Does reading fiction increase empathy and social awareness?

This recent study seems to show that reading fiction is strongly correlated with high levels of empathy, social understanding, and awareness. On the other hand, there is no similar connection between social skills and reading nonfiction.

Of course, as the authors point out, it is not clear which way the causation goes. It may well be that highly empathetic people tend to read more fiction, not that reading fiction makes you more empathetic. Personally, I hope that it's the latter effect that dominates; I need to justify my reading habits!

A related question: What about the the correlation between social skills and the ratio of fiction books read relative to nonfiction? For example, I probably read much more fiction than the average person, but I also read far more nonfiction than fiction. Does the ratio of fiction to nonfiction say more about my empathy or lack thereof, or is it the absolute amount of fiction read that is decisive?

Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
My vote is that empathy is required to understand and appreciate fiction. And, so, we have correlation, and not causation. Also required, I believe, is a good imagination.

I look at fiction as a counter to non-fiction, which, by necessity, many of us here have to read for a living. And, so, I don't think that it is likely to be the ratio that is important, but rather, the amount of fiction read that is more important. However, at the low end of the curve, where the people are reading little of either fiction or non-fiction, any conclusions from the study are likely to be inapplicable.
10.23.2006 8:32am
John Armstrong (mail):
No the ratio isn't important. The real effect is based on whether people read at all, rather than living their lives stuck to screens waiting for the next NASCAR crash, stingray attack, or parent getting hit in the gonads by a tee-baller. </misanthropy>

On the other hand, what does the study have to say about people who like reading good fiction, but recognize that most of it these days -- even more than accounted for by Sturgeon's Revelation -- is utterly formulaic worthless drivel?
10.23.2006 9:17am
James Stephenson (mail):
Well I love good fiction. Love it.

Yet my wife tells me all the time I do not have a lot of empathy for people. I say well I have empathy for people who could not help their state of affairs. But I have no empathy for people like her uncle who has a college degree and has not worked in a job for over a decade.

Hell, I do not even have empathy for our current situation. 2002-2003 I went without a job for 4 months. We muddled along balancing bills for 2 years before finally filing bankruptcy last December. We filed a chapter 13 so we are paying everyone back there was no way I could do a chapter 7. After all, it was our fault for not managing our money better.

But I love good fiction, my favorite book is "To kill a Mockingbird". I read that book in high school and read it every couple of years. Does that make me a Democrat, ha, don't bet on it. Of course, when I was younger, 70's and early 80's, seemed to me the southern democrats were all racists.

Anyway, love to read and probably read 500 "utterly formulaic worthless drivel" in my 3 years in the Army. But I am as conservative as they come.
10.23.2006 9:36am
I'd like to devise the experiement to answer this one.

In the meantime, too many questions:

Do other forms of media correlate as well? Are people who watch "Scrubs" or "Desperate Housewives" more empathic than people who watch C-SPAN or base ball (my vices)? If not, why not?

What about people who read lots of fiction, but THINK they're reading non-fiction (Dan Brown, Bob Woodward, anything on the Kennedys, etc.)

And what about those of use who have no empathy for people who watch fictional TV shows?

Finally, does political science count as fiction?

Questions, questions, questions . . .
10.23.2006 10:03am
reneviht (mail) (www):
People with lots of empathy should probably sympathise more with fictional characters by definition. I suspect those without empathy have a harder time caring about hypothetical people.
Likewise, in non-fiction, it's impossible to truly get inside the head of characters who don't actually let you in - in fiction, everyone's an imitation of a human (or some other species) whose thoughts and feelings are manufactured by the author.
I know some people will insist that I'm making it sound worse than it really is, but is it really a good idea to be sympathising with things that don't exist? The extent that the fictional characters' conditions mirror real-life conditions can't consistently exceed the author's grasp of reality, so it seems like time would be better spent meeting genuine humans and sympathising with them.
Of course, that could easily be just me. I can get lost in well-crafted fiction at the drop of a hat, so perhaps people with better time-management and more robust personal lives can do better.
10.23.2006 10:07am
Fiction tends to bore me. I know I have enjoyed good literature in the past, so I'm not sure if I just haven't tried anything good lately or if I've changed or am going through a phase or what. I read a lot of non-fiction (including some biography and memoir written in novel-style, but not much) and watch non-fiction tv (news, etc). I also watch fictional tv and movies as they help me unwind and help me feel more socially connected to the world.

