Is Less Reading Fiction Making Us Less Empathetic?

Stephenie-Meyer-fans-007The Guardian discusses research on the powerful link between empathy and reading fiction — a novel is a singular experience in terms of being immersed in the interior life of another person, forcing us to undergo events through the protagonist’s eyes and placing us amongst their thoughts. Studies have pointed to a stunting of empathy in young adults over the past few decades — could one reason be the decline of reading of novels for pleasure?

Burying your head in a novel isn’t just a way to escape the world: psychologists are increasingly finding that reading can affect our personalities.

Researchers from the University at Buffalo gave 140 undergraduates passages from either Meyer’s Twilight or JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to read. The study’s authors, Dr. Shira Gabriel and Ariana Young, then applied what they dubbed the Twilight/Harry Potter Narrative Collective Assimilation Scale, which saw the students asked questions designed to measure their identification with the worlds they had been reading about.

Published by the journal Psychological Science, the study found that participants who read the Harry Potter chapters self-identified as wizards, whereas participants who read the Twilight chapter self-identified as vampires. And “belonging” to these fictional communities actually provided the same mood and life satisfaction people get from affiliations with real-life groups.

The psychology of fiction is a small but growing area of research, according to Keith Oatley, a professor in the department of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto and a published novelist himself, who details the latest findings in the area in his online magazine, OnFiction.

One of his own studies, carried out in 2008, gave 166 participants either the Chekhov short story, The Lady with the Little Dog, or a version of the story rewritten in documentary form. The subjects’ personality traits and emotions were assessed before and after reading, with those who were given the Chekhov story in its unadulterated form found to have gone through greater changes in personality – empathizing with the characters and thus becoming a little more like them.

“I think the reason fiction but not non-fiction has the effect of improving empathy is because fiction is primarily about selves interacting with other selves in the social world,” said Oatley. “The subject matter of fiction is constantly about why she did this, or if that’s the case what should he do now, and so on. With fiction we enter into a world in which this way of thinking predominates. We can think about it in terms of the psychological concept of expertise. If I read fiction, this kind of social thinking is what I get better at. If I read genetics or astronomy, I get more expert at genetics or astronomy. In fiction, also, we are able to understand characters’ actions from their interior point of view, by entering into their situations and minds, rather than the more exterior view of them that we usually have. And it turns out that psychologically there is a big difference between these two points of view. We usually take the exterior view of others, but that’s too limited.”

The findings could, Oatley believes, have significant implications, particularly in a climate where arts funding is under threat. “It is the first empirical finding, so far as I know, to show a clear psychological effect of reading fiction,” he said. “It’s a result that shows that reading fiction improves understanding of others, and this has a very basic importance in society, not just in the general way making the world a better place by improving interpersonal understanding, but in specific areas such as politics, business, and education. In an era when high-school and university subjects are evaluated economically, our results do have economic implications.”

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  • jasonpaulhayes

    Great argument for listing all religious texts as Fiction. Look at the Conservative and Tea-Bagger movements in America and you can see what happens when science fiction is labeled fact … empathy fades fast.

    Can you say “4th Reich”?  http://www.popeorhitler.com

    • Anarchy Pony

      Well, that might be a bit different, the bible doesn’t read like a fiction novel in which you see it through the eyes of and read the thoughts and emotions of a primary protagonist. It’s more like a very long series of proclamations. 

      Also, this whole problem with people becoming unable to empathize comes from a number of vectors, The corporatocracy(which is today nearly all pervasive) which encourages complete disconnection from other people and the natural world in the name of exploitation and the extraction of profit(thanks again capitalism), as well as the disintegration of just about any form of natural social groupings and relations, brought to us by that old chestnut of a concept of rugged individualism. Many people aren’t being taught to identify as members of a community, in which you care for others and they care for you, they are being taught to think that they stand on their own among a sea of others that think the same way. There is little social, communal or even neighborhood cohesion left, particularly in the United States where this concept of rugged individualism is pushed very hard thanks to the rising prominence of right libertarian philosophy and corporate culture. In short, fuck The Man. He wants you to fight your fellow people so you don’t fight him and his fucking power structure.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Katie-Grace/599781493 Katie Grace

        FUCK YEAH!

    • Anarchy Pony

      In regard to that link, Is it ever not Hitler?

