Most people who I spend lots of time with are readers. We tend to gravitate toward each other, I suppose, drawn together in part by a mutual love of books. But I also encounter quite a few people who wonder what’s the point of all this reading, especially if it’s fiction. “Do you really want to write/read a book full of lies?” one might ask. Or another may say, “Why bother reading stories? It’s just escapism.”
We all need a bit of escape from reality now and then, and I’d say fiction is one of the healthiest ways to do that. And, as many writers have pointed out, these books full of “lies” are actually one of the most effective vehicles for truth-telling. Those are both excellent reasons to read and write stories, but for today’s post I want to focus on another reason that numerous studies have been looking at since 2013. Reading fiction can actually make you a better person.
Theory of Mind and Fiction
Back in 2013, a study in the journal Science by David Kidd and Emmanuele Castano suggested that reading “literary” short stories immediately improved participants’ scores on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET). This test asks people to look at photographs of actors’ eyes and select one of four states of mind the picture conveys. It’s designed to measure “theory of mind,” which is the ability to attribute mental states to yourself and to others, as well as recognize others have distinct beliefs, desires, intentions, etc. from your own.
The media tends to embellish their reports on scientific studies, so it’s no surprise many popular news outlets said this study proved fiction can increase your empathy. That’s not exactly what the study measured, though, and a subsequent study in 2016 failed to replicate the original’s results. The new study did, however, find that “People who were lifelong readers of fiction … had significantly higher scores on the RMET.”
This finding doesn’t necessarily mean that reading fiction improves your theory of mind. To quote one of the researches, Thalia Goldstein, “A lifetime of reading might make people better at imagining other people’s thoughts and emotions, or those who are more in tune with other people’s states of minds might be drawn to reading fiction in the first place. Or, a completely unrelated variable might explain the correlation” (quotes from “Reading Literature Won’t Give You Superpowers” by Joseph Frankel). There’s always the possibility that people who are naturally more empathic simply like to read more, and not that reading increases empathy.
Reading Makes You Nicer
The story doesn’t end there, however. A more recent article written by Claudia Hammond and published by BBC in June 2019 discusses a number of other studies examining the question, “Does Reading Fiction Make Us Better People?” Looking into the data from these studies, we find that “People who read novels appear to be better than average at reading other people’s emotions.” In addition, people who read fiction and were “transported by the story” tended to behave more altruistically. Not only that, short-term studies show that participants’ empathy levels rose immediately after reading fiction and stayed higher for as long as a week later.
Supporting the argument presented in the BBC article, a “meta-analysis” led by University of Rochester psychologist David Dodell-Fede reviewed 14 studies on the relationship between reading fiction and empathy. They concluded that reading fiction produced a “small, statistically significant improvement in social-cognitive performance” (quoted from “New Study: Reading Fiction Really Will Make You Nicer and More Empathetic” by Jessica Stillman). Apparently reading fiction really does make it easier for you to understand other people.
Connection Through Storytelling
As Hammond’s BBC article points out, fiction isn’t alone in showing us people that we could empathize with. News stories, for example, do that as well. However, it’s fiction that lets us get inside another person’s mind and see things through the lens of the character’s inner world. Because it’s fiction, we’re often more willing to suspend our disbelief that might make us question a real person’s story and hold us back from identifying with non-fiction as closely. Fiction teaches us how to work-out what people are thinking and feeling by getting us caught-up in the story. It’s like a simulator for understanding real people.
Fiction’s ability to connect us with other people and how they think is not limited by time, distance, ethnicity, or language (at least to a certain extent). Thanks to modern printing technology, internet databases of classic literature, libraries, and translations we can read fiction penned by writers across the world, across ideologies, and across the years.
The Hate U Give by by Angie Thomas gave me a different perspective on police violence and the black community, and I honestly think everyone in the U.S. should read it.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro prompted me to think about aging, identity, and introspection from the perspective of someone much older than me, of a different gender, and from a different continent.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë helped teach me to look past a person’s outer appearance, occupation, and even personality to their heart, as well as how to evaluate your deeply-held beliefs and respectfully stand up for them even when it hurts.
I could go on and on about books that have shaped my life and/or taught me how to think but I’ll stop there for now. I’d rather hear about the books that changed your life or your way of thinking. Maybe we’ll all find something to add to our reading lists that will help turn us into better people 🙂
Which books have had the most impact on your life? Share in the comments!
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