Reading Literary Fiction Builds Empathy

Reading Literary Fiction Builds Empathy

Information Resources

By Evelyn Cunico, MA, MS/LIS
Posted July 17, 2017

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is a complex term that includes the ability to recognize the emotions of other persons and then to respond emotionally to those persons. Empathy includes sympathy and concern for others.

Why is Empathy Important?

Developing empathy as a behavioral skill is important, because empathic behavior creates positive and helpful ways of thinking and acting. Persons who have developed their empathic skills find practical approaches to promote social acceptance and friendship, which are central to a healthy lifestyle.

Empathy helps people to develop a broader range of action skills, leading them to consider more alternatives in finding solutions for complex problems.

Study of empathy is important because people who are highly empathic are more prosocial, which is associated, for example, in the workplace, with creativity, higher performance, and productivity, according to a Public Library of Science 2013 article by researchers P. Matthias Bal and Martin Veltkamp.

What is Literary Fiction?

Literary Fiction refers to narratives, that is, stories, that focus on in-depth portrayals of characters’ inner feelings and thoughts. In Literary Fiction, the characters teach values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding other persons’ beliefs.

Literary Fiction is different from Popular Fiction, which portrays unrealistic situations with characters whose actions are predictable. Literary Fiction is also different from Nonfiction, which is literature that is not fictional, such as, scientific literature.

How Does Reading Literary Fiction Build Empathy?

Readers who are emotionally “transported” into the fictional story are imaginatively experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and actions of the fictional characters.

When readers identify with a fictional character in a story, they may develop a feeling of sympathy for the character. While reading, the readers are, in effect, “practicing” being empathic.

As readers take the perspective of a character by experiencing fictional events as though they are events happening to themselves, readers are integrating empathy into their own self-concept.

The readers accumulate their ability to take the perspective of others, and, so, to feel empathy for others in their everyday lives, according to Bal and Veltkamp.

How Can You Select Literary Fiction that Helps to Increase Empathy?

Generally, librarians at the Reader Services Desk of your local public library can help you to select Literary Fiction for both adults and youth.

Many of today’s public libraries also offer reading programs and book discussion groups, which offer in-person gatherings where you can share insights, discuss various opinions, and, in turn, enhance your own empathic listening skills.

Selected Information Resources

Bal, P.M., Veltkamp, M. How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation. PLoS One. 2013;8(1): e55341. Published online 2013 Jan 30.
Summary Note: Two experiments show that when people read Literary Fiction narratives, and they are emotionally transported into the narrative world, they become more empathic over time, according to a study conducted at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Study includes extensive footnotes and references.
(Accessed 07 July 2017. From abstract, link to Free Full Text via PubMed Central or PLoS One, Public Library of Science)

Chiaet, J. Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy. Scientific American. October 04, 2013.
Summary Note: Chiaet discusses the study, titled, Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, published in the journal Science [see Kidd, D.C., Castano, E., in this list of Selected Information Resources]. Chiaet writes that Emanuele Castano, a social psychologist, and David Kidd, a PhD candidate, The New School, New York City, suggest that the types of books that persons read may affect how the readers relate to other persons.
(Accessed 14 July 2017)

Kidd, D.C., Castano, E. Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science. 2013 October 18;342(6156):377-80.
Summary Note: Theory of Mind is the human capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires that may differ from one’s own. This study provides experimental evidence that reading passages of Literary Fiction, as opposed to Popular Fiction or Nonfiction, enhances the reader’s performance on theory of mind tasks.
(Abstract accessed 14 July 2017)

Mar, R.A., Oatley, K., Djikic, M., Mullin, J. Emotion and Narrative Fiction: Interactive Influences Before, During, and After Reading. Cognition and Emotion. 2011. August;25(5):818-33.
Summary Note: Provides snapshot of what is known about the interaction between emotions of readers and Literary Narrative Fiction, before, during, and after reading.
(Abstract accessed 14 July 2017. Full Text available from Taylor & Francis Online by subscription or purchase)

Sasse, Ben. The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017. Hardcover book.
Summary Note: Author discusses economic, social, and technological reasons for why adolescence has become what the author calls, “perpetual.” Book outlines five character-building habits to strengthen self-reliance and the desire and ability to help others. As a way to develop awareness of others’ emotions and intentions, Chapter 8, titled, “Build a Bookshelf,” suggests reading American novels that trace personal journeys. Includes Bibliography.