathic than reading Siddhartha?

    Does reading The Taming of the Shrew (in all its misogynistic glory) make you more or less empathic than reading one of the very many excellent psychology texts on empathy and how it functions? Reading about Harlow’s experiments with monkeys made me cry a river, more than once.

    Yeesh. L

    1. Yeah, in this day and age where we are exposed to a lot of opportunity for empathy (availability of media) I tend to think those who are already empathetic tend to read certain things. Besides, what happened to reading science fiction, damn it! I think it is a profoundly wide genre that gives us plenty to feel empathy over. And why not graphic novels – I’ve felt incredibly moved by the graphic novels of The Walking Dead or how about The Odyessey or The Aeneid which are not literary fiction but poetry?

      1. I would think that The Odyssey and the Aeneid, or any ( good) poetry, would fall under the rubric of literary fiction

  3. Why has “empathy” relaced “sympathy”? Have we lost a nice gradation of meaning for the sake of sounding more concerned, or something?

    1. How has it replaced sympathy? They don’t mean the same thing. Empathy has more to do with actually understanding the experience of others while sympathy indicates the offer of comfort, whether motivated by empathy or otherwise. The more we empathize, the more likely we are to act with consideration towards others. Empathetic individuals would be more likely to want to build an egalitarian system. I’m convinced conservatives in the United States do not empathize much at all – especially beyond their own small circle. I think this might have a lot to do with education. After all, empathy has to do with a certain type of knowledge. Sympathy doesn’t require that knowledge.

      1. They mean (or meant!) different degrees of the same thing, with empathy referring to being in a position to understand more closely whatever was ailing the subject. For example, I can sympathise with the pain of a women in childbirth, but, as a man, I cannot epathise with her.

  4. What can be annoying about pop-science written to the lay person such as myself is that the writers want to review the latest sensational scientific finding the moment it comes out. They refuse to wait and allow the report to be reviewed in the scientific community. By not waiting they might fail to report to the reader that the vast majority of scientists after careful review savaged the findings reached. By not waiting the readers come to the wrong understanding that scientists have no idea of what they are doing.

  5. Remember that as well as everything else, Christopher Hitchens was a professor of English literature – and frequently wrote of the power of fiction for moral instruction.

    1. Seems Hitchens was quite gifted in literary criticism (itself non-fiction), though if I correctly recall he stated to the effect that he himself had no gift for or interest in writing fiction or poetry, leaving it to his chums (Martin Amis, etc.). Anyway, what with his prodigious output of non-fiction, how much quality time would he have had for writing novels and short stories?

      I’ll take the morally-instructive and critically-thoughtful essays and full-length non-fiction of Hitchens, Dawkins, Lewis Lapham (“Money and Class in America”), Neil Postman (“Amusing Ourselves to Death”), Martin Gardner (“The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener”) and not a few others over novels.

      My lessened enthusiasm for fiction seems to have started in high school when I HAD to read – and be TESTED on – “Silas Marner.” Fiction became an ordeal in school, something to be done with, “git shed of.”

      What’s the difference between a work of “literary” fiction and one of “popular” fiction, and who presumes to be properly positioned to distinguish between the two? (Seems over time that “literary” fiction was necessarily first “popular” fiction.) Does one know it’s “literary” if it’s “taught” at university level? If I am secretly, privately reading a great work from the literary “canon” of novels, am I nevertheless required to read it as if I were a student fretting over what to remember/memorize so as to be prepared to answer any question which a literature professor may deign to pose to me?

      1. The concept of literary fiction is often debated and I sometimes find it a bit odious myself as it can smack of superiority. I’d prefer to recognize great fiction for its greatness and forget the division into literary and non literary fiction, mostly because genre fiction, in my opinion, is unfairly excluded. For instance, you would not find Isaac Asmiov on a list of literary fiction but his works are well written and make us ponder big questions, especially in his robot short stories where we think about consciousness, slavery, logic, etc.

        It seems you had a terrible early experience with fiction tantamount to my bad experiences with math. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to read a lot of non fiction but I have found reading non fiction opens your mind to knew ways of thinking and perceiving (not knowing) that non fiction cannot not do as easily.

