October 23, 2006

Does Reading Literature Give You More Empathy?

The British Psychological Society reports the results of a new study on the effects of reading literature:
The more fiction a person reads, the more empathy they have and the better they perform on tests of social understanding and awareness. By contrast, reading more non-fiction, fact-based books shows the opposite association. That’s according to Raymond Mar and colleagues who say their finding could have implications for educating children and adults about understanding others.

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. Among the authors listed were Matt Ridley, Naomi Wolf (non-fiction), Toni Morrison and PD James (fiction).

The more authors of fiction that a participant recognised, the higher they tended to score on measures of social awareness and tests of empathy – for example being able to recognise a person’s emotions from a picture showing their eyes only, or being able to take another person’s perspective. Recognising more non-fiction authors showed the opposite association.

The researchers surmised that reading fiction could improve people’s social awareness via at least two routes – by exposing them to concrete social knowledge concerning the way people behave, and by allowing them to practise inferring people’s intentions and monitoring people’s relationships. Non-fiction readers, by contrast, “fail to simulate such experiences, and may accrue a social deficit in social skills as a result of removing themselves from the actual social world”.

However, a weakness of the study is that the direction of causation has not been established – it might simply be that more empathic people prefer reading novels.

The study is by R.A. Mar, K. Oatley, J. Hirsh, J. dela Paz, & J.B. Peterson, Bookworms Versus Nerds: Exposure to Fiction Versus Non-fiction, Divergent Associations with Social Ability, and the Simulation of Fictional Social Worlds, 40 Journal of Research in Personality 694-712 (2006). It is available here, but for a fee.

Hat tip: Ilya Somin.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, this is the kind of bullshit social science that says absolutely nothing about the significance of its finding, beyond the mere non-existant finding. Not because the experiment failed - indeed it succeeded - but because it's devised in a way that could produce some (flimsy) data, but no knowledge. Of course people who tend to be emphatic tend to read more novels!! And the opposite direction is "of course" true too... the "researchers'" surmise is simply arbitrary. This is, for lack of a more emphatic word, very silly.

"Thou shall not commit a social sciene" - Auden