Does reading fiction make us better people? (2023)

Psychology

Does reading fiction make us better people?

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Does reading fiction make us better people? (1)

By Claudia Hammond3rd June 2019

Reading fiction has been said to increase people’s empathy and compassion. But does the research really bear that out?

(Video) How Fiction Makes Us Better People

Every day more than 1.8 million books are sold in the US and another half a million books are sold in the UK. Despite all the other easy distractions available to us today, there’s no doubt that many people still love reading. Books can teach us plenty about the world, of course, as well as improving our vocabularies and writing skills. But can fiction also make us better people?

The claims for fiction are great. It’s been credited with everything from an increase in volunteering and charitable giving to the tendency to vote – and even with the gradual decrease in violence over the centuries.

Characters hook us into stories. Aristotle said that when we watch a tragedy two emotions predominate: pity (for the character) and fear (for yourself). Without necessarily even noticing, we imagine what it’s like to be them and compare their reactions to situations with how we responded in the past, or imagine we might in the future.

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This exercise in perspective-taking is like a training course in understanding others. The Canadian cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley calls fiction “the mind’s flight simulator”. Just as pilots can practise flying without leaving the ground, people who read fiction may improve their social skills each time they open a novel. In his research, he has found that as we begin to identify with the characters, we start to consider their goals and desires instead of our own. When they are in danger, our hearts start to race. We might even gasp. But we read with luxury of knowing that none of this is happening to us. We don’t wet ourselves with terror or jump out of windows to escape.

Does reading fiction make us better people? (2)

Fiction has been called "the mind’s flight simulator" (Credit: Getty Images)

Having said that, some of the neural mechanisms the brain uses to make sense of narratives in stories do share similarities with those used in real-life situations. If we read the word “kick”, for example, areas of the brain related to physically kicking are activated. If we read that a character pulled a light cord, activity increases in the region of the brain associated with grasping.

To follow a plot, we need to know who knows what, how they feel about it and what each character believes others might be thinking. This requires the skill known as “theory of mind”. When people read about a character’s thoughts, areas of the brain associated with theory of mind are activated.

(Video) Why Reading Fiction Will Change The Way You Think
Does reading fiction make us better people? (3)

When people read about a character’s thoughts, areas of the brain associated with theory of mind are activated (Credit: Getty Images)

With all this practise in empathising with other people through reading, you would think it would be possible to demonstrate that those who read fiction have better social skills than those who read mostly non-fiction or don’t read at all.

The difficulty with conducting this kind of research is that many of us have a tendency to exaggerate the number of books we’ve read. To get around this, Oatley and colleagues gave students a list of fiction and non-fiction writers and asked them to indicate which writers they had heard of. They warned them that a few fake names had been thrown in to check they weren’t lying. The number of writers people have heard of turns out to be a good proxy for how much they actually read.

Does reading fiction make us better people? (4)

Many of us tend to exaggerate the number of books we’ve read (Credit: Getty Images)

Next, Oatley’s team gave people the “Mind in the Eyes” test, where you are given a series of photographs of pairs of eyes. From the eyes and surrounding skin alone, your task is to divine which emotion a person is feeling. You are given a short list of options like shy, guilty, daydreaming or worried. The expressions are subtle and at first glance might appear neutral, so it’s harder than it sounds. But those deemed to have read more fiction than non-fiction scored higher on this test – as well as on a scale measuring interpersonal sensitivity.

At the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, psychologist Diana Tamir has demonstrated that people who often read fiction have better social cognition. In other words, they’re more skilled at working out what other people are thinking and feeling. Using brain scans, she has found that while reading fiction, there is more activity in parts of the default mode network of the brain that are involved in simulating what other people are thinking.

(Video) 6 Research Based Benefits to Reading Fiction || Improve your life with reading
Does reading fiction make us better people? (5)

People who often read fiction have greater social cognition (Credit: Getty Images)

People who read novels appear to be better than average at reading other people’s emotions, but does that necessarily make them better people? To test this, researchers at used a method many a psychology student has tried at some point, where you “accidentally” drop a bunch of pens on the floor and then see who offers to help you gather them up. Before the pen-drop took place participants were given a mood questionnaire interspersed with questions measuring empathy. Then they read a short story and answered a series of questions about to the extent they had felt transported while reading the story. Did they have a vivid mental picture of the characters? Did they want to learn more about the characters after they’d finished the story?

The experimenters then said they needed to fetch something from another room and, oops, dropped six pens on the way out. It worked: the people who felt the most transported by the story and expressed the most empathy for the characters were more likely to help retrieve the pens.

