Getting into a character's head: The role of reading fiction vs. non-fiction in empathy


Why does one read? Research in the psychology of fiction suggests that one function could be to encounter complex social situations and scenarios under relatively-speaking safe conditions. That is, one reads because it affords opportunities to practice how one might behave by simulating the appropriateness of actions and responding to how characters behave in a work of fiction. Thus, the fundamental character of reading might be social or moral and not entertainment: ‘How do I feel about a character’s betrayal?’ leads to ‘How ought I to behave in the world?’ Reading may be a species of moral education. Previous research suggests that there may, indeed, be a relation exposure to print literature (i.e., recognition of authors’ names) and at least one measure of empathy. Participants completed various personality measures and empathy questionnaires to investigate the hypothesis that exposure to fiction (but not non-fiction, for example) is related to psychological measures of empathy. Results indicate that exposure to fiction is positively related to empathy, especially measures which have been characterized as ‘affective’ empathy.

Psychonomic Society