        1. Ooops I meant fiction opens your mind not non fiction and forgive me my other screw ups which you’ll see (I am only starting my coffee and just recovered from a weekend of flu).

        2. The idea is (more or less) that the stuff that survives as “literature” is deeper and more robust and works better outside its time and place.

          (Of course, in practice canons are always constructed retrospectively, to make history look like a narrative rather than stuff just happening. But the principle is still useful.)

          1. That is of course accurate but then why the exclusion of HG Wells and Isaac Asimov whose work is influential, stands the test of time and continues to impact today’s culture?

            I quibble with this literary fiction division.

            1. (a) Let’s see how it goes in another hundred years. Wells is already a bit dated – he was not good with characters. Neither was Asimov, though his best stuff (e.g. Foundation is actually about bureaucratic politics, which appears to be a human universal. (b) ‘Cos literary types like stuff that looks “literary”, not stuff that doesn’t.

              1. I don’t think the time factor is needed, at least in all the definitions of “literary fiction” that I have seen. They all just say “serious fiction” and fiction with “literary merit”. I think it’s all rather abstract.

              2. There is, of course, a strong element of “stuff we like” and “stuff we don’t like”. This would be fine except a lot of the former doesn’t last either.

                The essential problem is that culture and aesthetics are two different things, and fans of the latter are conflating it with the former. Most people just don’t care that much.

              3. “Most people just don’t care that much.”

                Most people don’t care about much of anything that much.

                Am reminded of A.C. Grayling quoting Bertrand Russell: “Most people would rather die than think.”

            2. Note that ideas fiction has a varied run in terms of lasting through time. Basically, it needs the characters or some other human universal, or it becomes the sort of book people talk about but don’t read – as opposed to Shakespeare, Dickens or Austen, who people still read for pleasure.

        3. Before I forget: I love the little typo/slip on “knew” ways of thinking…

          The distinction between “literary” and “genre” fiction in this context simply sets up a spectrum that help us define a type of story. On one end you have purely plot-driven and the other you have purely character-driven. The more character-driven stories are likely to expose the reader to scenes where traits and emotions like empathy, compassion,love, hate, sorrow, joy etc. etc. play the key role. In plot-driven stories those characteristics don’t really make much of a difference. So it’s natural for those readers that have a proclivity for character-driven stories to learn how empathy works. Does that mean those readers are likely to become more empathetic, compassionate human beings? I think we might agree that the odds are greater for those that read a lot of character-driven fiction where empathy leads to good things.

          If empathy or compassion or some other character trait is what helps our hero “get the girl”, then wouldn’t it follow that we might want to try practicing a little empathy ourselves?

          1. Yeah, language betrays me all the time and I have recently started suffering from some sort of homophonia. 😀

            I still argue that genre fiction can be character driven and not plot driven. I think this whole literary fiction is a goofy line to draw. I’d actually prefer a plot driven vs character driven line drawn. I’ll read both and sometimes I’m ashamed to admit loving a highly plot driven book.

            1. Yeah I get so frustrated with the labels – in music too – just because there’s this implication of superiority and inferiority. And as someone pointed out, in the context of whether a book is going to cause someone to behave more empathetically, then the fiction/non-fiction distinction is bogus too.

              I never should of taken the bait with this conversation. Academic discourse always gets me in trouble.

  6. If (and this is a big if, I admit) the authors’ interpretation of their results is correct, why wouldn’t this count as a distinctive literary “way of knowing”? After all, what is suggested by the study is that reading literary fiction sharpens one’s ability to access actual information about the real world, viz. the emotions of strangers. Why shouldn’t a technique that increases our ability to access real-world information count as a “way of knowing”?

    1. As you say, ” it is suggested by the study that reading literary fiction sharpen’s one ability…”, an ability we supposedly already possess, namely to understand another human being’s emotional state. In this case the literary fiction does merely enhance an ability apparently already present, it is not suggested that it creates it afresh. So no new “way of knowing”.

      But if it the creation of a new ability was suggested, then one could ask: What kind of literary fiction contains that knowledge? (How about a little Dada for example?) And were the writers intending their works to impart this specific knowledge? And if so, where did they get it from?

