Reading literary fiction may foster empathy

Empathy has long been established to be a core quality/skill for effective leaders. Now we can see, from Kidd and Castano’s study about empathy and reading literary fiction, that empathy is increased by creative thinking, imagination, and the willingness to suspend disbelief and explore fictional worlds. Who knew that leisure pleasures enhance our “theory of mind:” the ability to perceive others as having emotional states distinct from one’s own. Leaders, pay attention, and pick up a good fiction book! I recommend the Hunger Games trilogy and Erin Morgenstern’s novel, the Night Circus, but I’m sure you can come up with your own empathy-enhancing pages!

The Stake

A recent experiment is establishing the value of reading, and reading literary fiction in particular.

David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of the New School of Social Research conducted an experiment in which distinct groups were asked to read literary fiction, popular fiction, and nonfiction. Afterwards, each group was given tests to measure their “theory of mind”—the ability to perceive others as having emotional states as distinct from one’s own, an important factor in empathy and social functioning.

Readers of literary fiction did much better than readers of popular fiction and nonfiction. Our affinity for genre fiction is welldocumented at The Stake, so this is disappointing news in some respects—however, there’s not a whole lot of information offered about what literary, popular, and nonfiction titles Kidd and Castano had their subjects use. For literary titles, they looked to recent finalists for major literary awards; but for popular titles, they…

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  1. I loved this story! thank goodness, since cirriculums around the country are emphasizing non-fiction at the expense of literature.


    1. Yes, I agree! We have such linear ways of thinking about achievement, excellence, creativity, leadership! This study helps me understand it as a process of exploration, of ourselves and the world, literary and otherwise.


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