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Washington and Lee Professor Finds that Reading Fiction Leads to Empathy, Helpful Behavior

A study by a Washington and Lee University psychology professor has demonstrated that reading a short work of fiction can lead readers to empathize with the work’s characters, to detect subtle emotional expressions more effectively and to engage in pro-social behavior.

Dan Johnson, assistant professor of psychology at Washington and Lee, published the results of his study in the November 2011 edition of the journal “Personality and Individual Differences.”

With the help of three W&L students — senior psychology majors Lauren Borden (Lake Leelanau, Mich.) and Grace Cushman (Wilton, Conn.) and sophomore Madison McCune (Nacogdoches, Texas) — Johnson had 200 subjects read a five-page fictional short story written specifically for the experiment, designed to elicit compassionate feelings for the characters and model pro-social behavior. The subjects then participated in exercises to measure the impact of the reading.

Based on the results of the post-reading exercises, Johnson concluded that the more immersed the readers were in the story, the more empathy they felt for the characters. In addition, he found that the heightened empathy led to an enhanced ability to perceive subtle emotional expressions such as fear or happiness. Individuals who experienced higher levels of empathy were also nearly twice as likely to engage in pro-social, or helpful, behavior as individuals experiencing low levels of empathy.

“An interesting component is that it really seemed to be a lot about the imagery and visualizing the face of the main character and the events they experienced,” said Johnson. “Those who experienced more inherent imagery were more likely to develop empathy for the characters and be more helpful.”

Johnson’s interest in the subject was sparked both by his wife’s profession as an English teacher and by conversations with his colleague, Suzanne Keen, the Thomas H. Broadus Professor of English and department chair at W&L, who wrote Empathy and the Novel (Oxford University Press, 2007).

In his discussions with Keen, Johnson said, “I realized that the empirical literature is just not there, especially in experimental form. There are no true experiments out there that demonstrate that reading can actually, causally, lead to a development of empathy.  How do we know that those individuals drawn to reading fiction aren’t already naturally more empathic people?”

Johnson is working with students this term on ways to implement the experiment. “It’s an inherently interesting topic, so it’s really fun to work with students on this,” he said. “They are all very interested in it and have an opinion and their own experiences to share, because they’ve been reading in some capacity their whole lives. I also enjoy the challenge of taking something subjective such as empathy and reading, and making it work experimentally.”

Having demonstrated that reading fiction leads to greater empathy, Johnson said, he now wants to find out why it works. “If we can enumerate those reasons, then we will have information we can actually apply in an educational setting,” he said. “Students are reading at all levels, so we assume they are already developing empathy through reading. First, we should test this assumption. Then we need to find ways to maximize its development. Maybe there are ways we can frame lesson plans while reading a fictional story that would lead to more or less empathy.”

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