Reading fiction builds empathy

By Reeva Askar

Although in school we often read to gain knowledge, critical thinking, or just facts to pass a test, reading fiction helps us with so much more. It can also make us more empathetic. According to Harvard Business Review (HBR), research states that picking up a fictional book rather than a nonfiction book will give many more benefits including self-awareness, problem solving and empathy. 

Empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

Reading fiction helps increase your sensitivity to social situations and also helps you gain a better understanding of other people’s motives and experiences. It helps you to perceive others’ emotions, understand emotions, and just manage your own emotions better.

In some of the most cited research on this topic, done by The New School in New York City, social psychologists Emanuele Castano and David Kidd conducted studies where participants were assigned general fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction or no reading at all. After reading, they were tested on their ability to understand the thoughts and emotions of others. Those who read literary fiction scored higher than any of the other participants.

Works with characters who go through internal conflict are more likely to make us do a little more work as readers to empathize, therefore building out skills. This doesn’t just have to be fancy works of literature in a textbook though.

“The Baby-Sitters Club” by Ann M. Martin, for example, increases your empathy as you work through their personal issues throughout the series. This series of novels and later graphic novels is about a group of teenage girls starting a club for babysitting to help out and make money.

In the process of the girls starting this club, each girl has some personal problems going on such as parents divorcing, not feeling close to family, feeling judged. The situations they experience throughout the books are very real situations that happen to many teens in today’s world, such as having problems with parents, friends, within themselves, etc.

This book shows how each girl solves and learns from their problems. Teaching teens today how to deal with their personal relationship problems, learning from what they experience in the book.  

This empathy happens because fiction is actually an exploration of the human experience, according to Keith Oatley, a novelist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. 

Some current research, in neuroscience, argues that reading a fiction book helps people with building up their empathy, theory of mind, and critical thinking according to HBR. 

When reading fiction, you feel like you are in the character’s head, not just a reader. This allows you to get the true feelings of the characters, maybe relating to real-life experiences. 

“Reading novels enables us to become better at actually understanding other people and what they’re up to,” Oatley said in the HBR article.

Although if you decide to read an informational text it will, of course, help with containing knowledge, it won’t help with your emotional intelligence as they are more focused on facts.

There are nonfiction books that impact us as much as fiction, however. For example, “Night” by Elie Weisel, is a nonfiction book about a holocaust survivor. Wiesel made this book to inform others of what actually happened during this time. However, the way he explains his experiences, which is in first person, makes the reader live through his eyes. This causes the reader to have the experience as well, rather than the book just telling you about the holocaust. 

Weisel expresses his emotions in the first person, so when reading the book it feels like you have become him. Making you experience the things he experienced.