Novels & Human Rights Part 5: Mechanics of Reading and Empathy

In planning my paper, it was important to me that I find out if my thesis was plausible in the real world. Surely someone had studied empathy, and/or the real-life effects of reading? Yes! Science FTW! (More info/previous posts here.)

Empathy and the Novel cover Suzanne KeenEnglish professor Suzanne Keen’s Empathy and the Novel summarizes the major research to 2007. Researchers don’t yet understand empathy comprehensively, but have identified physical and neurological components as well as cognitive aspects. When a person is in pain, fMRI machines show their limbic systems activating – an emotional and motivational response. When watching loved ones in pain, the affective areas of the limbic system engage without receiving stimuli from the sensory cortex. Essentially, the viewer’s brain responds as if it had experienced a similar pain. Psychologist Paul Ekman believes that reading about a sensation causes a similar process to occur; the brain treats concepts as if they were happening in some sense.

Keen believes that automatic sensory empathy leads to cognitive empathy. When people feel the sensations of others, or at least believe themselves to be doing so, they naturally begin to think about what the other person is experiencing. People also apply cognitive biases to their emotional responses, confusing the issue for some researchers. For instance, tests show that genders differ in responses to fiction, but the testing method dictates the results. Paper and pencil self-reports indicate large empathic differences between men and women, picture-story studies show smaller differences, and physiological studies show no differences at all. Thus it seems that men and women react the same way, but interpret their reactions differently. Therefore, preexisting notions alter empathy’s effects.

There seems to be a link between one’s level of empathic ability and one’s interest in fiction, but the nature of the link is unknown… Reading might teach empathy, or naturally empathic people could enjoy reading more and respond to it the most strongly. (Compared to readers and non-readers, authors show the highest levels of empathy!) This much is certain: reader responses vary based on complex relationships between the reader’s natural empathy, the reader’s life situation, the story being told, and the way in which the story is told.

If a person does connect with a story, the sensation can lead to any of three results: sympathy (pity), empathy (the feeling of sharing the experience), and distress (aversion). Discussions of empathy tend to use negative examples, such as stories about victims of crime or discrimination, but empathy for positive fictional experiences probably constitutes a stronger encouragement for habitual readers. However, negative emotions tend to be more memorable and create more dramatic reactions. Researcher Martin Hoffman’s study on fictional “victims” possibly explains why some critics responded badly to Pamela: “If the victim has caused her own distress, she may no longer seem like a victim, and empathy may halt right there.” If readers thought Pamela’s virtue was hypocritical or that she could have avoided Mr. B at the outset, then they felt no empathy.

Based on her collection of readers’ anecdotes, Keen puts forth the following set of propositions about what causes empathy:

  • Simply naming a character or providing some other identification can be enough to spark empathy.
  • Identifying with a character creates empathy, and empathy can cause conscious identification.
  • Empathy occurs more often (or more memorably) for negative emotions.
  • Empathy does not always occur.
  • Particular novels may only foment empathy during particular time periods.
  • Authorial intent to create empathy is not necessary.
  • Situational empathy, identifying with a particular circumstance the reader has also experienced, requires the least imagination.

Most interestingly, tactics that best encourage empathy are the same as those Watt identified as promoting realism. Keen identifies them as character identification (naming, other indicators), plot (sense of timing, closure, etc.), and narrative situation (first-person is usually most effective). She notes that literary scholars disparage popular entertainment, but mass-media consumers are the ones who laud empathy the most. Casual readers approve of and recommend novels based on emotions felt while reading. Additionally, mass media reaches the most people, thus exercising the largest social impact.

Jane Eyre 2011After feeling empathy, readers may modify their behavior or may remain unaffected. Probably the most common behavioral changes involve purchases — particularly of more books. Alternatively, someone may buy a gray dress after reading Jane Eyre, or drink a martini after a James Bond novel. On the altruistic front, reading stories about outgroups can influence readers to have more positive opinions of those groups. However, Keen compares readers to the general public, and does not find novel enthusiasts to be more altruistic. This corroborates her supporting argument that less-realistic novels create more empathy since they are perceived as safe, whereas real-world situations place demands on a person.

Evolutionary psychologist D. J. Kruger believes that “expectancy of reciprocation” has eight times as much effect on altruistic behavior than empathy. Concern for specific others and internalized values or cultural expectations are primary causes of philanthropy. However, empathy can be the first step in a cognitive-emotional progress leading to concern for others, internalized values, and cultural expectations. A novel may also have a purely informational quality, as in other books that influenced culture such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, or the novels of Charles Dickens. These books were widely-read and informed many people about the living conditions of less-privileged classes, which in turn spurred altruistic action. In such cases, the most realistic novels have the greatest impact.

Do novels lead to altruism, then? Not reliably, but individual charitable acts wouldn’t amount to the kind of mass movement toward human rights that took place during the 18th century anyway. Pamela influenced popular opinion in a distinctive way — a one-time event, not a general effect of reading any literature at any time. Next week, we’ll be talking about historical context.

What do you think? Do you feel empathy when you read, and does it affect your daily life?

7 thoughts on “Novels & Human Rights Part 5: Mechanics of Reading and Empathy

  1. I think empathy has an important role in reading, for me, but sometimes it can have the adverse effect – the reading hangover – where I need some space before my next story. When I become so invested in a character’s success or journey, and either the author or the forces at work in the narrative don’t pan out (or destroy the main character) I think it’s the empathy at work when I feel betrayed or distressed at those outcomes.

    So, actually, I think I may prefer to be less empathetic (mindfully) when I know a book I’m about to pick up is “grit” or dark in some upsetting way.


    1. Good point. I’m much more guarded in certain types of stories. Like in Ancillary Justice, I started off way too empathetic for the subject matter and had to purposefully disengage to get through the book.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Empathy in novels is huge for me. If I can’t identify with anyone, I won’t like the book. And while I don’t expect to LIKE every character I read (many characters are specifically designed to be detestable), I can’t tolerate when they’re unnecessarily awful and there’s no reason behind their negative traits–namely, when I don’t have any basis for empathy.


    1. That’s interesting. I’ve heard “If I can’t identify with anyone, I won’t like the book” in a lot of reviews. Even after doing all this research I’m not sure how it works for me… I’ll put down a book if I don’t like any of the characters, but I’m not sure how much empathy/self-identification has to do with it. It seems more that I need to like them, and I need them to not be idiots, but I don’t necessarily need to empathize with them. Or maybe it just varies.

      Liked by 1 person


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