  7. This ran through my mind the other night when you mentioned that you weren’t sure why you liked fiction as much as you did. Good literary authors provide deep insight into human nature. I’ve always thought these authors helped me in this respect more than any study of psychology ever did. At this point in my life though, it’s hard for me to take the time to read this sort of writing. I always feel like I should be reading non-fiction now for some reason – it’s a loss.

    1. Actually, Richard made that statement about fiction. I’m pretty sure I know why I like fiction, though, like you, it’s hard for me to get around to it these days. (Remember when Richard said, “There’s so much to read about that’s true. Why would I want to read about something that’s not true?”

      1. The problem with literary fiction, is that it’s only someone’s opinion about what certain types of people in certain situations would do. It could easily be quite mistaken, like “Lord of the Flies” which I was forced to study at school. The author’s ideas about what would go down were actually quite far from the mark, as we now know from scientific studies of group formation in boys.

        used in medical schools to teach students what it felt like to die.

        This is a good example, Tolstoy had never died when he wrote this, he was inferring from his excellent imagination, and possibly from some experience watching people die, although of course most doctors would have far more experience of this than Tolstoy. He could be quite wrong about dying. I’m with Richard, I’d rather read about reality.

    2. I certainly respect your experience, but I don’t share it.

      Even “good” literature bores me to tears. I’d rather read something succinct and straightforward (and considerably shorter) that makes the same point.

      Maybe it has something to do with my experience in school, but I doubt it. I thought Romeo and Juliet were a couple of idiots, from the first time I read the play. L

      1. “I’d rather read something succinct and straightforward (and considerably shorter) that makes the same point.”

        In that case, I wouldn’t recommend reading Thomas Pynchon.

      2. Almost all my 108 books to be read are non fiction. I do love reading a good fiction though, I just need to find time and I may pull a fiction up the list. I find that I go through moods where I want to read fiction and when I want to read non fiction and these moods can last years.

      3. Nobody’s mentioning art here: the pure beauty of words and metaphors and stories. The fascinating imaginative characters whose loss I would feel greatly if I stopped reading good fiction and poetry. I’ve usually got >2 works of fiction on the go at a time along with 1 or 2 works of non-fiction, maybe one science and one history or current affairs. You’d have to water board me to make me choose between lit fiction and non-fiction, and even then I probably wouldn’t choose:-)

        1. I’m impressed you can read more than one at a time. I used to have several on the go as well & had to make a rule to do one book at a time because I found I wouldn’t finish any of them. 🙂

      4. OK, but what about Romeo’s soliliquy under Juliet’s balcony? (” . . . as he bestrides the lazy, puffing clouds, and sails upon the bosom of the air!”)

        Now, I would have rather taken a “whoopin'” (as we say in the Appalachian South) then to have to memorize on DEMAND that soliliquy in high school. But, years later I confess, I happened on William Shatner’s rendering/reading of those lines (with most appropriate atmospheric instrumental music) from his 1968 album reissued on CD, and despite myself I have learned it.

        Re: Shelley’s “Love’s Philosophy”: I remember this from high school, but it was just an item on a test, remembering who wrote what. But in the early 90’s, The King’s Singers recorded it set to a beautiful medley, and I was hooked. Such a great way to memorize great poetry.

        (Insofar as Romeo and Juliet being “idiots,” one can make the case that any of us – who throw caution to the wind and never count the cost in pursuing to the edge of doom what will likely be unrequited love – are candidates for being labelled an “idiot.” Check out Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s “Unrequited Love.”)

  8. The paper as described does seem to have problems. One would expect empathy learned from fiction to depend on a lifetime of reading, not a single story, and one would not really expect that reading-acquired empathy to take the form of better ability to read faces, though it might.

    Nonetheless, I think reading fiction can be important for learning about people. I grew up with little ability to read faces (probably resulting from my extreme nearsightedness). Social blunders and estrangement followed. Repeatedly hurt, I disengaged.

    Some time in my late 20’s, it occurred to me that if I was so very much better at reading emotions of the non-human animal species I knew well than most of the anthropomorphizing people around me, I might be able to read humans, too. And, to some extent, this has become true.

    One of the reasons I could come to empathize more accurately was that a lifetime of omnivorous reading, including though certainly not limited to literary fiction, had given me a large store of different personalities, experiences, hopes, and concerns to consider applying as hypotheses to the people I was observing.