I didn't watch any tv for quite a few years when I was younger and during that time had a higher social anxiety disorder and disconnection from reality. When I rediscovered television it was a breakthrough socially and I was much more able to shake off hard-left conspiracy theory (of course non-fiction was at least as important as fiction for this).
10.23.2006 10:17am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Sounds like one of those "studies" where the studyer set out to prove what he thought. As in studies showing conservatives tend to be big meanies.
10.23.2006 10:27am
Bottomfish (mail):
If fiction readers have more empathy with other people, fiction writers ought to have even more empathy. After all, one would think creating convincing fictional characters would require even more empathy than reading about them. But I don't know if fiction writers as a group show any higher level of social skills or empathy than anyone else. The most admired fiction writers are not always very likable people. (Tolstoy, a tyrannical personality; Proust, a recluse; Joyce, arrogant; etc.) Perhaps creating fictional characters is essentially an intellectual task.
10.23.2006 10:28am
Duncan Frissell (mail):
What about type of fiction?

Are those who read military fiction more empathetic than those who read non-fiction attacks on the religious right theocracy recently imposed on America?

I wonder?
10.23.2006 10:34am
Steve and Eydie Amin (mail):
My wife is much more empathetic than I am .. perhaps that's why she sympathizes much more with characters in unbelievable TV programs like "24" and "West Wing".

She often asks "why would fictional character x say that?" ... whereas I can only think about why a scriptwriter might choose to write a script that way.

One marker of good fiction would seem to be the extent to which you can think of the characters as real people.
10.23.2006 10:36am
Gary McGath (www):
The methodology of the study sounds suspect to me. Since people's statements about how much they read aren't reliable, the study asked people to identify the names of authors on a list. But unless the list was really long, it would be unlikely to be representative of niche authors. Thus, for example, people who read only pre-1950 science fiction and are unaware of current mainstream authors or classics would tend to be classified as non-readers.

Niche readers may also have poorer social skills than mainstream readers (just a guess), and the survey would classify them as non-readers, thus finding a correlation where none exists.
10.23.2006 10:40am
Ceteris parabus, wouldn' readers be less socially aware than non-readers? After all, if your head's buried in a book, how aware can you be?
10.23.2006 11:17am
10.23.2006 11:18am
er, paribus
10.23.2006 11:19am
Duffy Pratt (mail):
The list of authors is : here

Notice that Bob Woodward, Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, and Norman Mailer are all on the non-fiction list.
10.23.2006 12:12pm
Yet my wife tells me all the time I do not have a lot of empathy for people. I say well I have empathy for people who could not help their state of affairs. But I have no empathy for people like her uncle who has a college degree and has not worked in a job for over a decade.
I think you are confusing sympathy for empathy. Empathy is the "emotional intelligence" which allows you to intuitively know what other people are thinking and feeling. When you look at her uncle, who you know well enough to know that there are no extenuating circumstances to his behavior, and you judge him harshly based upon your own values. Empathy is very much about applying your values to other people -- and you are disgusted by the guy precisely because your empathy is (rightly or wrongly) telling you what is going on in his head and you don't like it.

I would think that the causation goes the other way as far as an empathy-fiction link goes. People who lack empathy should find fiction to be odd and confusing. Them not reading fiction is like me not reading quantum mechanics -- it's not very interesting if it's imcomprehensible.
10.23.2006 12:23pm
I'm not sure niche readers would be as much of a problem as you think. They did list authors from several genres (romance, sci-fi, etc.); and respondents were asked not if they had read the authors, but if they had heard of them. I, for one, recognized most of the names in every fiction category except romance, but had only read three or four. The idea, as the authors explain (apparently this method is not new to their study) is that readers of pre-1950 sci-fi will still be more likely to have heard the name Robert Jordan than others, because they'll have seen it while shopping at the bookstore, had it recommended to them by friends, etc.
On the other hand, I think the fact that they use exclusively modern fiction (and non-fiction) might be more of a problem: it seems plausible that someone could read Apuleius and Trollope constantly without ever wandering into the part of the bookstore where Danielle Steele is kept.
10.23.2006 12:40pm
Houston Lawyer:
All the talk about empathy just illuminates what makes fiction good. A writer must develop his characters sufficiently that you care, one way or another, what happens to them. If you get attached to the characters, you will continue reading. If you don't care, you won't.

