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.

Empathy, Good Writing, and Mitt Romney

Beyond basic writing skill, the quality fiction writers need most is empathy.  You need to get deep inside the characters you write about and understand what makes them the way they are. This doesn’t mean that all your characters need to be sympathetic.  You can have villains–but villains without interesting, understandable motivations belong in comic books.

And of course the goal is to make your readers understand what you understand, feel what you feel. Here‘s the novelist Jane Smiley recently in the New York Times:

Reading fiction is and always was practice in empathy — learning to see the world through often quite alien perspectives, learning to understand how other people’s points of view reflect their experiences.

(I can’t really keep up with Jane Smiley’s output, but I can really recommend Moo and A Thousand Acres. Ten Days in the Hills, not so much.)

As a writer, I have thought a lot about politicians in my time, and it seems clear to me that a successful politician also needs to be empathetic.  Or, at least, he (or she) has to be really good at faking empathy.  This is somewhat tricky at the presidential level, where the candidates tend to be wealthy, accomplished, and far removed, at least in their personal lives, from the problems that confront everyday voters.  But of course presidential candidates are also supposed to be pretty good politicians.

Mitt Romney’s speech to campaign donors is shocking because it is such clear proof that he is utterly lacking in empathy for ordinary, struggling people. Here is Ezra Klein:

The problem is that he doesn’t seem to realize how difficult it is to focus on college when you’re also working full time, how much planning it takes to reliably commute to work without a car, or the agonizing choices faced by families in which both parents work and a child falls ill. The working poor haven’t abdicated responsibility for their lives. They’re drowning in it.

Way before this latest incident, The New Yorker commented on Romney’s empathy problem:

But it’s getting harder to escape the conclusion that there’s a pattern to Romney’s behavior, that he has a real problem understanding and caring for those with whom he can’t easily identify. As Amy Davidson writes, “This story [of bullying a gay kid] is resonant because one can, all too easily, see Romney walking away even now, or simply failing to connect, to grasp hurt.” That may or may not be a fair conclusion—we are none of us mind readers—but given what we know about him, it’s certainly a reasonable one.

The additional problem that Romney faces is that he’s such a bad politician that he can’t even convincingly fake the empathy when not talking to his rich donors.  And we (most of us, anyway) are so easy to deceive–especially if we want to be deceived!   President Reagan was known at the Great Communicator, but recall the essay by Oliver Sacks in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, recounted here:

In the mid-eighties, Sacks studied the reaction of people with aphasia as they watched a televised speech by the actor-turned-president. Despite being unable to grasp the skillful politician’s words, the patients were convulsed with laughter by his bogus expressions. As Dr. Sacks explains,

“One cannot lie to an aphasic. He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps, he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, that total spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all too easily.”

“It was the grimaces, the histrionics, the false gestures and, above all, the false tones and cadences of the voice which rang false for these wordless but immensely sensitive patients. It was to these (for them) most glaring, even grotesque, incongruities and improprieties that my aphasic patients responded, undeceived and undeceivable by words.

This is why they laughed at the President’s speech.”

Conversely, Sacks remarked on a woman with tonal agnosia who was also watching the address, but sat in stony-faced appraisal. Emily D., a former English teacher and poet, could have no organic emotional reaction to the speech but was able to judge it from a neural vantage point. Emily summed Reagan up thusly:

“He does not speak good prose. His word-use is improper. Either he is brain-damaged or he has something to conceal.”

Tell me about it! Sacks goes on to explain the implications regarding soothsayers and politicians:

“We normals, aided, doubtless, by our wish to be fooled, were indeed well and truly fooled. And so cunningly was deceptive word-use combined with deceptive tone, that only the brain-damaged remained intact, undeceived.”

I’d be interested in seeing the reactions of aphasics to a Mitt Romney speech.