You might be wondering whether the people who cared the most about the characters in the story were the kinder people in the first place – as in, the type of people who would offer to help others. But the authors of the study took into account people’s scores for empathy and found that, regardless, those who were most transported by the story behaved more altruistically.

Does reading fiction make us better people? (6)

In one experiment, people who felt most transported by a story later behaved more altruistically (Credit: Getty Images)

Of course, experiments are one thing. Before we extrapolate to wider society we need to be careful about the direction of causality. There is always the possibility that in real life, people who are more empathic in the first place are more interested in other people’s interior lives and that this interest draws them towards reading fiction. It’s not an easy topic to research: the ideal study would involving measuring people’s empathy levels, randomly allocating them either to read numerous novels or none at all for many years, and then measuring their empathy levels again to see whether reading novels had made any difference.

Instead, short-term studies have been done. For example, Dutch researchers arranged for students to read either newspaper articles about riots in Greece and liberation day in the Netherlands or the first chapter from Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness. In this story, a man is waiting in his car at traffic lights when he suddenly goes blind. His passengers bring him home and a passer-by promises to drive his car home for him, but instead he steals it. When students read the story, not only did their empathy levels rise immediately afterwards, but provided they had felt emotionally transported by the story, a week later they scored even higher on empathy than they did right after reading.

Of course, you could argue that fiction isn’t alone in this. We can empathise with people we see in news stories too, and hopefully we often do. But fiction has at least three advantages. We have access to the character’s interior world in a way we normally do not with journalism, and we are more likely to willingly suspend disbelief without questioning the veracity of what people are saying. Finally, novels allow us to do something that is hard to do in our own lives, which is to view a character’s life over many years.

(Video) How Reading Fiction Affects Your Brain
Does reading fiction make us better people? (7)

Some institutions consider reading to be so significant that they include modules on literature (Credit: Getty Images)

So the research shows that perhaps reading fiction does make people behave better. Certainly some institutions consider the effects of reading to be so significant that they now include modules on literature. At the University of California Irvine, for example, Johanna Shapiro from the Department of Family Medicine firmly believes that reading fiction results in better doctors and has led the establishment of a humanities programme to train medical students.

It sounds as though it’s time to lose the stereotype of the shy bookworm whose nose is always in a book because they find it difficult to deal with real people. In fact, these bookworms might be better than everyone else at understanding human beings.

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(Video) Is Reading Fiction Books Good for You?

FAQs

Does reading fiction make you better? ›

Recent research in neuroscience suggests that you might look to the library for solutions; reading literary fiction helps people develop empathy, theory of mind, and critical thinking. When we read, we hone and strengthen several different cognitive muscles, so to speak, that are the root of the EQ.

Why does reading make you a better person? ›

Reading helps us empathise much better, allowing us to connect with other people more as it trains us to understand and accept other perspectives. Our executive functioning improves because of these effects on the brain.

Why is fiction so important? ›

One of the major benefits of reading fiction is that it broadens our imagination and thinking process. By taking us into another world, it opens our minds to new ideas and possibilities that definitely help us experience and analyze the world through others' lives.

What makes a fiction a good read? ›

In fiction, the writer's job is to entertain, to draw an emotional response from the reader. The reader is often looking for suspense, action, and to go on a journey they have not been on before, one they will not easily forget.

How can literature make us a better person? ›

Literature expand our imaginations and refine our moral and social sensibilities. We need to go beyond the appeal to common experience and into the territory of psychological research. people are more prone to do that when the story is set away from home.

How does reading make you a better thinker? ›

Cunningham's studies have found that analytical thinking is boosted by reading. Readers improve their general knowledge, and more importantly are able to spot patterns quicker. If you can spot patterns quicker, your analytical skills receive a boost.

How does fiction develop a person? ›

Fiction has the capacity to transport you into another character's mind, allowing you to see and feel what they do. This can expose us to life circumstances that are very different from our own. Through fiction, we can experience the world as another gender, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, profession or age.

Can we learn from fiction? ›

Philosophers, psychologists, literary critics and humanities scholars have made broad claims for the positive impact of reading fiction: it gives us important insights into human psychology; it confers cognitive advantages; it enhances moral understanding and empathy; it is a valuable source of truth; and it makes us ...

Why fiction is good for you summary? ›

To put yourself in the shoes of others and grow your capacity for empathy, you can hardly do better than reading fiction. Multiple studies have shown that imagining stories helps activate the regions of your brain responsible for better understanding others and seeing the world from a new perspective.

