How reading (good) non-fiction books builds your empathy cover image

How reading (good) non-fiction books builds your empathy

Dorian Minors • January 1, 2016

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

They say a reader lives a thousand lives and those who don't live one. Well, I don't know that 'they' say it, but I like the phrase a lot. I saw a tattoo of it once on Pinterest though, if that counts. I know I read it in A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) somewhere. Typing that sentence prompted a quick fact check and I can't believe I forget who Jojen Reed was. In my opinion, you have entirely too many characters in your book if I can't remember which one said one of my favourite quotes.

Game of Thrones teaches us psychology

Anyway, Mr Martin was definitely onto something there; the idea being that we learn lessons vicariously through the stories of others. In fact, that whole chapter is themed around learning lessons from other people's experiences, as Bran looks into the past with his new skills. What you might not know is that this is a pretty crucial aspect of our psychological development.

. Mr Martin also taught us that empathy is not our friend by killing absolutely every character we liked.

I've written before about the value of vicarious experiences; we use other peoples' experiences to build our expectations of the world. But empathy isn't an easy thing to learn from others. Unless you have particularly emotionally vocal mates, then it's unlikely you're going to learn a great deal about how other people experience emotions. You can be an expert in how emotions work and what they're for, but without knowing what's going on in the person's mind (and you're super bad at knowing what's on peoples' mind) you're going to find it hard to deduce how they're feeling.

Books teach us empathy (but not all books)

Well, it turns out that books are a fabulous place to get those insights. Those psychologists found that those who were assigned fiction books to read consistently scored higher on their ability to identify emotions. But not just any kind of fiction. Popular fiction doesn't cut it. Literary fiction is the key - fiction that explores the human condition or comments on society and politics; fiction that holds literary merit. The researchers explain that these kinds of books leave 'gaps' in the story and importantly, in their characters. This forces the reader to bridge those gaps and in completing the character's picture they grow in their understanding of the mind. As the researchers put it, these books don't just simulate social experiences, they are a social experience.

. One wonders if those books you got all emotional about over a glass of wine had a bigger impact...

This idea follows along nicely with a theory that's been guiding all our schooling for decades. Lev Vygotsky is a giant of developmental psychology. One of his legacies was the hugely influential theory of the 'zone of proximal development'. We'll ignore the big words and call it the ZPD (like everyone else does - even academics think other academics over-complicate things). The ZPD essentially refers to the space between two 'levels' of skill. Think of it like a cliff. You're at the bottom, with no way up. If someone at the top throws you a ladder, then you can climb up too. The ZPD is similar, as it relates to our mastery of skills and knowledge. We can only get so far ourselves before we reach a sort of limit in our ability to keep learning. The ZPD. We need someone to give us a little guidance before we can get to the next level. In this case, the writers of literary fiction let us build a picture of a person to a point, and with a little guidance we're able to complete that picture, thus learning a little bit about how different people have different perspectives. Do this enough and our skill grows, bolstering our empathy and our Theory of Mind. So, pick up a book. It'll make people like you more, it's science. This isn't the only explanation for why books help us in our mastery of social norms. For instance, books give us meaningful context around information - an absolutely critical facet of memory. They also help us develop our stereotypes, and stereotypes can be a useful tool if you develop them well enough (else stereotypes will cause you problems). Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.