Yesterday was National Book Lovers Day, and the Washington Post observed it with an article headlined The best reason for reading? Book lovers live longer, scientists say.
But might the right books offer another benefit, too—the fostering of empathy?
It isn’t such a bad trait for people to develop in an era when a book-slighting presidential candidate jokes about a political protestor being “carried out on a stretcher.”
This is or should be more than a professor-vs.-professor debate. Some schools have cut back on the amount of fiction that students are reading, with more emphasis on nonfiction. Mistake? At the same time, we hear about fans of Harry Potter being less likely to favor Donald Trump. Genuine cause-effect? Could reading novels with complex characters promote empathy and other good traits, perhaps the best form of Trump-proofing?
Benefits, not just mere correlation
Granted, empathetic people and gentle anti-authoritarians are more likely to enjoy Potter in the first place, given that J. K. Rowling is pro-empathy, -tolerance and -diversity and anti-violence. But I also see cause-effect when it comes to good lit—whether popular or not—and empathy.
Not everyone feels quite that way. Prof. Gregory Currie, head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of York, has pooh-poohed research saying that appropriate fiction fosters empathy. “It would be surprising—as well as very disappointing—if fiction never made anyone a better person in some way. We can be pretty confident that some sorts of fiction (violent pornography, for example) are sometimes bad for some people. Human tendencies toward imitation strongly suggest this. Where I suspect this field of research is heading is to discover that some fictions are good for some people in some circumstances. Finding the which, who and what will take some time.”
Um, maybe, but I’d still bet on cause-effect. Keith Oatley, not just an Anglo-Canadian novelist but also a cognitive psychology expert at the University of Toronto, is author of Fiction: Simulation of Social Worlds, a paper Currie has questioned. Oatley writes: “Although the relation between lifetime reading and theory-of-mind is a correlational one, direct causal effects have been found in experiments. In one experiment, participants assigned to read fictional stories scored better on the Mind in the Eyes Test [link added] than did those assigned to read nonfictional essays. The effect was confirmed independently in another experiment in which, compared with nonfiction, the reading of fiction was found to improve social understanding but not understanding of the physical world. In other experiments people who were given literary stories to read did better on several visual tests of empathy than did people given popular stories. Self-reported empathy was also improved by an assignment to read a literary short story compared with an assignment to read a literary essay.”
Check out one of Oatley’s citations, Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of the New School of Social Research. In plain English, theory of mind or ToM is a collection of abilities associated with empathetic people and less likely to be present in Trump-style trogs with disabilities such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“Our contention is that literary fiction, which we consider to be both writerly and polyphonic, uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences,” write Kidd and Castano. “Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration. The worlds of fiction, though, pose fewer risks than the real world, and they present opportunities to consider the experiences of others without facing the potentially threatening consequences of that engagement. More critically, whereas many of our mundane social experiences may be scripted by convention and informed by stereotypes, those presented in literary fiction often disrupt our expectations. Readers of literary fiction must draw on more flexible interpretive resources to infer the feelings and thoughts of characters. That is, they must engage ToM processes. Contrary to literary fiction, popular fiction, which is more readerly, tends to portray the world and characters as internally consistent and predictable. Therefore, it may reaffirm readers’ expectations and so not promote ToM…
“The results of five experiments support our hypothesis that reading literary fiction enhances ToM. Existing explanations focused on the content of fiction cannot account for these results. First, the texts we used varied widely in subject matter. Second, it is unlikely that people learned much more about others by reading any of the short texts. Third, the effects were specific to literary fiction. We propose that by prompting readers to take an active writerly role to form representations of characters’ subjective states, literary fiction recruits ToM. The evidence we report here is consistent with this view, but we see these findings as preliminary and much research is needed.” If nothing else, we need to look beyond the snapshots of the effects of lit-reading on subjects in various experiments. How about the long-term? Even if the snapshots are just that, mere snapshots, could the cumulative effects of exposure to good lit be what counts in the end?
Empathy and public policy debates
In fact, at least one real-life example shows the ability of the right literature to promote empathy and other desirable traits. The work of an organization called Changing Lives through Literature is already out there. And it is endlessly relevant to public policy debates, involving libraries among other institutions. Making The K-12 and economic cases for a national digital library endowment, I cited Changing Lives when I called for more funding not only for books but also for librarians to help people discover and understand good ones:
More empathetic people are less likely to commit or repeat crimes. In a study published in The Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, researchers C. Roger Jarjoura and Susan Krumholz said only 19 percent of participants in a Changing Lives Through Literature program were reconvicted compared to 45 percent in the control group. Who’s to say the results would be as dramatic on a mass scale? But even a tiny reduction in incarceration rates would save billions of dollars. The best time to reach the people at risk, of course, would be through school and public libraries before they committed their possible offenses. Here is one more argument for the digital endowment—to expand the number of library books easily available everywhere, and help local libraries encourage absorption of the literary and other empathy-promoting titles, including new ones of special interest to the growing percentage of Americans who are members of minorities.
Related bonuses of increased empathy would be fewer racial and ethnic hate crimes and more understanding in general, as well a reduction of the economic costs of discrimination. Imagine if the equivalent of Changing Lives Through Literature had been part of the education of both Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, the white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, who shot the young African-American, thereby provoking a major round of racial incidents, aggravated by the police killing of a 12-year old in Cleveland who was playing with his pellet gun. A chillingly apropos study appeared recently in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The researchers concluded that police are more likely to see black children as older, more prone to violence, and deserving of harsher treatment than whites the same age. Perhaps some preemptive CLTL-style bibliotherapy for all police officers on the beat, not just video-cams carried on the job, should become part of the American law enforcement scene in response to the Ferguson and Cleveland outrages.
Related: Reading good fiction DOES build empathy, even if one study hasn’t held up. The challenged study is the Kidd-Castano one.