In a market-driven, fast-paced world where many of our daily interactions occur on social media websites, many have speculated that empathy–or the ability to understand and share someone else’s emotions–is becoming a rarity. In fact, a 2010 study involving 14,000 college students found that young people today are 40% less empathetic than their counterparts from 30 years ago.
The news is disheartening to those who envision a better world for future generations, one with less war, hunger, and poverty. However, for those concerned over the advent of an allegedly narcissistic generation of “millennials” at the helm of a troubled world, there might yet be a remedy.
Another recent study, conducted by psychologists David Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the The New School in New York City, has shown that reading literary fiction can actually improve a reader’s ability to empathize, or detect and understand other people’s emotions.
In a series of five experiments, 1,000 participants were randomly assigned texts to read, either extracts from nonfiction such as Smithsonian magazine articles, popular fiction such as books by Danielle Steel, or from literary fiction by Don DeLillo and Anton Chekhov.
The researchers then used what are known as Theory of Mind techniques to measure how accurately the participants could identify emotions in others. One test, for example, called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” entailed choosing from a series of adjectives to describe the emotions of people based on photographs of just their eyes. Those who read literary fiction performed consistently better than those who read nonfiction or popular fiction.
The results are in accordance with what literary criticism has found concerning the two genres. While popular fiction tends to focus on plot development and taking readers on a roller-coaster ride of emotions, literary fiction focuses more on the psychology of complex characters and their relationships.
“What great writers do is turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the mind of others,” said Kidd.
His conclusions echo those of other literary critics who believe that genre fiction such as adventure, romance and thrillers dictate an experience to the reader, while literary fiction prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ intentions, motivations, and introspective dialogues.
According to this study, this psychological awareness can be carried into the real world by enhancing readers’ abilities to understand those who are different from them and to see past prejudices and stereotypes. The results also suggest that by implementing specific reading programs in schools and other places such as prisons, reading might improve social functioning and empathy among young, people, those with social disabilities such as autism, and prison inmates.
In a world where the ability to understand those who are different is increasingly hard to come by, the notion that reading more literary fiction may increase empathy could come at no better time.
– Nayomi Chibana