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Keith Oatley, Ph.D.

Keith Oatley Ph.D.


Empathy and Fiction

Empathy from reading a story prompts helping another person.

Much of what we know about reading fiction predicts that it will move people towards empathy. But what happens when this idea is tested in psychological studies?

In a recent post (click here), I discussed the nature of empathy and its relationship to reading. Prompted by a theory that Raymond Mar and I published in 2008 in which we argued that empathy is increased by reading fiction, Dan Johnson (2012), of Washington and Lee University, conducted two studies in which he confirmed this theory, and made an important addition.

Johnson wrote a short story especially for his study. It took about 15 minutes to read. It was designed to induce compassionate feelings for the story's characters, and to model prosocial behavior. The participants were run in the study one person at a time. Each person read the story, and their mood and degree of transportation into the story world were measured. After the reading and test procedures, in full sight of the participant, the experimenter dropped six pens, and recorded whether the participant helped to pick them up.

In his first experiment using this procedure, Johnson found that the empathy induced by reading his story prompted the participants to help the experimenter pick up the dropped pens. The more they were transported into the story, the greater was their likelihood of helping to pick up the pens. The effect was partly mediated by the emotional change induced by reading. In a second experiment with 31 participants, Johnson repeated the study but, before he dropped the pens, he asked participants to judge the fearfulness depicted in set of photographs of faces. The more empathy participants experienced, the more biased were their perceptions towards seeing the faces as fearful. In turn, this bias, successfully predicted that they would help pick up the pens.

An article on effects of reading fiction is in the November/December issue of Scientific American Mind (Oatley, 2011). I wish I'd had Johnson's study available when I wrote this article, because it is based not on correlational effects, as our studies have been, but on an experiment. Reading does prompt empathy, which in turn can translate into helping another person.

Dan Johnson (2012). Transportation into a story increases empathy, prosocial behavior, and perceptual bias toward fearful expressions. Personality and Individual Differences, On-line pre-publication.

Keith Oatley (2011). In the minds of others. Scientific American Mind, 22(6), 62-67.

Raymond Mar & Keith Oatley (2008). The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 173-192.

Image: Empathy, from Scientific American Mind, 2011, 22 (6), p. 67.


About the Author

Keith Oatley, Ph.D.

Keith Oatley is professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, researcher on the psychology of fiction, and author of three novels.