Reading can’t fix the world’s problems, but it could help make it a more empathetic place
A growing body of research has found that people who read fiction tend to better understand and share in the feelings of others — even those who are different from themselves. That’s because literary fiction is essentially an exploration of the human experience, say psychologists.
Psychologists have found that empathy is innate, as even babies show it. And while some people are naturally more empathetic than others, most people become more-so with age.
Beyond that, some research indicates that if you’re motivated to become more empathetic, you probably can. Although there are many ways to cultivate empathy, they largely involve practicing positive social behaviours, like getting to know others, putting yourself in their shoes and challenging one’s own biases.
Stories — fictional ones in particular — have the capacity to transport you into another character’s mind, allowing you to see and feel what they do. This can expose us to life circumstances that are very different from our own. Through fiction, we can experience the world as another gender, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, profession or age. Words on a page can introduce us to what it’s like to lose a child, be swept up in a war, be born into poverty, or leave home and immigrate to a new country. And taken together, this can influence how we relate to others in the real world.
The researchers also noted that works of literary fiction tend to place greater emphasis on character development, for example, Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. On the other hand, genre fiction — novels of Danielle Steele or John Grisham that stick to more consistent themes that tend to reinforce readers’ views rather than challenge them.
A 2014 study showed that schoolchildren in Italy and the United Kingdom became more empathic toward immigrants and refugees after reading Harry Potter. Another research team found that people who read Saffron Dreams — a fictional account of a Muslim woman of Middle Eastern descent in New York who was the victim of racist attacks — showed less negative bias toward people of different races.
As long as there are powerful stories about people and their circumstances, there’s the potential they can resonate and leave a lasting impression.