Literature Improves Empathy


Have you ever felt that reading a good book makes you better able to connect with your fellow human beings? If so, the results of a new scientific study back you up, but only if your reading material is literary fiction – pulp fiction or non-fiction will not do.

Great Expectations from great literature … empathy occurs in the spaces between characters, such as Joe and Pip, pictured here in the 2012 film adaptation. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex Features

Empathy occurs in the spaces between characters, such as Joe and Pip in Great Expectations, pictured here in the 2012 film adaptation. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex Features

Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, at the New School for Social Research in New York, have proved that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions, a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships.

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Literature Improves Thinking

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little-girl-reading-book

Are you uncomfortable with ambiguity? It’s a common condition, but a highly problematic one. The compulsion to quell that unease can inspire snap judgments, rigid thinking, and bad decision-making.

Fortunately, new research suggests a simple antidote for this affliction: Read more literary fiction.

A trio of University of Toronto scholars, led by psychologist Maja Djikic, report that people who have just read a short story have less need for what psychologists call “cognitive closure.” Compared with peers who have just read an essay, they expressed more comfort with disorder and uncertainty—attitudes that allow for both sophisticated thinking and greater creativity.

“Exposure to literature,” the researchers write in the Creativity Research Journal, “may offer a (way for people) to become more likely to open their minds.”

Djikic and her colleagues describe an experiment featuring 100 University of Toronto students. After arriving at the lab and providing some personal information, the students read either one of eight short stories or one of eight essays. The fictional stories were by authors including Wallace Stegner, Jean Stafford, and Paul Bowles; the non-fiction essays were by equally illustrious writers such as George Bernard Shaw and Stephen Jay Gould.

Afterwards, each participant filled out a survey measuring their emotional need for certainty and stability. They expressed their agreement or disagreement with such statements as “I don’t like situations that are uncertain” and “I dislike questions that can be answered in many different ways.” Continue reading