In addition to strengthening the bonds of friendship your monthly book club could also be helping you increase your stores of empathy ― as long as the group focuses on works of fiction.
In a recent review summarizing all the research to date on the relationship between fiction and empathy, cognitive psychology researcher Keith Oatley of the University of Toronto makes the case that our ability to read and appreciate fictional narrative can break down prejudices that separate us from other communities and may even be partly responsible for the rise of individual human rights around the world.
“[Fiction] enables something rather lovely to occur,” said Oatley, who himself is a novelist and has studied the intersection between fiction and empathy for 20 years. “We can understand people who are rather different from us.”
And of course, this is all in addition to just the general benefits of reading in general, which give the reader a better vocabulary and a firmer grasp on facts and information compared to people who don’t read at all.
Tell that to your book club friends the next time someone wants to postpone a meeting!
Here are four things we learned from Oatley’s summary of the research, published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, on how fictional narrative positively affects the way we relate to each other.
1. People who read and watch fiction may be less biased.
Fiction can communicate more complex and nuanced ideas about other people’s emotional states than a similar factual description, as demonstrated in a study conducted by researcher Frank Hakemulder of Utrecht University, published in 2000. He divided students into two groups: The control group read a nonfiction essay about Algerian women, who despite their underprivileged status in Algerian society, didn’t necessarily feel submissive or resigned. The second group read a fictional story about an Algerian woman communicating the same idea.
Hakemulder found that only the fictional story was successful in changing students’ ideas about the “position of women in fundamentalist cultures” ― namely, that Algerian women were not resigned to their fate or their status in society.
Another study found that kids who were exposed to the Harry Potter series were able to increase their levels of empathy toward stigmatized groups like immigrants, refugees, and gay people compared to pre-Harry Potter exposure. This was especially true for those who identified with Harry Potter, a character who was friends with both “mudbloods” (a derogatory term for a wizard with no magical family) and “muggles” (people with no magical ability), and dis-identified with Voldemort, the villain who favored pure-blooded wizards.
2. Fiction may be partly responsible for the rise of universal human rights.
Other scholars argue that the rise of fiction helped contribute to the rise of human rights. In her 2007 book Inventing Human Rights: A History, researcher Lynn Hunt argues that our understanding that other people have universal, equal rights is a relatively recent phenomenon. It’s sparked partly from people learning how to read, and reading fiction that helped them imagine and identify with the emotions and desires of people in oppressed groups, she writes.
“The history of human rights is a very recent thing, and is extremely profound,” Oatley said of Hunt’s work. “She says part of the reason for that is reading fiction.”
3. People who read and watch fiction might be more empathetic.
Researchers who want to measure a person’s emotional intelligence can use a tool called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” to test how sensitive a participant is to perceiving others’ emotions. Participants view photos of only a person’s eyes, and then have to choose between four different words to describe how that person is feeling. The test measures both empathy and Theory of Mind, which is the understanding that other people have thoughts, perspectives and desires that may be different from one’s own.
Several studies show that reading fictional narratives is linked both correlatively and experimentally to higher scores on the Mind in the Eyes test, Oatley writes. For instance, research shows that reading storybooks to young children or having them watch movies was linked to an improvement their Theory of Mind scores, while watching TV wasn’t.
Experiments on adults show that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances Theory of Mind ― empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence ― while popular fiction or nonfiction doesn’t at all. Now, while the line between pop fiction and literary fiction might be fuzzy for some, Oatley describes literary fiction as driven by the deep, complex inner lives of characters, while characters in popular fiction are less intricate and mainly drive the plot forward.
4. It’s not just readers who benefit. Even TV watchers and gamers benefit from fictional narratives.
If William Shakespeare or Jane Austen were alive today, they may not be writing plays and novels, Oatley said. Instead, they could be writing TV shows or video games ― the predominant ways people consume fictional narratives in 2016.
Research shows that these mediums may also improve empathy, suggesting that it’s the fictional narrative ― not reading as an act ― that helps people’s moral imaginations grow. A 2015 study that randomly divided participants to watch either an award-winning TV drama (choices included “Mad Men,” “West Wing” and “The Good Wife”) or a TV documentary found that those who viewed the TV drama scored significantly higher on the Mind in the Eyes test than those who watched documentaries.
The same was true for participants who played a video game about a student who returns from a year abroad to find her family missing. Participants who were asked to focus on the narrative of the game performed better on the Mind in the Eyes test than participants who were asked to focus on the game’s technical properties.
“These are sort of the evolutions of fiction, and it’s interesting that these would have some of these same effects,” Oatley said about the findings.
“Although I think reading is good, this isn’t a sort of pitch that people should read more,” he concluded ― despite the fact that he’s been part of a book club for 25 years. “It’s fictional narrative that explores character, and the inwardness of character, that’s important.”
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