We at OnFiction have talked quite a bit about how reading fiction might help to foster empathy. The mental processes used to understand a story character, to take that character’s perspective and see the world through his or her eyes, seem similar to what we use to understand our real-world peers. More than just understanding others, fiction seems exceptionally well-suited to foster an empathic response, given its often emotional context. Our previous work has examined this hypothesis from various research perspectives and in different populations. Recently, Dr. Dan Johnson (Washington and Lee University) has extended this work to see whether the empathic responses promoted by fiction might translate to prosocial behavior, or the helping of others. In his study, participants read a short-story specifically designed to induce compassion and provide a model for prosocial behavior. Soon after reading, an experimenter “accidentally” dropped six pens. The key measurement was whether the participant helped the experimenter to pick up the pens. Higher levels of engagement with the story and higher levels of emotional empathy after reading predicted whether people were more likely to help the experimenter. In a second study, Dr. Johnson replicated this finding, increasing confidence in this effect. This is an intriguing study in that it demonstrates that short-term increases in empathy as a result of reading can result in actual prosocial behavior.
Johnson, D. R. (in press). Transportation into a story increases empathy, prosocial behavior, and perceptual bias toward fearful expressions. Personality and Individual Differences.
* In what is becoming a disturbing trend, I must apologize for the lateness of this posting. As always, I am happy to provide a copy of the original article upon request (see profile for e-mail).