I’ve been reading about the correlation between reading fiction and having empathy. The correlation has been established for a long time. And, of course, the correlation between empathy and good health is known as well.

However the initial studies mostly confirmed the obvious: people who like to read fiction are women (they buy 80% of fiction in the US) and women are more empathetic than men. More recent studies show that no matter how low a person scores on the empathy scale, reading fiction will increase empathy.

It’s fascinating that most recent studies narrow the reading-empathy correlation to fictional narrative. So first of all, this means mysteries and science fiction don’t count. The reason is that you follow those narratives to play a game and solve a puzzle.

Of course there are character-driven examples of both genres, but the characters don’t have to be nearly as strong. (For you English majors, compare the depth of character development of Ender, or Miss Marple vs. Hester Prym.) In genre fiction you continue reading to understand the world around the character as opposed to understanding the emotions around the character.

While I’m dumping on the history of storytelling, I will add that fussy French existentialists, and heavy handed Russian Guglagists also do not provide the empathy boost. They write fiction to make a philosophical or political point, and the author does not rely on emotional development to pull the reader through the story, but rather the drive to gain an intellectual grasp of the concept.

What we’re left with are the books that are famous for the memorable character development. Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, and all those yummy beach reads on the bestsellers list.  Those are great for kids to read if you want to increase their emotional intelligence.

When it comes to reading fictional narrative to build empathy, lots of books don’t count, but lots of movies do. That’s right. If you want your kids to get the emotional benefits of reading, they’re better off watching Saving Private Ryan than reading Percy Jackson. Another way to think about it: the term chick flick probably signals a movie that develops emotional empathy.

The best list, by far, of character-driven movies, is the Oscar nominations for best actor/actress and best supporting actor/actress. No one knows better than the Academy which movies requires the most intense acting to convey an emotionally complex character.

Also, good news, it doesn’t matter that kids (and adults!) forget most of what we read and see in movies because people still get the benefits of increased empathy from following the characters through the story.

So, once again, school is focused on all the wrong stuff: and as long as you follow the story while it unfolds, retaining the plot is unnecessary, and passing the test is irrelevant. Kids cultivate their own empathy by following to end of the story and caring about the character.

I was going to write about how relived I am that TV and movies count as much as reading does. But actually, my kids watch the kind of TV that doesn’t count. Brooklyn 99 is funny, but it’s like one of those series of books with 99 titles. Nothing ever happens that’s really new, it’s just the same characters doing similar stuff every show. And we watch Rick and Morty, which falls squarely in the sci-fi realm.

But last week we saw the movie Eight Grade, and it was incredible. For one thing, you can actually watch your kids growing their empathy when they squirm in their sets and laugh with relief at the plight of the main character, (played by Elsie Fisher, who was an eight grader until last week when she announced she will start homescooling). The movie theater was packed with kids who screamed “Don’t do it!” at the screen, and I think every single parent in the theater cried when the dad gave his speech about why he puts up with his teenaged daughter.

What I really loved was the aesthetic. The movie had two things going on visually at all times often scrolling on a second screen. The director (and famous YouTuber) said most movies have fake screens when they show a computer or phone. But he wanted the movie to have a permeating genuine blue-screen glow. So for the movie they made real social media accounts, real email validation, and real selfies. and then hired people who were off-screen to text with the lead character in real time, so everything looked authentic.

The Internet was like a character in the movie, and I think I loved that most of all Though maybe that means I need more experience engaging with character-driven fiction…

5 replies
  1. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    As a kid I read a fair amount of fiction. Into young adulthood even. I used to love science fiction short stories and subscribed to a couple great zines of them. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve left fiction almost entirely behind. I think the last novel I read was The Mandibles, which was fascinating. That was in 2016. Mostly I read memoir now.

    I heard the Fresh Air interview with Bo Burnham. Fascinating and now I want to see the movie. My younger son introduced me to his Netflix specials which were in many ways delightful.

  2. Dave Henly
    Dave Henly says:

    When I was 18, I quit reading fiction, opting for the amazing world of self-help and business books.

    I wonder if there has been a decline in my emotional intelligence. I’ve heard studies that Emotional Intelligence is a huge predictor of success, but your article is the first time that I’ve understood the importance of reading fiction as it pertains to increasing Emotional Intelligence.

    I’m off to research some more fictional narrative books.

  3. Christy Tucker
    Christy Tucker says:

    The researchers explicitly included science fiction in their definition of “narrative fiction.” See page 9: “… an assessment of exposure to narrative fiction (50 names, divided into 5 genres, such as thrillers, romance novels, and science fiction)”

    I agree that some science fiction doesn’t have the kind of character development you’re talking about. The Martian, for example, is really about the science and not the character. Much of the genre uses the science or futuristic setting as a way to push character development though.

    From what I understand of the research, it sounds like the connection to empathy is largely related to how much you are able to immerse yourself in the narrative and imagine the characters. If that’s true, then how much it increases empathy probably has less to do with the genre and more to do with the writing focus and the person reading.

    This was interesting research that I hadn’t seen before. Thanks for sharing it!

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    If I could hand out honorary degrees, I’d give you one in psychology. You link to and discuss numerous research topics in the psychology field as they relate to careers, education, and life. Your tagline – Advice at the intersection of work and life ( and now education). And your posts have me searching other related topics. This post made me think about music and empathy. I read chick flick in your post, laughed, and then thought chick music. So I searched and found a few studies on the subject including this one titled – “Can Music Increase Empathy? Interpreting Musical Experience Through The Empathizing–Systemizing (E-S) Theory: Implications For Autism” – at http://emusicology.org/article/view/4603/4162 . As the article states – “In the following sections, we describe how E-S theory may explain differences in musical preference, perception, and performance; the implications for autism; and the theoretical reasoning on how music can increase empathy.” I think there will be more studies in the future regarding the correlation between music and empathy for everybody.

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