Reading fiction makes you a better person, research shows

Helps people imagine themselves in others' shoes

It could be time to retire the myth that bookworms are "social misfits," Susan Pinker writes for the Wall Street Journal.

Research shows that fiction—particularly literary fiction—can foster empathy in its readers.

For instance, Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar, psychologists at the University of Toronto, in a 2006 study gave participants author recognition tests to assess how much fiction their subjects had read, and then studied their levels of empathy. "The more fiction people read, the better they empathized," Oatley said, noting that reading nonfiction was not associated with the same effect.

In 2009, Oatley and Mar's team reproduced the study with 252 adults, to whom they issued objective tests of empathy. The tests, which the researchers called the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test," determined that exposure to fiction over a long period of time can influence a reader's ability to empathize with real-world people. 

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In addition to its connection with empathy, the researchers also found that fiction correlates to rich social networks among readers.

In 2013, research conducted by Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd of the New School for Social Research dug deeper into this phenomenon, pinpointing the type of fiction that results in the greatest ability to understand others' emotions.

The research found that the type of fiction that most affects empathy is literary fiction, since it requires readers to constantly make guesses about character motivations.

As Oatley noted, "If you're enclosed in the bubble of your own life, can you imagine the lives of others?" (Pinker, Wall Street Journal, 11/11).

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