I'm hoping she won't kill off any of the Weasleys either.
10.23.2006 12:43pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
The late Sydney Harris once remarked that you can learn all there is to know about the human psyche by reading Shakespeare.

Presuming that's true, lesser lights could provide lesser but still valid illumination.

Fiction allows the reader to put us into the mind of the characters, which is in no other way allowed us, unless we're a pshrink who puts sodium pentothal into the coffee.

If the writer is good, and has a reasonable understanding of human nature, this would be like reading somebody else's accumulated experience which would be a useful addition to our own experience.

And, even if we don't understand some characters, the author is introducing us to new and unfamiliar human territory, also a valuable experience.

But, as always, which comes first? Do you read fiction because empathy makes it easy or enjoyable? Or does reading fiction punch up your empathy?
10.23.2006 1:06pm
non-fiction attacks on the religious right theocracy recently imposed on America?

Oy, such "non-fiction" works should definitely be on the Fantasy shelf.
10.23.2006 1:46pm
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
Ah, who even cares about people who read fiction anyway?
10.23.2006 1:52pm
reneviht (mail) (www):
Re cathyf:
People who lack empathy should find fiction to be odd and confusing.
I doubt they would find fiction to be any more odd and confusing than nonfiction accounts of real-life people. They just don't have any interest without empathy, since most fictional characters have no impact on their lives than how they feel about them.

Re Houston Lawyer:
I'm hoping she won't kill off any of the Weasleys either.
Filthy mudbloods. Never figured out why we prefer muggles being herded about like cattle to them being openly oppressed.
10.23.2006 1:56pm
"this would be like reading somebody else's accumulated experience "

You mean like a (non-fiction) memoir?
10.23.2006 1:57pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):

Possibly, but we can't trust the non-fiction memoir to be truthful or complete. The writer of fiction can say whatever he wants, make his character to and be whatever he wants, face whatever situation he wants the character to face.

In real life, the intersection of a particular type and a particular situation may be rare, and the likelihood that person would write a memoir is, of course, vanishingly small.

Fiction is not restricted by such quibbles, and the apparent reality of the insights is the only important thing.
10.23.2006 2:04pm
We can't trust the writer of the memoir to be truthful, but we can trust the fiction writer to be untruthful.

Both are just one person's account of reality in the end. Both provide insights -- as often about the writer as the subject.
10.23.2006 2:06pm
Mace (mail):
Q. Why don't engineers read fiction?

A. 'Cause it's not true
10.23.2006 2:12pm
roy (mail) (www):
It would be interesting to study the empathy levels of Richard Frey's readers before and after his book was outed as fiction.
10.23.2006 2:25pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
From the study: "Great care was taken to ensure that Fiction authors wrote only narrative works, and that Non-fiction authors worked exclusively in a non-narrative domain (e.g., not biography)." Given that the "Fiction" list includes Ursula LeGuin, a volume of whose non-fiction articles and essays is sitting on my shelf, and that the "Non-fiction" list includes novelists Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag, I can't say I think much of the study authors' idea of "great care."

I'd add that the study doesn't indicate how the authors in either category were selected, but from the look of the list I'd hazard a guess that one of the authors went into a bookstore in a college town and picked writers' names from the face-out titles in the relevant sections.
10.23.2006 2:46pm
I love reading books, but hate listening fellow book-lovers discuss how much more awesome than the average person they are because they like books. For that reason, I find much of Crescat Sententia nauseating and would prefer not to see similar tendencies creep into this blog.
10.23.2006 3:29pm
The article says the researchers controlled for various things in the study, but it doesn't say anything about sex. In my experience, women (on average) read more novels than men. Women also tend to do more social duty in the family and in organizations, either because they take to it naturally or because they have taken the time to learn. Furthermore, several people in this discussion have said their wives are more empathetic than they are. (I presume these people are men, unless they are from Massachusetts.)

