Reading Twilight Could Improve Your Empathy

Research shows that diving into fiction can help you “feel” more for others.
Reading Twilight Could Improve Your Empathy

We all know the refrain. Public officers should be caring and empathetic in their dealings with people. But often, we don’t personally know the people we serve; we haven’t experienced their individual struggles and life circumstances. Can you ever make yourself “feel” deeply for a stranger?

Apparently you can. By reading fiction.

Psychologists are starting to establish links between fiction and feeling for people. Their research is showing that just reading newspapers and other non-fiction texts isn’t enough – to develop more soul, you have to turn to novels and short stories.

Case in point: a report published this year by Dutch researchers. They recruited 163 university students in two experiments, randomly assigning some to read fictional works while making others read newspaper reports. All were then asked to rate how emotionally engaged they were with their texts, and also their empathy levels before and after the experiments using an empathy scale. Items on the scale include: “Sometimes I don’t feel sorry for other people when they are having problems” and “I am often quite touched by things that I see happen”. The students who were most absorbed in the fictional texts self-reported greater empathy levels, compared with those who read newspaper reports.

But how does fiction boost your empathy levels? Novelist and psychologist Keith Oatley believes that when you’re immersed in a novel, you tend to identify with its characters and “try to connect with something larger than [yourself]”. By doing so, you sharpen your ability to see things from different perspectives and over time, can better “read” the emotional and mental states of others.

But it’s not as simple as hitting up the fiction section of Kinokuniya. The same study by the Dutch researchers showed that the fiction readers who didn’t feel engaged with their texts actually recorded decreased empathy levels over time. Why? if you don’t enjoy a novel, you become disengaged, resulting in the reverse effect.

What that probably means: choose books that you like. Don’t force yourself through the Twilight saga if you detest vampires.

    Jul 16, 2013
    Dai J.Y.
    Yip Siew Fei
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