Apr 5, 2013 - fiction writing    No Comments

Does Fiction Increase Empathy?

If you lost your home, fortune, and many of your friends in a war, how would you feel?  What would you do?

What if you lived on the edges of society, and your father was a drunk?  What if your closest friend was an outcast?  How would you feel?

What if you joined the army, but in your first battle, fear overcame you.  You fled.  What would happen?  What would you do?  How would you feel?

How would you feel in these situations?  For those of us stuck in our comfortable lives, it seems hard to even imagine such things.

Can you have empathy with someone you have never met?  Can we even begin to imagine such things?

Yes.  Yes, we can.

Reader Girl Clip Art

These are the settings of Gone with the Wind, Huckleberry Finn, and Red Badge of Courage.  Most of us have read at least one of these, and I think everyone has seen the movie of the first.
By reading these, we can imagine situations that we would, hopefully, never be in.  We have empathy with the characters there.  We can imagine what it would be like to lose our homes in a war.  We can imagine what the outcast Huck feels like.  We can imagine and empathize with the frightened (and perhaps sensible) boy who runs away from battle.
Reading gives us the empathy to imagine situations far different from our own and anything we might encounter.

By exercising this imagination, we can imagine things further afield, situations we read about in the news, the lives of the poor in other countries and cultures, and even imaginary lives of imaginary people in other galaxies.

Our empathy grows as we exercise it.

This is the power of fiction.  In Scientific American, in an article about research in fiction and empathy by psychologist Jerome Bruner, Keith Oatley summed this up and added:

A love affair with narrative may gradually alter your personality—in some cases, making you more open to new experiences and more socially aware.

That is a very good thing.

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