The Capacity of Literature to Develop Empathy

The following post was written by Blair Bateman, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese and one of the Humanities Center’s Faculty Fellows.
Earlier this semester I had the opportunity to attend a Humanities Center Conversation on capacity of literature to develop empathy for others. In preparation for the meeting, participants were invited to read a work in which author Elaine Scarry (2014) explored “the capacity of literature to exercise and reinforce our recognition that there are other points of view in the world, and to make this recognition a powerful mental habit” (p. 42). Scarry concluded that literature “interrupts and gives us sudden relief from our own minds” (p. 46).
A recent series of studies by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano (2013) confirms the power of literature to develop empathy. Kidd and Castano assigned 1000 research participants to read different types of works – non-fiction, popular fiction, and literary fiction — and then measured their ability to identify emotions in others. The studies found that participants who read works of literary fiction were consistently better able to understand others’ emotions than those who read other types of works.
What is it about literature that increases our capacity for empathy? Kidd and Castano hypothesize that “literary fiction . . .uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences. Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration. The worlds of fiction . . .present opportunities to consider the experiences of others” (p. 378).
In today’s world, some may question why empathy even matters. For Christians and especially Latter-day Saints, however, developing empathy is an integral part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Surely it is impossible to fulfill the commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Luke 10:27) without having some degree of understanding of our neighbors’ feelings, struggles, and life experiences.
As in so many things, the perfect example of charity is the Savior himself, who “[took] upon him the pains and sickness of his people . . . that he [might] know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11-12). In a very real sense, Christ is able to save us precisely because He understands us.
In our process of eternal progression, our ultimate goal is to become like the Savior. Of the of the Christlike virtues that we are commanded to cultivate, the foremost is charity, or “the pure love of Christ” (Moroni 7:47) – not only love for Christ, but the ability to feel the type of love that Christ possesses, which necessarily includes empathy for all of our Heavenly Father’s children. Thus, in a very real sense, reading literature helps cultivate the empathy that we need in our eternal journey. For those of us in the Humanities, it’s difficult to imagine a more worthy pursuit.
Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013, October 18). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342, 377-380. doi:10.1126/science.1239918
Scarry, E. (2014). Poetry, injury, and the ethics of reading. In P. Brooks & H. Jewett (Eds.), The humanities and public life (pp. 41-48). New York, NY: Fordham University Press.

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  1. Janis Nuckolls says:

    This is such a wonderful reminder of the importance of reading literature. I wonder if the act of writing literature also increases one’s empathy. Surely it must, as great writers are also great readers. Tolstoy was such a wonderful empath, as was Proust and many many others.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful blog. I had not read or heard about the series of studies on the capacity of literature to develop empathy. I am glad to learn of them. While not surprising, the results are heartening as they support an argument we in the Humanities often both make to others and feel in our own lives. I have long been troubled by stories coming out of the Holocaust apparently confirming, in the words of George Steiner, “that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening . . . and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.” While studying the Humanities does not alone inoculate people against acting cruelly, I, too, believe that the Humanities can help open the heart to others and render us, in Shakespeare’s felicitous phrase, “pregnant to good pity.”

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