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Greenburgh Public Library Blog

Building Empathy with Fiction

by Nicole Guenkel on 2019-02-04T09:39:42-05:00 | Comments

Reading fiction could be a valuable socializing influence in schools, prisons, and people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Researchers at The New School in New York City have found evidence that Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy.

The research included five studies that measured participants’ ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions after reading either nothing, non-fiction, pop/genre fiction or literary fiction. Surprisingly, the results for reading nothing, non-fiction, and pop/genre fiction were unimpressive/insignificant. The results notably improved when study participants read literary fiction.

Many people, including children, are drawn to the fast pace of popular/genre fiction, set by creative and interesting settings and situations (and not character development). However, the consistent and predictable characters of popular/genre fiction affirm the reader’s beliefs. On the other hand, because the focus is instead on the development of the characters (their psychology, inner dialogues, responses to experiences, and relationships to other characters), literary fiction awakens a reader's awareness of a character’s internal feelings and this awareness is then applied in the real world to real people.

Interested in empathy development in children? Check out this article from Michigan State University Extension.  Further, when reading with a child ask “What if that happen to you? What would you do/say?” and “How would you feel? Has something like that ever happened to you? How did it make you feel?” Point at the characters’ faces and body language and ask your child to guess how the character is feeling.  Asking about the characters (“How do they feel?”; “What do they need?”) will encourage your child to think about someone else’s perspective: 

There is a place for all genres and of course, all reading is good reading. And while I don’t know if you can teach empathy, I believe that these books will inspire it:


Cover Art The Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson; Axel Scheffler (Illustrator)
When a tiny snail meets a humpback whale, the two travel together to far-off lands.  It's a dream come true for the snail, who has never left home before.  But when the whale swims too close to shore, will the snail be able to save her new friend? From the creators of Room on the Broom and The Gruffalo comes this touching tale of adventure and friendship.  
Cover Art Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman; Caroline Binch (Illustrator)

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