[Found via] The British Pschiatric Society Research Digest reports that reading novels is linked with increased empathy:
The more fiction a person reads, the more empathy they have and the better they perform on tests of social understanding and awareness. By contrast, reading more non-fiction, fact-based books shows the opposite association.A study entitled Bookworms Versus Nerds, Exposure to Fiction versus Non-fiction, Divergent Associations with Social Ability, and the Simulation of Fictional Social Worlds: was carried out by Raymond Mar and colleagues at the University of Toronto (and - oh miraculous internet which maketh the impossible possible in the blink of an eye - can be read in full here!!). The BPS article goes on:
Finding out how much people read is always difficult because it’s socially desirable for people to report that they read a lot. Mar and colleagues avoided this by asking 94 participants to identify the names of fiction and non-fiction authors embedded in a long list of names that also included non-authors. Prior research has shown this test correlates well with how much people actually read. Among the authors listed were Matt Ridley, Naomi Wolf (non-fiction), Toni Morrison and PD James (fiction).It's always nice to know that something you love is actually good for you, and you don't have to make excuses for indulging in it excessively.
The more authors of fiction that a participant recognised, the higher they tended to score on measures of social awareness and tests of empathy – for example being able to recognise a person’s emotions from a picture showing their eyes only, or being able to take another person’s perspective. Recognising more non-fiction authors showed the opposite association.
The researchers surmised that reading fiction could improve people’s social awareness via at least two routes – by exposing them to concrete social knowledge concerning the way people behave, and by allowing them to practise inferring people’s intentions and monitoring people’s relationships. Non-fiction readers, by contrast, “fail to simulate such experiences, and may accrue a social deficit in social skills as a result of removing themselves from the actual social world”.
Next time someone accuses you of wasting time reading a novel, you can snap back at them "Actually, I'm sharpening my social skills," and hand them the study to prove it!
Suzanne Keyes book Empathy and the Novel, is due out in 2007 and tackles the same area of research. Okay, I'm proving my nerdishness and my ability (long supressed) to disappear down academic rabbit-holes ... but I'm fascinated by this interface between psychology and literature.
(Pic nicked from here.)