Literature and Empathy

Jerry Coyne has a post on a study published in Science about how reading literary fiction makes people more empathetic.  (He uses the word empathic, which looks to be the same thing, but the WordPress spellchecker objects to it.) Here is the New York Times writeup of the study, which uses empathetic.

[The study] found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.

Coyne finds the study unconvincing, as does Steven Pinker in a tweet. The significance levels aren’t all that high, and the empathy level is measured immediately after reading — there is nothing to suggest that the effect, if real, is permanent.  And one of the tests of empathy used — where you look at pictures of people and guess what emotions they are expressing — seems really unlikely to be affected by the kind of prose you just read.

The study offers the kind of results that English teachers and writers and fiction lovers will like.  Which provides plenty of reason to treat it with a bit of suspicion — it’s easy to be convinced by studies that prove what you already are sure is true.

But in any case, does it matter?  I suppose I’d like to be able to tell my kids that they should read good fiction because it will improve their emotional intelligence or social perception or whatever.  But even if it does no such thing, they ought to read good fiction because it will make their lives better.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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