Read a book to become more empathic?

By: Matthew Winslow, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology for EKU Online

Back in 2013 two researchers, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano published an article that received a fair amount of media attention. The title of the article tells you why it received the attention: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. By theory of mind they meant the ability to detect the thoughts and feelings of other people, what many people call empathy. You may have heard some pretty famous and influential people talk about empathy recently, like former President Obama, who said that the most important deficit our country faces is a deficit in empathy. You may see this empathy deficit in today’s news of mass protests, in the vitriolic comments on your Facebook feed, perhaps even around your dinner table. It seems that people have a hard time understanding other people.

With these challenges in mind, the idea that we can improve our empathy is very attractive. Even better, this article seems to suggest that we can improve our empathy just by reading a book! In their study they had some people read a certain type of fiction that they called literary fiction. This is not the type of fiction you pick up at the airport bookstore, but instead complex fiction that wins prestigious literary awards, like the National Book Award. So some of the participants in their study read just a short passage of literary fiction and others read a short passage of nonfiction. Then the participants’ empathy was measured using a well-known measure of empathy called the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. It’s a simple test to describe: participants look at 36 pictures of people cropped so that only eyes of the people in the photo are visible (you can try the test here: http://www.questionwritertracker.com/quiz/61/Z4MK3TKB.html). The participants’ job is to determine what emotion the people in the photos are experiencing (there are always four choices with one right answer). What Kidd and Castano found across a series of similar studies is that people who read the literary fiction performed better on the Eyes test than people who read the nonfiction. Cool, right? We can get better at (one type of) empathy just by reading the right kind of books!

Not so fast, I’m afraid. All the attention in the media that Kidd and Castano got caught the attention of other researchers. A group of researchers decided to replicate Kidd and Castano’s study (that is, they did the same study but this time with many more participants; see the study here: http://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/pspa0000064). Unfortunately this new study found that reading a short passage of literary fiction had no effect on empathy. However, they did find that the amount of lifetime exposure to literary fiction was positively related to empathy. 

So this means that reading literary fiction might be beneficial, but is just might take years of exposure to really experience any benefit. Another important point from these two studies is that we need to be very careful about accepting scientific results. One study might intrigue us, but we are better served by waiting to see if that intriguing result can be verified by other researchers.

Published on February 03, 2017