Wrapped up in a Book: The Role of Emotional Engagement in Reading

Have you ever gotten lost in the pages of a good book? If so, you may have been more empathetic afterward. According to new research published in PLOS ONE, reading fiction may affect the reader’s empathetic skills over a period of time. The key to this effect is the reader’s level of emotional engagement with the text.

The researchers conducted two studies to explore the relationship between fiction and empathy. In the first, they recruited university students and randomly assigned them to read either a piece of fiction or non-fiction. Participants in the fiction group read an excerpt from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Six Napoleons’. Participants in the non-fiction group read selections from a newspaper. To make the passages as similar as possible, the researchers chose news articles that focused on an individual, mirroring the potential for fiction readers to engage with the main character in story.

Participants’ empathy was assessed immediately before and after the experiment. Their levels of emotional engagement were also measured immediately after the reading, and a follow-up empathy level assessment was conducted a week afterward.

In the second study the researchers conducted the same assessments – with an added dimension. The fiction group read an excerpt from José Sarmago’s Blindness and the non-fiction control group read a selection of news articles of a similar length. In addition to measuring the participants’ levels of empathy and emotional engagement, the researchers asked participants to rate their positive and negative emotions after the reading.

In both studies, they found that the fiction readers who were more emotionally engaged in the narrative became more empathetic over the course of the week. Fiction readers who were not emotionally engaged were less empathetic the following week, and non-fiction readers did not display these effects to a significant degree. With the additional data on the participants’ emotions, the researchers ascertained that the effects of empathy and emotional engagement were similarly significant regardless of positive or negative emotions.

Readers of fiction rejoice! If you would like to learn more about the role of emotional engagement in reading fiction, read the full text of the study here.

Citation: Bal PM, Veltkamp M (2013) How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation. PLoS ONE 8(1): e55341. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055341

Image credit: On the platform, reading by moriza.

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