  9. Surely fiction affects us. I’d be surprised if it always improved empathy since I can certainly imagine fiction that only reinforces my sense of othering for some out group.

    Long ago I started to worry a bit about the effect of fiction on me. One can read a work of fiction and come away with very strong feelings about a wide range of things in life, from politics, to religion, to how you should conduct yourself day to day, etc. Sometimes those feelings are grounded in reality, but sometimes they are just a testament to the skill of the author at making you feel like they are real.

    Anyway, I’m pretty sure that listening to an audiobook of 1984 single handedly transformed my political views. My empathy for Winston Smith was so intense that it really led me to loath any steps I see that could be leading us to that kind of dystopia. It feels worth paying a fairly high cost in safety and other benefits to avoid that end. I wonder, though, if my induced dread of dystopia could, if I had read a different work of fiction, have generated an induced dread of terrorism instead and made me into a supporter of heavy handed government action in pursuit of terrorists? Or perhaps I already had anti-authoritarian leanings and 1984 just tapped into those and intensified them? In any case, I have become increasingly wary of the effect fiction can have on me because fiction need not reflect the real world and the verisimilitude could just be the result of skill.

    1. I wonder if what you’re describing would be better characterized as responding to compelling arguments, accompanied by fictional but possible illustrations.

      I think it may be a category error to say FICTION (that’s way too broad) has effect X. It’s not that what you read was fiction, it’s that the points it made seemed sensible enough to adopt ( or not).

      I’m not really into fiction at all. I don’t think it’s hobbled my ability to sympathize or even empathize.

  10. It’s when I confuse the novels w the non-fiction that I worry…though some of the stuff going on in Washington these days makes me believe that truth is often stranger than fiction.

    Btw, I read somewhere else today that Dubya once said that he “didn’t do nuance”. D’ya think??

  11. What is most relevant here is simply the reminder of empathy. Like watching a familiar movie where one knows the strong emotional part is coming and the reinforcement of empathy can be both rewarding and educational in the sense that we re-remember those feelings. The same is true of playing an emotional piece of music or reciting a powerful poem…going to that place again and again.

    This is more about learning than empathy or at least how empathy can be shaped or reorganized or altogether manufactured for different occasions. What instills empathy can be very different for different people.

  12. I agree the paper is a fairly weak result. But nonetheless interesting and suggestive.

    I do want to disagree entirely with one of the critics’ quotes:

    “It’s suspicious that reading fiction improves the ability to read emotion from the eyes, since that’s exactly the aspect of theory-of-mind performance for which fiction ought to provide no help whatsoever.”

    No. We absolutely would expect priming of the brain via one mode to influence performance via other modes. When recognizing patterns (in this case recognizing emotions in facial expressions) we take in all available sensory data as well as all available internal expectations. And all of this is going to be influenced by attentional focus. So if brain regions responsible for identifying & relating to emotions in general have been primed in one mode (reading), we would expect that to feed into processes for identifying & relating to emotions in other ways (i.e. facial expressions).

    1. I was also wondering about that quote but for another reason: surely literary fiction is full of detailed descriptions of facial expressions? As well as describing all sorts of other associated clues. So if there is an effect there, why would that not include the reading of faces as well?

  13. Things that come to mind…

    1. Some of us are already burdened with enough empathy that it’s hard to get out of bed at times. Others seem to need to observe or experience something personally to ‘get it.’ IIANM those two frequency curves correspond well with ‘gender.’

    2. Yet another ‘discovery’ about as groundbreaking as Scientists Discover–Plants Need Water.

    What about how we all feel leaving the movie theater after a good triumph-of-the-underdog flick? How about the brief moment after 9/11 when it looked like the world would be singing Kum Ba Ya together? How about he emotional response we get to music?


  14. I would never give up my books. If the concern is to teach young people empathy, this “modern art” form does it very well:

    To get the gist, zoom in at minute 42 and the amazing finale at 48:14.

  15. I am requesting a copy of the article so I can make up my own mind. My current view is that literary fiction can make you think more about various things ranging from human motivation to how to convey meanings and images in words; while mass-market fiction can grab your attention but doesn’t stick with you after you’re done. There’s a place for both because we are complex beings. Sometimes you want a prix fixe French dinner and sometimes you want a hamburger!

