Claim: Serious fiction increases empathy
Reading Chekhov for a few minutes makes you better at decoding what other people are feeling. But spending the same amount of time with a potboiler by Danielle Steel does not have the same effect, scientists reported Thursday.
A striking new study found that reading literary fiction – as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction – leads people to perform better on tests that measure empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.
The authors of the study, published by the journal Science, say that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity. They theorize that reading literary fiction helps improve real-life skills like empathy and understanding the beliefs and intentions of others.
There is also an online quiz of empathy designed by Simon Baron-Cohen. I have frequently been critical of Baron-Cohen’s theories; but I was absolutely terrified after taking this exam – you see, I scored a perfect score of 36/36. I’m not sure if this means I am empathetic or something darker – or alternatively, that the test is simply too easy.