Literature And Empathy: We Need Both Of Them

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Reduced levels of empathy are becoming increasingly common. To examine the reasons of such reduced levels of empathy in people and to find the link between literature and empathy, researchers analysed data from a variety of empathy assessments from 1979 through 2009.


Overall performance dropped dramatically by 48%, according to the researchers. This drop predates the current decade by a significant margin. If it happened, we could expect a steeper decline.

Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s perspective and to suspend judgement. We might not have progressed very far as a species without it. In such case, what steps can you take to develop greater compassion? The solution is easier to implement than you may have thought: just consume more works of fiction.

If more individuals read literary books, will the world improve?

Of course, to claim that reading literature can solve all of the world’s problems is, at best, foolish. If anything, it has the potential to make the world a kinder and gentler place. Moreover, a growing body of evidence demonstrates that readers of fiction are more likely to empathise with the experiences of others, especially those who are different from themselves.

This is because of the simple reason that literary fiction is, at heart, an investigation of the human experience.

By expanding our horizons through fiction, we can better comprehend the motivations and actions of those different from ourselves. When we read, we get a taste of a far broader spectrum of possible people and can learn something about the differences amongst them.

Literature and empathy: How reading one leads to the other?

Experts in psychology have concluded that empathy is hardwired because it may be seen in infants. Although some people are born with a greater capacity for empathy than others, most people develop these skills as they get older. More than that, though, studies show that it’s possible to increase your level of empathy with effort. Although there are numerous strategies for developing empathy, the most effective ones involve engaging in constructive social activities including expanding one’s social circle, trying to understand others’ perspectives, and questioning one’s own preconceptions. And stories, particularly fictional ones, provide still another exit from one’s own head.

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Reading fiction allows us to experience the world through the eyes and emotions of different characters. This has the potential to open our eyes to perspectives and experiences outside of our own. Fiction allows us to step into the shoes of another person, whether they are of a different sex, race, culture, sexual orientation, occupation, or age.

Losing a child, being caught up in a conflict, being born into poverty, or having to leave your home and immigrate to a new nation are all experiences that can be brought to life for us through the fiction. As a whole, this can affect the way we interact with others in the real world.

Fiction and stories benefit us in many ways. They expose us to unsettling concepts and provide us the chance to consider other people’s viewpoints from a safe distance. In this way, reading fiction gives readers a place to practise their empathic abilities.

How literature and empathy are inter-linked?

Keith Oatley, a novelist and a professor at the University of Toronto presented a study in 2006 that found a significant correlation between reading fiction and doing better on popular measures of empathy and social intelligence. The amount of fiction each participant read was determined by their score on a test of author recognition. Subsequently, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, which measures many facets of empathy, was filled out by the participants.

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The “Mind of the Eyes” test, which measured participants’ capacity to recognise and comprehend visual clues of other people’s thoughts and feelings, was also given to participants. Participants in this experiment matched emotional words to images of people’s eyes. The researchers discovered that participants performed better on empathy tests the more writers of fiction they were familiar with and had probably read.

Since then, there has been growing interest in the psychological study of how works of fiction can teach us about empathy. It has been established that reading, in and of itself, can effect positive personal growth. It’s not that sympathetic people like fiction or that there are any defining characteristics of fiction readers that make them more empathetic. In spite of these caveats, the belief that fiction reading improves interpersonal understanding remains.

Some research has shown that literature have a more profound impact on readers than any other kind of book. In one study, participants were randomly allocated to read either literary fiction, genre fiction, non-fiction, or nothing at all (the study was published in Science in 2013). After that, participants’ “Theory of Mind” test scores were analysed to see if they had improved. Understanding that other people have thoughts and feelings, which may be different from our own, is what the theory of mind refers to.

The results of the empathy tests improved highest for those who had been assigned to read literary fiction. Scores did not improve for those who were randomly allocated to read non-fiction, popular genre fiction, or nothing at all.

Literature and Empathy

Studies that explicitly examined people’s views toward members of stigmatised groups have produced some of the strongest evidence for the impact of fiction on empathy. For instance, a 2014 study found that reading Harry Potter increased pupils’ empathy for immigrants, refugees, and gay and lesbian persons in elementary school and high school in Italy and the United Kingdom.

According to their findings, “the world of Harry Potter is defined by strong social hierarchies and resultant prejudices, with obvious parallels to contemporary culture.” In the series, for example, there is prejudice against those without magical abilities.

Another research group discovered the same year that readers of Saffron Dreams, a work of fiction about a Muslim woman of Middle Eastern heritage who experienced racist attacks in New York, displayed less prejudice against persons of various races or ethnicities. Participants who merely read the book’s description or a nonfiction work, however, did not exhibit a similar change in viewpoint.

From diverse stories, different people require different things. Additionally, memoirs, biographies, and some historical non-fiction works shouldn’t be completely discounted. The potential exists for them to resonate and make a lasting effect as long as there are compelling stories about people and their circumstances. Additionally, watching a tale develop on screen might have a comparable impact on empathy as reading a book.

We are in world where empathy is declining

Empathy can be compared to glue that keeps communities together. If not for it, we might not have progressed very far as a species. Our forebears relied on acts of kindness to ensure their own existence, including the provision of food, medicine, and safety from harm. Having compassion for one another will continue to be crucial if we want to make progress. However, empathy may seem to be on unstable ground at the present time.

According to a 2010 meta-analysis conducted by Konrath, students’ levels of empathy as measured by established scales fell between the 1970s and the 2000s. During this time, people showed 48% less “empathic concern,” or compassion for the plights of others. There was also a 34% decrease in people’s “perspective taking,” or their capacity to put themselves in the shoes of another person.

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Many people hold the current generation of parents responsible for the problems facing today’s youth, citing their overemphasis on individual success and pride as examples of bad parenting. Some worry that in their pursuit of success, people are willing to sacrifice empathy in favour of these trends. Similarly, the proliferation of online social networks has led to a decline in real-life friendships.

Perhaps the situation is not as severe as it seems, though. Sometimes the reports of the extent to which people are changing in recent generations and the effects of negative developments like these are exaggerated. There appears to be a growing moral panic that today’s youth are becoming increasingly uncaring and self-absorbed.

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