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How Reading Fiction Boosts Empathy

A new study says people can improve their sensitivity to others simply by reading books.

We told you back in December about a study that showed Americans are losing our sense of empathy. By testing college students with what's called the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, researchers discovered that nearly three-quarters of the students exhibited less empathy than college kids 30 years ago. "Steve Duck of the University of Iowa has found that socially isolated ... individuals evaluate others less generously after interacting with them," wrote Jamil Zaki in Scientific America last year, "and Kenneth J. Rotenberg of Keele University in England has shown that lonely people are more likely to take advantage of others’ trust to cheat them in laboratory games."

That's the bad news. The good news, according to new research, is that the decline of empathy is not a foregone conclusion. And the key might be your nearest vampire novel.

Shira Gabriel and Ariana Young, both from the psychology department at the University of Buffalo, gave 140 undergraduate students passages to read from either the Harry Potter series or the Twilight series. Afterward, the students were asked how much they related to the characters in the novels. Gabriel and Young found that despite the fact that both the stories rely heavily on otherworldly magic and mysticism, the undergrads felt a real affinity for the characters. "[T]he study found that participants who read the Harry Potter chapters self-identified as wizards, whereas participants who read the Twilight chapter self-identified as vampires," they wrote. "And "belonging" to these fictional communities actually provided the same mood and life satisfaction people get from affiliations with real-life groups. Books provide the opportunity for social connection and the blissful calm that comes from becoming a part of something larger than oneself for a precious, fleeting moment."

Raymond Mar, a professor at York University, has also noticed the link between reading and empathy. In a study of children, Mar found that the more a child reads, the likelier she is to be able to understand the emotions of others.

One important thing to remember: You don't have to read Twilight for the empathy effect to work.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user moriza

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