Reading fiction has often been claimed to broaden the mind.
Now scientists have found that enjoying a novel really does help us to understand other people’s points of view, a study suggests.
It seems the age-old tradition of story-telling has an important role in helping us to develop empathy. Keith Oatley, Professor Emeritus at Toronto University in Canada, has conducted experiments on the effects of reading fiction.
He outlined his findings and a review of other studies in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences. One study conducted by Prof Oatley’s group asked participants to look at 36 photographs of people’s eyes and guess what the pictured individuals were thinking or feeling. Points were awarded for correct answers, chosen from four descriptive terms.
Reading narrative fiction before the test produced significantly higher scores than reading works of non-fiction. The association remained significant even after adjusting for personality traits and other differences between those taking part.
Similar empathy-boosting effects were evident in studies of people watching the fictional TV drama The West Wing, or playing the video game Gone Home, which has a narrative storyline.
He said that they involved ‘engagement with characters we can think about’. And he added: ‘The most important characteristic of being human is that our lives are social.’
Prof Oatley said: ‘Almost all human cultures create stories that, until now, have been rather dismissively called “entertainment”. I think there is also something more important going on.’
He said that by exploring the inner lives of characters on the page, readers can form ideas about others’ emotions, motives and ideas off the page.
Prof Oatley said further studies have shown that narratives can even generate empathy for a race or culture that is dissimilar to one’s own.
In one study, readers of the fictional story Saffron Dreams by Shaila Abdullah –which focuses on the experience of a Muslim woman in New York – were found to have a reduced bias in the perception of Arab faces.