  16. This study is pretty typical of the problematic field of study known as “media effects research”, and quite typical in its broad inferences made from experiments based on limited, short-term exposure to a media stimulus. Albert Bandura’s “Bobo clown experiment” (in which children beat the crap out of an inflated Bobo clown after viewing films of adults being aggressive toward the Bobo clown) being the mother of all of these studies:

    Some good critiques of this line of research:

    Looking at this study in the light of other media effects studies also underlines the obvious bias in this field, at the level of hypothesis formulation. This study was clearly looking for the salutary effects of reading high literature and formulated its hypothesis accordingly. By contrast, studies of more lowbrow forms of media – pornography, video games, cartoons, etc, are almost inevitably testing hypotheses about antisocial effects. While one can formulate individual studies like this and with proper controls and methodology produce valid results (albeit, typically with only limited generalizability), the distorting effect of an entire body of research working from such assumptions should be obvious.

    1. I think, despite my use of language that would imply the contrary, I’m a very peaceful person because I had one of those inflatable clowns when I was a kid & I refused to punch it. I recall feeling that it was mean to do so.

  17. There is often an even bigger reaction to watching a (good) film on empathy, although perhaps it is a more short-term effect.
    I wonder if the memory of the horrors of various war films has reduced our propensity to want to go to war – e.g. the start of Private Ryan.
    In my own mind, the cumulative effects of fictional films and real news reporting (usually seen retrospectively as so much of the live coverage is filtered propaganda) has given a total anti-war stance.

  18. I also would like to take issue with the following asertion:

    “It’s suspicious that reading fiction improves the ability to read emotion from the eyes, since that’s exactly the aspect of theory-of-mind performance for which fiction ought to provide no help whatsoever.”

    I just don’t think this is true. If you survey the literature on the cognitive neuroscience of theory of mind (ToM), you will see that cognitive ToM (e.g., representing others’ mental states as distinct from our own) and affective ToM (e.g., Reading the mind in the eyes test) rely on almost entirely overlapping brain networks, which also overlap significantly with the brain’s default mode network. As we know from a plethora of studies on the default mode network, it is involved in simulation of possible events, and prospection (future episodic thinking), as well as representing others’ and our own mental states, intentions, etc.

    Gallagher et al. (2000, Neuropsychologia) show that reading descriptions of others’ mental states activates this network along with looking at nonverbal Far Side cartoons which depict people having mental representations of their worlds that are different from our perspective.

    As for the taks under consideration, the “Reading the mind in the eyes (RME)” test does not assess emotions per se, but mental states (intentions) that the person is trying to convey through their facial expression (e.g., curious, dismissive, flirtatious, etc.). It is a well-validated test of whether someone can decode persons’ mental states from their eye gaze. In addition,the RME activates similar neural networks as those engaged by “cognitive” tests of empathy (e.g., Calder et al., 2002, Neuropsychologia; Adams et al., 2010, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience).

    In sum, the science strongly supports the notion that affective and cognitive ToM share much of the same neural mechanisms.

    Missing from this whole discussion however, is the rationale for the Science paper. Recent theoretical and empirical advances (e.g., Mar and Oatley, 2008, Pers. Psych. Sci.) suggest that fiction’s function is to aid in simulation and abstraction of social experience. To the degree that we successfully engage the default mode simulation regions when we read fiction, that presumably will lead to better engagement of such cognitive processes in real-world social experience.

    One real issue with the coverage of this paper is the discussion grounding out on the division between “literary” and “non-literary” fiction: Mar’s work shows that fiction per se helps improve social cognition, but what I think we need to take seriously is the idea that any writing that encourages greater mental simulation of social experience is going to improve that mental simulation mechanism. Because “literary fiction” is often more subtle, character driven, and socially complex than popular fiction, it is likely that this kind of fiction will be better apt to drive that cognitive machinery. That the authors and journalists covering the story choose to dwell on the broad-strokes distinction between literary and popular fiction obscures the fact that literary fiction (on the average) is better placed to encourage mental simulation of social events, which is the likely mechanism for fiction’s improvements in social cognition.

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