• Psychologists say reading novels can help develops empathy in people. (Tristar Pictures)
Psychologists say reading novels can encourage empathy in people as it forces readers to relate to the characters on the page and live their lives vicariously.
By
Shami Sivasubramanian

28 Jul 2016 - 1:13 PM  UPDATED 28 Jul 2016 - 1:15 PM

A recent study has given the common anecdote used by librarians and primary school teachers some scientific weight – reading fiction can help develop empathy in individuals.

The study, which was published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, was authored by Professor Emeritus Keith Oatley of the University of Toronto Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development in Canada. 

Prof Oatley claims readers develop empathy by living the lives and feel the emotions of characters on the page thereby experiencing emotions they might not feel in their own day-to-day lives.

"What's distinctive about humans is that we make social arrangements with other people - with friends, with lovers, with children - that aren't pre-programmed by instinct. Fiction can augment and help us understand our social experience," he tells Express UK.

Prof Oatley measured a participant’s degree of empathy by using an approach that has never been used before in a study. The technique is called ‘Mind of the Eyes Test’.

The test involves subjecting a participant to 36 photographs of people’s eye. The participant is told to view the photograph and deduce what the person is feeling or thinking. The participant is given four emotions to choose from for each photograph.

The results revealed participants who read works of narrative fiction received “significantly higher” scores in the Mind of the Eyes test than those who read non-fiction.  The results were even higher when the subject’s personality and base character differences were accounted for.  

And when reading novels about cultures and races different to their own, participants were seen to develop greater empathy towards those cultures and races.

For example, one of the readers read ‘Saffron Dreams’ by Shaila Abdullah, which tells the tale of a Muslim woman living in New York City, scored a higher in empathy and reduced bias when presented with Arab faces.

But the idea of novels increasing cross-cultural empathy isn't new. A study from 2014 found reading Harry Potter reduced racism and prejudice towards minority groups.

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The study also revealed similar “empathy–boosting effects” could be cultivated by playing narrative-driven video games, or watching ‘The West Wing’, a TV drama set in a fictional US Presidential administration.

"What's a piece of fiction, what's a novel, what's short story, what's a play or movie or television series? It's a piece of consciousness being passed from mind to mind,” says Prof Oatley.

"When you're reading or watching a drama, you're taking in a piece of consciousness that you make your own. That seems an exciting idea."

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