Human BrainScience & Tech

Building Empathy Through Fiction

the ability to recognize and relate to others’ emotions. It is the sadness we
experience when we recognize people’s hardships; the joy we feel when those we
love are happy; the fear we match when a person says they are afraid. Empathy
gives us the ability to transport ourselves into the mind of another. It is the
special gift we develop that allows us internal access to the life of an
individual other than ourselves. But how do we become more empathetic and build
empathy as a transferable skill into daily life? One way exists: we must read
more fiction.

Book: chapter six
Empathy is a part of our emotional intelligence. Psychology Today defines emotional intelligence as encompassing three skills: emotional awareness, which is the ability to understand our emotions; the ability to apply those emotions to our thought process when accomplishing tasks; and the ability to regulate our emotions as well as helping others to do the same. Emotionally-intelligent
individuals are conscious of their positive and negative emotional states
and are able to identify and manage them. If our emotional intelligence is developed well, we can identify the emotions that others experience.

Empathy is a major component of emotional intelligence because an emotionally-intelligent individual can empathize, or recognize and relate to, others’ emotions. Empathy allows us the ability to identify emotions, but emotional intelligence also necessitates the concept of theory of mind. Theory of mind includes the beliefs, desires and intentions which are understood when we empathize with another. Unlike the perception involved with empathy, theory of mind causes an individual to consider and predict how and why a person acts. Theory of mind is the ability to understand others’ emotional circumstances and then use that understanding to react in social situations.

Building Empathy Through Fiction

Image Source: Ashawire

Reading fiction lets us
practice the relationship
between empathy and theory of mind in order to develop our emotional intelligence. In turn, we can develop skills like social acuity and the
ability to recognize other people’s intentions
. The BBC defines reading fiction as taking a course in
because reading fictional plots requires the understanding and recognition involved in the relationship between empathy and theory of mind, and even activates areas of the
brain associated with these thinking processes
. In fact, when compared to non-fiction, only fiction demonstrated
the development of empathy and theory of mind

The more we read fiction, the more emotionally intelligent we become. Faculty at Stockholm
University and Mid Sweden University
found an increased emotional vocabulary in adolescents who read fiction. The emotional vocabulary of their participants grew when the amount of time spent reading increased. The researchers noted an increase in empathy of the participants who read fiction and developed habitual reading habits, suggesting that reading fiction can be positively transferred to the development of emotional intelligence for the navigation of social settings.

Canadian psychologist Keith Oatley explains how emotional intelligence is developed through fiction as a result of our engagement with fiction. In his essay, Fiction: Simulation of
Social Worlds
Oatley remarks how fiction allows readers to make inferences about characters’ intentions and to become emotionally involved in the plot. We can develop empathy and theory of mind because we encounter complex characters and situations that we can then internalize and relate to daily life.

However, reading fiction cannot build emotional intelligence unless readers transport themselves into the story. The development of empathy and theory of mind is wholly dependent on a reader’s transportability. According to what is called the transportation imagery model for fiction, narratives are more persuasive when they create a state of psychological transportation into the story for their readers. This transportation results from a collective of narrative tools like imagery and emotion that focus on the narrative plot.

Painting the Picture

Image Source: YMCA

Faculty at the University
of Würzburg
observed that reading fiction did improve participants’ empathy, but that the development of empathy depends on the extent to which a reader is transported. The researchers employed what is called the Saarbrücker
(SPF) to measure participants’ empathy. The SPF included the four subscales of perspective-taking, personal distress, empathic concern, and fantasy that represent different components of empathy. The aspects of the four subscales were ranked on a five-point scale to determine participants’ empathy.  

The study demonstrated how only participants who were emotionally transported into the narrative displayed increases in empathy. Their study proved how transportation into stories — in which feelings like compassion for characters were induced — resulted in higher affective empathy. Likewise, researchers Bal and Veltkamp recorded how highly transported readers became more empathetic while non-transported readers became less empathetic. Bal and Veltkamp remarked how the lack of empathy in non-transported readers was produced from disengagement with the
, which saw readers feeling
more frustrated than empathetic.

Fiction helps us to develop critical thinking that engages empathy, allowing us to transfer those internalized skills into real-world situations. In the long term, research related to fiction and emotional intelligence could provide methods for increasing emotional vocabulary, competence, and regulation for educational settings and even in clinical psychology; and research around reading fiction has the potential to alter how policymakers and researchers respond to necessary developments in these areas. By engaging in the act of reading fiction, we can change how we respond to social situations and alter our reception of our emotions. Fiction enables us to transform emotion into a skill that can be used by society as a whole to help us understand and connect to one another.


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