For lovers of fiction, reading is often an escape. It’s a chance to get outside of our own heads and move into someone else’s personal experience. We don’t just follow Scarlett O’Hara as she takes down her drapes to create a new dress and the façade of wealth, we identify with her pride and feel her determination in the pits of our stomachs. We empathize with her character.
The empathetic leap
That heightened emotional connection moves beyond the page and into our real lives, according to social scientists at the New School in New York City. People who read literary fiction before a test to identify emotions in other people’s faces did better than subjects who read non-fiction or popular fiction, the researchers stated in a study published in the scientific journal Science.
David Comer Kidd, who did the research, said this was likely because people reading literary fiction had to fill in gaps about the emotional content of characters in the stories.
Theory of Mind
Fiction is an exercise in what psychologists call Theory of Mind. This is our ability to understand other people’s emotions and reasoning and realize that they are different from our own. When we read fiction we understand what the characters know, how they are feeling at various points in the story, and what about their experiences are causing them to feel that way.
“When you tell people to pay attention to other people’s subjective experiences, they do better at identifying emotions in other people,” Kidd said. Fiction is a shortcut to getting people to pay attention.
Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes
Empathy is another way to think about Theory of Mind, but instead of just identifying emotions in others, we also feel a little bit of that emotion or a related one.
Although one might think we use Theory of Mind constantly in our daily interactions, Kidd said that many of our social experiences are basically scripted by manners and social norms. We don’t need to recruit our knowledge of other people’s emotions to buy a jug of milk at the store, for example, or respond to most professional email.
But in some circumstances it’s very important to consider what other people are thinking and feeling, especially when making decisions about morality and our deep personal relationships.
“Theory of Mind plays a big role when we’re trying to decide if an action is going to hurt someone else’s feelings or if we’re trying to figure out why someone has hurt our feelings,” Kidd said. “Was that person trying to be a jerk, or was something else going on with them?”
Fiction increases emotional intelligence
Literary fiction probably increases people’s capacity for understanding what other people are thinking because there are gaps both in the story’s narrative and in the characters' emotional lives compared to non-fiction or some popular fiction, which is more explicit in laying out characters emotional life. You have to work harder to fill in those gaps yourself.
Story lines force us to be active in our empathy
Kidd and his colleagues are working to home in on the specific qualities of a story, play or film that forces us to use our Theory of Mind and boosts our empathetic capabilities.
“It seems like what really matters is an active versus passive approach,” Kidd said.
Other research has shown that people who read fiction feel more socially connected and have larger social support systems than those who don’t, challenging the idea of the lonely bookworm. Increased empathy may be a cognitive and emotional link between fiction and social interactions.
But, Kidd cautions, this does not mean that people who don’t read literary fiction have little empathy or are interpersonally deficient. Rather, that reading fiction can nudge one’s empathetic capability to be more active.
So the next time you find yourself in a tricky interpersonal situation, it might be worth thinking through the point of view of others as if they were characters in your favorite novel before deciding on a course of action.
What would Elizabeth Bennet do?
Meredith Knight is a freelance science writer based in Austin, Texas.