  • http://twitter.com/jasonpaulhayes jasonpaulhayes

    Great argument for listing all religious texts as Fiction. Look at the Conservative and Tea-Bagger movements in America and you can see what happens when science fiction is labeled fact … empathy fades fast.

    Can you say “4th Reich”?  http://www.popeorhitler.com

  • Tuna Ghost

    Nice headline, asshole

    • justagirl

      i am now liking it more now.

  • Tuna Ghost

    Nice headline, asshole

  • Wanooski

    Well, that might be a bit different, the bible doesn’t read like a fiction novel in which you see it through the eyes of and read the thoughts and emotions of a primary protagonist. It’s more like a very long series of proclamations. 

    Also, this whole problem with people becoming unable to empathize comes from a number of vectors, The corporatocracy(which is today nearly all pervasive) which encourages complete disconnection from other people and the natural world in the name of exploitation and the extraction of profit(thanks again capitalism), as well as the disintegration of just about any form of natural social groupings and relations, brought to us by that old chestnut of a concept of rugged individualism. Many people aren’t being taught to identify as members of a community, in which you care for others and they care for you, they are being taught to think that they stand on their own among a sea of others that think the same way. There is little social, communal or even neighborhood cohesion left, particularly in the United States where this concept of rugged individualism is pushed very hard thanks to the rising prominence of right libertarian philosophy and corporate culture. In short, fuck The Man. He wants you to fight your fellow people so you don’t fight him and his fucking power structure.

  • Hadrian999

    TLDR will be the end of us

    • Anarchy Pony

      It certainly won’t help.

  • Hadrian999

    TLDR will be the end of us

  • Wanooski

    It certainly won’t help.

  • justagirl

    i am now liking it more now.

  • Wanooski

    In regard to that link, Is it ever not Hitler?

  • http://strictlyapathy.comoj.com/ SoulArbiter

    I don’t know about this, but Twilight makes me hate.

    • Hadrian999

      I would love to set Lucien LaCroix loose in twilight to wreak havoc

      • E.B. Wolf

        …or Blade.

        • Hadrian999

          LaCroix would do it with more panache

      • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

        Omfg…did you just reference Forever Knight???

        • Hadrian999

          hell yeah im an old school nerd

          • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

            Then its safe for me to like the hell outta that comment :-) FN was the shit back in the day…one bright spot in the darkness of this new century is the availability of backdated media products from yesteryear.

          • Hadrian999

            i have seasons 1 and 2, need 3

  • http://strictlyapathy.comoj.com SoulArbiter

    I don’t know about this, but Twilight makes me hate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Katie-Grace/599781493 Katie Grace

    FUCK YEAH!

  • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

    > Is Less Reading Fiction Making Us Less Empathetic?

    No, but it is definitely f-in’ with headline writers ability to use English grammar correctly.
    Everyone knows the headline should read:
    Empathetic Less Fiction Reading Making Us?

  • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

    > Is Less Reading Fiction Making Us Less Empathetic?

    No, but it is definitely f-in’ with headline writers ability to use English grammar correctly.
    Everyone knows the headline should read:
    Empathetic Less Fiction Reading Making Us?

  • BuzzCoastin

    > Is Less Reading Fiction Making Us Less Empathetic?

    No, but it is definitely f-in’ with headline writers ability to use English grammar correctly.
    Everyone knows the headline should read:
    Empathetic Less Fiction Reading Making Us?

  • JAH

    How the F*CK are you a writer with that kind of grammar? Not to mention only a WHOLE paragraph of this was your original writing. Yuck, disgusted, blocking this site forever.

  • JAH

    How the F*CK are you a writer with that kind of grammar? Not to mention only a WHOLE paragraph of this was your original writing. Yuck, disgusted, blocking this site forever.

  • Hadrian999

    I would love to set Lucien LaCroix loose in twilight to wreak havoc

  • Hadrian999

    I would love to set Lucien LaCroix loose in twilight to wreak havoc

  • E.B. Wolf

    …or Blade.

  • Hadrian999

    LaCroix would do it with more panache

  • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

    Omfg…did you just reference Forever Knight???

  • Hadrian999

    hell yeah im an old school nerd

  • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

    Then its safe for me to like the hell outta that comment :-) FN was the shit back in the day…one bright spot in the darkness of this new century is the availability of backdated media products from yesteryear.

  • Hadrian999

    i have seasons 1 and 2, need 3

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