I bring this up because we have the "B causes A" hypothesis on the table along with the "A causes B" one. But maybe C causes both, although in this case we'd need a C1 (innate sex differences) and a C2 (socialization) to get the full picture.
10.23.2006 4:34pm
The problem that I have with theses like this is my inability to see it in my own life. Which isn't fair to the researchers, since they deal with aggregates, and not individuals.

But without any attempt at irony: I read a lot of Evelyn Waugh. I can't tell how this would increase my sympathy for my fellow man. He could be hugely nasty. (or 'nasty, brutish, and short,' as one wag put it.)

I also love to read Wodehouse. Perhaps this had made me more sypathetic to twits. I'm not sure.
10.23.2006 5:42pm
Hoosier, I like your taste. I do think that Waugh and Wodehouse were on to something about the human condition, namely that it is often absurd. But isn't the absurdity half the fun?

I don't think empathy means you can't enjoy stories about nasty characters, or even stories about twits. The question is whether you see the human element in the nasties and the dingbats. I can usually tell where Waugh and Wodehouse characters are coming from, and I sometimes wonder if I would act the same way in suitably contrived circumstances. I even wish I had the chance to see if I'd make a good Bertie Wooster (but then, who doesn't)?
10.23.2006 6:27pm
Conor (mail):
I spend my day reading plaintiffs' class action securities pleadings. Those count as fiction, right?
10.23.2006 7:39pm
I was amused by this passage in the article to which Ilya Somin links:

Finding out how much people read is always difficult because it's socially desirable for people to report that they read a lot. Mar and colleagues avoided this by asking 94 participants to identify the names of fiction and non-fiction authors embedded in a long list of names that also included non-authors. Prior research has shown this test correlates well with how much people actually read.

If people tend to exaggerate how much they read, then how did the prior research referred to discover how much people actually read? And, if it had discovered it, then why did Mar and his colleagues have to use their "long list" technique?
10.23.2006 9:46pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Hank. That technique would put niche readers at a disadvantage. You could, for example, spend a good deal of time reading all of Dorothy Dunnett's work--there's a lot of it and it's "dense" and colorful. In that time, somebody else could become familiar with half a dozen names.
10.23.2006 10:26pm
DRJ (mail):
FWIW, autistic people like our son (who is intelligent but functionally a 3-4 year old) frequently have difficulty empathizing with others and understanding social cues. They also appear to have problems imagining and fantasizing. Overall, I think the ability to imagine and empathize is crucial to higher learning/performance but is not necessarily related to high intelligence.
10.24.2006 12:07am
Gene Vilensky (mail) (www):
Does this confirm Richard Rorty's work in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity? As someone once put it, his thesis boils down to "Reading makes you nice... and a Democrat."
10.24.2006 5:41pm
Patrick_Brown (mail):
There may well be a psychological basis for a connection between empathy and fiction reading. Lots of very recent work on (a) making a movement, (b) imagining the same movement, and (c) observing someone else make the same movement has suggested that these operations share a neural system. That system uses resources that evolved for movement planning and control. If you consider that work in the context of the embodied cognition theories of psychologists such as Lawrence Barsalou and Raymond Gibbs, you get a picture of how people use their bodily experience as the basis for how they are able to mean things (for example, grasping a cup or other object becomes the basis for the metaphorical meaning "grasping a concept"). Now this system can be extended by using your embodied experience as a model for another human's embodied experience, which then gives you access to the meanings they may think about. Empathy is only a step away, using a related mirror system.

A difference between the normal use of this system (for which it evolved) and reading fiction is that the input is of a different kind - words on a page instead of observed muscle movements. This paper by Marco Tettamanti et al. suggests that action words can activate motor circuits, so the link between fiction, imagining, movement, and meaning, is seen at least in outline. Perhaps this is why we speak of a story being "moving." Speculative, I know, but possibly of interest in the present contex.
10.24.2006 9:37pm