Does reading literature increase empathy?

Here’s a report on a series of studies that purport to show that reading a few minutes of “literary fiction” improves scores on a test of emotional empathy (“Reading the Mind in the Eyes”), compared to reading non-fiction. Reading popular fiction did nothing to improve scores over those of non-reading controls.

New York Times

People ranging in age from 18 to 75 were recruited for each of five experiments. They were paid $2 or $3 each to read for a few minutes. Some were given excerpts from award-winning literary fiction (Don DeLillo, Wendell Berry). Others were given best sellers like Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” a Rosamunde Pilcher romance or a Robert Heinlein science fiction tale.


…As I have suggested before, I would rather engage in psychotherapy with a therapist who reads Dostoevsky and Melville than with one who reads books about the brain. It would be lovely if a case could be built that shows that the reading of literature can make you a better (e.g., more empathetic) person.

by Glenn Sullivan