Reading Between the Lines: The Relationship Between Fiction & Empathy

by Khevyn Ibrahim, Nicky Jones, Hayley McCluskey, Stephanie Miller and Sarah O'Meara





Humans are the only animals on the planet that construct, share, learn by, and capitalise on stories. Stories have existed since the development of speech, and hunter gatherer tribes today still rely on oral storytelling as a way of social learning and cohesion. ‘The reading revolution’, sparked by the invention of the printing press, meant what and how people read changed. Nowadays, stories are enjoyed by people through books, television, film, theatre, audio, and visual means. Yet, a question remains: what benefit do we get from this ubiquitous experience? Dr. Rose Turner is one psychologist researching in this area and is especially interested in the relationship between fiction and empathy. Dr. Turner shared with us how through reading, people have access to fictional characters and social events that may not be present in their daily lives. Consequently, social justice and social intelligence can develop by imagining oneself in the lives of the fictional characters.


Fiction in Focus


Dr. Turner referred to one theory that fiction functions as a simulation of the social world, allowing readers to imagine social situations without having to experience them directly. Neuroscientific, correlational, and causal studies have investigated the link between fiction and human empathic abilities. One such causal study examined genre effects (Kidd and Castano, 2013). Across five experiments, they compared literary fiction with non-fiction, pop-fiction and a non-reading control group. The results of their study famously found that acclaimed literature increases empathic skills more than non-fiction or popular fiction. This was attributed to the complex characters that are often developed in literary fiction, strengthening the relationship with the reader. However, replications of this study failed to produce similar results. Instead, a correlational association between lifetime reading of fiction and empathy has been consistently found, which could indicate that empathetic people are simply more likely to read fiction. Regardless, Kidd and Castano’s results suggest that the type of fiction being read may affect the relationship with empathy observed.


The Dimensions of Empathy


Just as with fiction, there are nuances to the word empathy that need to be considered; how we understand the concept of empathy directly affects how we choose to measure it. Early representations of empathy involve a projection of the self into another to share in their experience. However, there is debate surrounding the role of imagination in empathy, specifically whether or not empathy requires imagining oneself in another's shoes. This debate reveals that ‘empathy’ is often used to refer to multiple ideas, without a consistent definition.

Dr. Turner breaks ‘empathy’ down into empathic accuracy and empathic inference. Empathic accuracy refers to the ability to infer the states of others; empathic inference is the process of doing so; ‘empathy’ encompasses both of these concepts. To demonstrate these intersections, Dr. Turner presented a model originally developed by Zaki and Ochsner (2012) that she later adapted (Turner, 2020).



The model separates mentalizing (the interpretation of both verbal and nonverbal cues) from experience-sharing (the process of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes). These terms distinguish an understanding of someone else’s inner state from a vicarious matching of that state, though either process can lead to prosocial concern and behaviour.

Researchers’ understanding of the multidimensionality of empathy is still developing, and as such when studying empathy, it is necessary to provide clarity about which dimension one is addressing.


Where the Research Stands


Dr. Turner examined data from a number of studies (Mumper & Gerrig, 2017; Dodell-Feder & Tamir, 2018) on different components of empathy and found that fiction readers had greater abilities at experience sharing; this may be due to readers being able to relate to characters. Mentalizing and prosocial behaviour come second to experience sharing in the positive outcomes of fiction reading; though we should consider the lack of research surrounding prosocial behaviour. Turner's own research showed the strategy participants used in a task involving identifying feelings in others affected their empathic accuracy (2020).

Participants who employed an experience-sharing strategy overestimated how positive the other person was feeling, whereas those who approached the task by mentalizing underestimated the others’ positivity. More broadly, research has shown that fiction readers demonstrate improved empathic abilities, task performance, experience sharing, mentalizing and prosocial behaviour. High traits of empathy are linked to a number of positive outcomes, such as stronger social connections, positive relationships, wellbeing, lower levels of illness, and longevity. So while the effects of reading fiction on empathic ability are small, we cannot deny the meaningfulness of the outcomes, especially given the surplus of accessible fictional narratives in our large population.


A Quick Caveat to Close


The research regarding fiction and empathy widely frames increasing empathy as positive, but on the flip side, the assumption of the overall goodness of the topic could be wishful thinking on the part of those who study it.

Dr Turner asks: is all fiction good? And more philosophically, is the empathy it can elicit always helpful in a social context? If fiction can illuminate different walks of life in a positive way, it could also lead to the misplacement or overexertion of empathy. There is also the danger that we escape into a fictional world in place of real life activism, which negates actual positive social change (Keen, 2007). Is empathy inherently unselfish, or do we empathise and ‘virtue signal’ for show and to feel good about ourselves? In his book Against Empathy: The case for Rational Compassion, Paul Bloom argues this point and that pure empathy can encourage disproportionate reactions and cloud rational thought (2016).

As with anything, balance and caution are required. The future of the field needs to consider longitudinal study to really understand how and what type of fiction can enhance positive empathic ability for social good. These questions not only highlight the importance of further research in this field to clarify the relationship between fiction and empathy but also the responsibility of researchers to maintain an unbiased perspective and recognize both the pros and cons of increased empathy.


And so the quest for happily ever after continues…



References


  • Bloom, P. (2016). Against empathy: The case for rational compassion. London, England: Penguin Random House.

  • Dodell-Feder, D. & Tamir, D. I. (2018). Fiction reading has a small positive impact on social cognition: A meta-analysis. J. Exp Psychol: General, 147, 1713-1727.

  • Keen, S. (2007). Empathy and the novel. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

  • Kidd, D., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science (New York, N.Y.), 342(6156), 377-380.

  • Mumper, M. L., & Gerrig, R. J. (2017). Leisure reading and social cognition: A meta-analysis. Psychol Aesthet Creat Arts, 11, 109-120.

  • Turner, R. (2021, March 11). Reading other minds: The relationship between fiction and empathy.

  • Turner, R. (2020). The Benefits of Fiction-engagement for Empathic Abilities: A Multidimensional Approach. [Unpublished PhD thesis]. Kingston University London.

  • Zaki, J., & Ochsner, K. N. (2012). The neuroscience of empathy: Progress, pitfalls and promise. Nature Neuroscience, 15(5), 675–680.

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