Reading People

Small Things for Empathy

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How literary fiction makes one more empathetic and better at reading people

Readers of literary fiction may have a finer taste in books than those who consume mass-market fiction. But can these two different types of books have different influences on the reader? Can, for instance, a book by Arundhati Roy or James Joyce have a more lasting real-world impact on a reader’s mind compared to one penned by EL James or Chetan Bhagat? According to a new study, yes. In comparison to genre books, literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand the thoughts, emotions, and motivations of those around us.

The study conducted by researchers from New School in New York City, US, was published in Science. For the research, participants were divided into various groups. The groups were given either excerpts from genre works, literary fiction or non-fiction to read. One group was given nothing to read. Some of the excerpts handed out for reading included well-received literary works by the likes of Anton Chekov and Don DeLillo. Others included bestsellers like Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) and The Sins of the Mother (Danielle Steel). Non-fiction work included what the researchers called well-written but non-literary pieces like How the Potato Changed the World. A series of computerised tests to measure people’s ability to decode emotions or predict people’s expectations were conducted after the reading assignments. Some of these tests included studying pictures of human faces or just a part of these to gauge the emotions or mood of the person photographed.

The fiction-reading groups, both literary and mass-market books, performed better than those that read non-fiction pieces or nothing at all. However, those who read literary works did the best: they outperformed those who read bestsellers.

According to the researchers, mass market fiction is formulaic, and while the situation or plot may be grand, the characters are predictable. Because these characteristics reaffirm the reader’s expectations, these books do not help people expand their capacity to empathise. Whereas in literary works, because characters’ minds and motives are depicted vaguely and readers are expected to fill in those gaps, these books ennoble the reader to be more understanding and empathetic.

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