I recently read an article in Scientific American and would like to share its findings. In 2013, social psychologists at the
School in New York City performed a study on literature
and empathy. The study was also mentioned in one of the craft talks this summer
at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference.
Study participants were divided into one of three groups. Each group read excerpts of either literary fiction, commercial fiction, such as a book by Danielle Steele, or serious nonfiction. Participants were then asked to describe their emotional states and look at photos of people to describe how the people in the photos were feeling.
What do you think the outcome was? Think about it for a minute.
Participants who read literary fiction tested markedly better on empathy and understanding; the test results for the two other groups were unimpressive. The author of the article summarizes: “Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships; the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. . . to teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.”
Yet today, I’m afraid the emphasis in our world is moving toward nonfiction and “practical” reading. Are we a society focusing on activities that get results versus spending time on idle pursuits such as reading serious fiction? Happily, the above study and more like it have challenged some of these barriers. To share two more statistics: last year, the Pew Research Center reported nearly one quarter of Americans did not read a book in 2013. On a better note, the National Endowment of the Arts reported over half of Americans read books for pleasure in 2012 (I prefer the latter!).
So does this mean I have to shelve my weekly New Yorker since I’m months behind anyway? Absolutely not! I find their nonfiction quite enlightening and moving. From now on, perhaps I’ll just first turn to fiction! And I wonder: does writing fiction help us to be more empathetic? I believe so. I can’t describe exactly how, but writing my novel for nearly ten years and immersing myself into my characters’ struggles have made me more in tune with the stories I hear in my work as a physical therapist. So, please read on!
Writing Prompt: Share a favorite novel or two. After reading, did you experience a change in your thinking? What characters stayed with you?