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Reading Fiction Makes You More Empathetic IRL. Because Science!

"the swedish book corner" by Alexandru Ilie2012 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Fiction is my fav. I’ll take it in any of its forms: Comic, video game, book, TV show, movie, podcast…Just whisk me away to another world, introduce me to compelling characters, put them in a predicament, and let me spectate.

However new studies are proving that we are not merely spectating. We are actively participating and as a result learning not just new words or the resolution of popular stories for conversational fodder around the water cooler, but how to empathize with people in real life.

I’ll introduce you to the concepts through two published studies.

Literary versus Readerly Fiction

In their study Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind (available in full for free after a very short registration process if you’re interested), David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano present interesting findings built around three key phrases and their definitions:

  1. Theory of Mind – “The capacity to identify and understand others’ subjective states…allow[ing] successful navigation of complex social relationships and help[ing] to support the empathic responses that maintain them.”
  2. Literary (or sometimes Writerly) Fiction – Texts that engage readers as writers in that they (readers) are left to their own devices/voice to “fill in the gaps” of the texts with their own meanings drawn from and interpretations related to the characters and/or situations contained within the narrative.
  3. Readerly Fiction – Fiction that “tends to portray the world and characters as internally consistent and predictable.”

To pull a direct quote from the study: “The worlds of fiction…present opportunities to consider the experiences of others without facing the potentially threatening consequences of that engagement.” In other words – It is 100% safe and 100% consequence-free practice!

Another really cool element in Kidd and Castano’s research method was the inclusion of an Author Recognition Test which isn’t clearly defined within the text of the study itself but is probably exactly what it sounds like. The report states that the test was used to assess “participants’ familiarity with fiction” (their exposure and engagement with other fictional texts). And higher results on the Author Recognition Test (the more fictional texts read) accurately predicted higher scores on the empathy measuring tests utilized in the study.

Or, in the absence of shoes, hairy Hobbit feet.
Or, in the absence of shoes, hairy Hobbit feet.

As noted by Will S. over at TheLiterarySite.Com, “By engaging with a story, readers are temporarily placing themselves in a character’s shoes.  Therefore the more stories you read, the more shoes you’ve tried on.”

Or as William Styron wrote, “A great book should leave you with many experiences…You live several lives while reading.”

Kidd and Castano’s findings call for readers to favor literary fiction as opposed to popular or readerly fiction. Although both categories are only loosely defined and you can’t exactly search for books that qualify for either at Amazon, the quality to keep an eye out for is room for interpretation on behalf of the reader.  Another study (in full here) suggests that the Harry Potter series serves as an exemplar of the literary typology and comes with its own set of scientifically substantiated real life benefits:  The reduction of prejudices.

The Trick: Transportation

While reading Kidd and Castano’s research, you’ll come across the term “transportation.”  It goes undefined within their pages, but it is not included as some odd qualifier; as if whether the participant came in on a bike or in a car had any bearing on the results.

To grasp the significance of transportation, you should read P. Matthijs and Martjin Veltkamp’s How Does Reading Fiction Influence Empathy?  An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation.  

They define transportation as “a convergent process, where all mental systems and capacities become focused on events occurring in the narrative” at the exclusion of all else.  Elsewhere in the study they suggest that “to become engaged in a fictional story, a reader suppresses the notion of the fictionality of the story and the characters to experience the emotions of the characters.”  It is full on buy-in and immersion.

The researchers state that “a reader has to become fully transported into the story to change as a consequence of reading, to become more empathic.”  They further state that failure to transport fully actually leads to lower empathy overtime!


The right work of fiction can actually have a big effect on your real life, turning an individual activity into one that provides positive, measurable benefits to your ability to relate to and understand others.

This phenomena is still relatively under-researched (Bal and Veltkamp even conclude their study with suggestions for further research and refinement), but it resonates as true within the hearts of avid fiction readers. We can recall books that changed us, whose narratives and/or characters impacted us in positive ways. Improved us, some might say.

Which books/characters/stories did that for you? Tell us in the comments below!

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