How Books Make Us More Empathetic (Research Part 2)

So if you didn’t see the first post about empathy, now may be a good time to read it here. Or not, I can’t tell you what to do. This post however is going to cover how narrative point of view and different genres may impact how fiction has the potential to increase empathy.

There are several different perspectives taken by researchers on how genre plays into empathy and fiction. One study found that only literary fiction had the power to increase empathy, not nonfiction or more popular fiction. However, another found that only romance novels were associated with improved aspects of empathy. A third study disputed this, asserting that there was no difference in effectivity of genres except for individuals with the high personality trait of openness (see here for more information on the big fie personality traits).

An explanation for these results could be that it does not matter what genre is read, but rather depends on how the reader interacts with the text. For readers who have similar levels of imaginative interaction with the story regardless of genre. these differences may not be present. Therefore, further research needs to be conducted in order to really know for sure if genre impacts the improvement of empathy through fiction.

Next up we look at point of view. A 2016 study was conducted where participants read the first chapter of a book called Hunger with a first person versus third person narrator. Researchers concluded that when results were broken up by age group, first person narration produced more perspective-taking for the main character in older participants, but not for children. This is consistent with previous findings that a first person narrative is more effective than a third person narrative at promoting experience taking, and is consistent with developmental research about perspective taking skills. This suggests that, at least in older populations, point of view could influence empathy gained through fiction. However, this is another area which needs more thorough research in the future.

So, while this week’s findings were not quite as concrete as in the past weeks, I do think it is interesting to see where research needs to be filled in in the future. I hope this post got you guys thinking as well! For my last post, I will be focusing on the harm that stereotypical characters in various forms of media cause. As always, leave any comments or questions below.

Happy reading!

Reading Literary Fiction: More Empathy, but at What Possible Cost?
Difficult Empathy The Effect of Narrative Perspective on Readers’ Engagement with a First-Person Narrator

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11 thoughts on “How Books Make Us More Empathetic (Research Part 2)

  1. Great post! This has really got me thinking about my reading experience and I think I agree that it depends less on genre and more on how I interact with the text and how much I’m transported into whatever piece of work I’m reading. I can’t wait for your last post and to read more about this topic!


    1. I’ve been thinking a lot about POV now too. It really is interesting. Especially since I know people often prefer to read 3rd person POV. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that 3rd person could be more empathetically engaging? So many questions!


  2. That’s interesting with the one study finding that children didn’t show as much of an increase in perspective-taking as adult readers with first person narratives. Do you happen to know what age range the children were in? I’m wondering if that effect might have anything to do with the kinds of texts the reader is familiar with. It seems, just based on a cursory glance of my local library’s shelves, like picture books and beginning chapter books are more likely to be third person while first person has become more common in middle grade and YA fiction.


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