Fiction and Empathy

An article by Keith Oatley, in Scientific American/Mind, asserts a connection between exposure to fiction and the development of empathy. It’s not a new idea–IIRC, the idea that seeing plays and reading novels has tended to increase empathy throughout entire societies has been asserted by Harold Bloom, among others–but Oatley describes empirical research he’s done to test this assertion.

In one experiment, Oatley and colleagues assessed the reading habits of 94 adults, separating fiction from nonfiction. They also tested the subjects on measures of emotion perception (being able to discern a person’s emotional state from a photo of only the eyes) and social cognition (being able to draw conclusions about the relationships among people based on video clips.) This study showed a “strong” interconnection between fiction reading and social skills, especially between fiction reading and the emotion-perception factor. This correlation, of course, does not by itself demonstrate the direction of causality.

Another study involved assigning 303 adults to read either a short story or an essay from the New Yorker and following up with tests of analytical and social reasoning. Those who read the story tended to do better on the social reasoning test than those who read the nonfiction essay.

Oatley argues that “Good social skills require having a well-developed theory of mind…the ability to take the perspectives of other people, to make mental models of others, and to understand that someone else might have beliefs and intentions that are different from your own.” He says that children start to acquire this ability at about 4 years old, and that “the ability to gauge emotion from pictures of just the eyes correlates with theory-of-mind skills, as does the capacity for empathy.”

In a further attempt to disentangle cause and effect, subjects were given tests designed to measure 5 personality traits: extraversion, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. The researchers also assessed the subjects’ social networks and degree of social isolation/loneliness. People scoring high on “openness to experience” turned out to read slightly more fiction. But when this variable was held constant, there was still “a large and significant relation between the amount of fiction people read and their empathetic and theory-of-mind abilities; it looked as if reading fiction improved social skills, not the other way around.”

Dr Oatley’s website is here, and contains an extensive collection of publications on this and other research, some of them actually available online. (I note with interest that he is himself a novelist.) In this article, he refers to fiction as “the mind’s flight simulator”–a nice analogy. (I do have to note, though, that for all the great benefits of flight simulators in improving aviation safety, there are also cases in which simulation artifacts…non-simulated, poorly-simulated, or mis-simulated aspects of real aircraft performance…can lead to dangerous mis-training of pilot responses to certain situation, and indeed the FAA has recently issued a report raising some concerns on this issue. Might there also be some relevant analogies to fiction in this phenomenon?)

Oatley also cites work attempting to assess the impact of different kinds of media on the empathy effect. In one test involving preschool children, it was found that kids reading more stories or watching more movies had higher empathy, but that the empathy levels were *not* higher among those who watched a lot of television. Oatley: “The reason probably lies in the fact that TV shows explore fewer topics and themes that require adopting a character’s point of view.” I suspect that to the extent this effect is real, it is probably more a consequence of the stories being told, rather than the the experiential characteristics of the media themselves. In particular, I’d guess that both the TV programs and the movies which are engineered to appeal to particular demographics are much less likely to be empathy-promoting than those that are developed via the individual creativity of authors/screenwriters.


5 thoughts on “Fiction and Empathy”

  1. This is an interesting study, but I wonder if an empathy factor is related to the type of fiction or movies that are viewed in relation to environment and education? For instance, I remember crying the first time I saw “King Kong.” the great ape’s death just tore me up. But I was also sensitized to suffering by all the stories about the Holocaust I heard growing up in Brooklyn.

    I’m always suspicious of psych studies because the soul and its measure is, well, beyond science.

  2. A wise suspicion, Robert….I do think such studies can be useful, but should be taken with many grains of salt.

    The basic idea, that fiction can act to help a person learn to put themselves in the place of others, feels right to me, assuming that the fiction is well-constructed from an emotional viewpoint…it would be interesting to compare the empathy quotient of today’s novels/films with those of earlier times.

  3. The idea feels subjectively right to me as well.

    I’m currently reading Brave New World, and in many aspects it is reflective of the pulp science fiction of its day (and no, I don’t mean that as a compliment). However, some of the psychological portraits it paints are surprisingly subtle and multi-layered, in contrast to the book’s general weakness on the topics of technology, futurism, economics, and politics.

    The book works for me as a study of incompatible world views, and how difficult it for most people to put themselves in the shoes of someone with vastly different life experiences. That’s not at all what I expected to get out of it, but it’s consistent with Oatley’s thesis.

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