How Books Make Us More Empathetic (Research Part 1)

So, when I started my unit on empathy, what I expected to find out was “reading fiction makes people more empathetic” point blank period. And because nothing I think is simple is ever actually simple, I’m going to need a whole two blog posts to cover the complexity of empathy. Horray! You all get to listen to me nerd out even more. In short, there are lots of factors that people have studied with empathy and fiction, and some conflicting results about under what conditions exactly fiction makes people more empathetic. The specific factor I’m going to be talking about in this post is transportability. 


Once again, I am first going to go over terminology. Different studies define empathy in different ways, and some even break it up into “cognitive” and “affective components. The cognitive portion refers to a person’s ability to gauge what is going on in another person’s mind, or understanding the world from their point of view. Affective empathy, on the other hand, is feeling the emotions of another person. “Transportability” refers to how much the reader feels, for lack of a better word, transported mentally/emotionally into the narrative. 


In a study done by Dan Johnson, emotional transportation was examined. Participants were given a fictional story specifically written for the experiment, and then separate questionnaires to gauge empathy and transportation. He found that people who were more transported into the story had more affective empathy for characters. Additionally, they were more likely to be prosocial, and offer aid to a researcher in picking up pens that were spilled on the ground. Another study done by Bal and Veltkamp found similar results, and additionally found that when participants did not feel transported their levels of empathy decreased.


However, another study found that even after controlling for transportation into the text, people who read more fiction in general had higher levels of empathy. Participants in this study were given the ART (author recognition task) to gauge their exposure to fiction, the Mind in the Eye task to measure empathy, and questionnaires to measure transportation and personality. Contrary to the previous studies, these results would mean that transportation is not necessary for fiction to have a positive effect on promoting empathy. Although, there are a few notable differences. This design did not involve giving participants a story to directly measure its effects, but rather surveyed people on their existing exposure to fiction. 


One final study may provide an answer for these seemingly conflicting results. Researchers in this study compared both cognitive empathy and affective components of empathy. Participants read the story “Motholeli’s Story” from the nook Morality for Beautiful Girls, and were given several pre and post questionnaires. The questionnaires measures prior exposure to fiction, trait empathy (baseline measure for empathy), story-induced transportation, story-induced affective empathy, story-induced cognitive empathy, and helping tendencies. Their results supported that people who read lots of fiction are likely to have high levels of cognitive empathy and that high transportation into a fictional story produced higher levels of affective empathy. Therefore, evidence suggests that reading fiction does increase empathy, but perhaps increases one aspect of empathy (affective) as a function of transportation, and one aspect (cognitive) over time.

Next post I will focus on other factors of fiction that could influence empathy, such as genre and point of view of the narrative. I hope you guys enjoyed this! As usual, please leave any questions, comments or suggestions down below.

Happy Reading!

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29 thoughts on “How Books Make Us More Empathetic (Research Part 1)

  1. This is so thorough and so riveting! I love that you took the time to hammer out the important terms and make distinctions––I learned about a concept I didn’t even know existed, and that’s the best thing to get from a blog post!

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  2. This is an interesting blog series! I’ve read these studies before and think they’re very fascinating. I personally think reading does make one more empathetic. I also find that reading human interest new stories help me a lot! My day job is working as a UX Designer so empathy has a huge role in our field. It’s really important to be able to transport yourself into the user’s mind in order to better design for their needs! It’s so fascinating!

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  3. This is so interesting. I’m curious about the interactive effects of the different factors you mentioned. Does the amount of prior exposure affect level and type of empathy? For instance, a new fiction reader who has read a whole bunch of books or a lifelong reader who has read a whole bunch of books over many years. Does that have any affect or is it just reading a ton of books that matter?

    I love this series. You have my brain working. I look forward to the next one.

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  4. Absolutely love this! I had no idea research on this topic was even a thing but I find it so interesting! I do think reading makes a person more empathetic and I can’t wait to see what else affects empathy.

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  5. Interesting! I can see how transportability would have a potential effect on how a story might impact empathy levels. When people say, “I just couldn’t get into it” or “I just couldn’t relate,” they usually don’t show much empathy for whatever perspective was expressed in a book. It also makes sense that reading more fiction in general would help, though. The more times you expose yourself to different characters, the more opportunities we have to “click” with a perspective that doesn’t closely match our own.

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