Why do we love fiction? ›

Our genes make play, and therefore reading fiction, enjoyable because they help us be interactive and manage our emotions. We do what we're good at, and we're naturally good at considering the perspectives of others and getting inside a new role.

What does reading give to people? ›

Reading is good for you because it improves your focus, memory, empathy, and communication skills. It can reduce stress, improve your mental health, and help you live longer. Reading also allows you to learn new things to help you succeed in your work and relationships.

Why is reading is important? ›

Reading gets your mind working across different areas. For starters, it involves comprehension to process the words you read. Beyond that, you can use your analytical abilities, stimulate memories, and even broaden your imagination by reading words off a page.

How does literature make people more human? ›

Literature influences us and makes us understand the every walk of life. Narratives, in particular, inspire empathy and give people a new perspective on their lives and the lives of others.

Can literature make my life better? ›

First and foremost, literature opens our eyes and makes us see more than just the obvious. It helps us realize the wide world outside, surrounding us. It changes our perspective about things, people and events. It broadens the horizon of our minds and shapes our world view.

Does reading make you successful? ›

Generally speaking, reading books in and of itself can not make you successful. However, reading enhances the chances of success. Reading allows you to learn from others' mistakes and success. It also makes you creative, imaginative, and smart among other things; helping you achieve success faster.

How reading can change your life? ›

It helps us relate to other people and encourages us to be kind and considerate of other people's feelings. As it turns out, reading can actually help improve empathy. When people read stories about other people's lives, it helps them develop the skills to understand the world through another person's perspective.

What happens to your brain when you read fiction? ›

Reading about experiences is almost the same as living it:

When we read, the brain does not make a real distinction between reading about an experience and actually living it. Whether reading or experiencing it, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Novels are able to enter into our thoughts and feelings.

What fiction does to your brain? ›

When we read fiction, neurologically speaking, we increase our knowledge, broaden our attitudes, and enhance our skills for understanding ourselves and for feeling empathy for others. Reading trains our brains to work more efficiently, helps us process information more quickly, and sharpens memory.

Is reading fiction better than TV? ›

All the research says reading a book is good for you. Better even than listening to an audiobook or reading one on an e-reader. It reduces stress, promotes comprehension and imagination, alleviates depression, helps you sleep and may contribute to preventing Alzheimer's. Reading is active; watching TV is passive.

What are the disadvantages of reading fiction? ›

4 Bad Side Effects of Reading Fiction According to the 19th...
  • Fiction makes your mind flabby. ...
  • Stories can leave you dissatisfied with reality. ...
  • Novels stoke the emotions. ...
  • Sensational works can numb the soul to tragedy.
20 Jun 2014

Can reading fiction make us more human? ›

A lot of prior work has found that people who read fiction — any fiction, not just the literary kind — tend to be more empathetic, meaning they're better able to understand and share what others are feeling. Some of this empathy work has documented a cause-and-effect relationship between reading and empathy.

Does reading fiction help mental health? ›

Reading fiction has been found to improve one's social cognition and ability to empathize with others. New research finds that reading programs can support youth mental health through conversation and connection.

Does reading fiction help memory? ›

Reading fiction provides mental stimulation which helps with memory, vocabulary, and focus. When reading, we put ourselves into the mind of the characters. This can help develop empathy and emotional intelligence.

How does reading affect your life? ›

Reading is good for you because it improves your focus, memory, empathy, and communication skills. It can reduce stress, improve your mental health, and help you live longer. Reading also allows you to learn new things to help you succeed in your work and relationships.

Why are books so important? ›

Books are packed with knowledge, they give you life lessons, they teach you about hardships, love, fear, and every little thing that is a part of life. Books have been here for centuries and contain the knowledge of our past, civilizations, and cultures.

Why do we read or watch fiction? ›

Fiction helps you understand other people's perspectives

It is a meld between the mind of the reader and the writer, and the minds of reader and character. When you read fiction, you're seeing the world through a character's eyes. Watching a character interact with the world around them is powerful.

Is reading fiction a waste of time why or why not? ›

Reading fiction is a great way to pass the time

Reading fiction can get you engaged in some pretty amazing stories, can make you daydream about better times or amazing events, and can make time fly. That is exactly what we need from time to time, and that is perfectly fine for our mental health.

Can reading change your personality? ›

So, we could agree that reading does have an impact on personality. To quote a BBC article: “people who often read fiction have better social cognition. That's to say they find it easier to work out what someone else is thinking and feeling.”

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