We have discussed the relation between fiction and empathy extensively in OnFiction, but have not really broached the topic of what the consequences of this empathy might be. Could fiction promote empathy for another group and reduce our prejudice towards this group’s members? There has been some promising research on this topic, but primarily from the 60s and 70s, with respect to children’s attitudes towards African-Americans (Litcher & Johnson, 1969; Katz & Zalk, 1978).
(If anyone knows of other examples, please do let us know in the Comments.)
Recently, however, Elizabeth Levy Paluck (Princeton) conducted the most amazing field experiment in Rwanda, examining whether a radio soap opera could facilitate reconciliation between Hutu and Tutsi listeners in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide. This was a large-scale study, involving 12 different community groups (6 experimental, 6 control), and 480 participants, 99% of whom were in Rwanda at the time of the genocide. Experimental participants listened to a radio drama aimed at exploring themes related to the genocide and reconciliation: the roots of tensions and violence between groups, the importance of open discussion of issues, and intergroup connections. The control condition involved a radio drama directed toward health issues, specifically reproductive health and AIDS. It important to note that the reconciliation radio show made no explicit mention of the two ethnic minorities, but instead talked about two different communities, with each representing in many ways either the Hutus or Tutsis. The programs were listened to as a group, monthly, over the course of a year. At the end of that year Dr. Paluck found a number of differences between the two conditions, with those who listened to the reconciliation radio drama exhibiting different perceptions of social norms, and even different behaviors, all related to open dissent of contentious issues, intermarriage between ethnic groups, trust, empathy, cooperation, and trauma healing. What was not found, interestingly enough, was a change in personal beliefs. With respect to empathy, those who listened to the radio drama on reconciliation expressed more empathy for members of a number of different groups, including Rwandan prisoners, genocide survivors, the poor, and even political leaders.
This is an incredible study on the potential power of fiction to heal and educate. It is worth emphasizing just how difficult these real-world field studies are to complete, and we are certainly fortunate that Dr. Paluck has taken it upon herself to tackle this difficult but absolutely necessary approach. While one may question whether these findings have any relevance for those of us in a Western culture, it is worth remembering that the Canadian National broadcaster (CBC) has been playing a radio drama about Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan for some years now: Afghanada. Might listening to this program increase listeners’ empathy for our troops, and their mission, overseas? These findings by Dr. Paluck suggest that this may indeed be the case.
(Anyone interested in reading this article is welcome to contact me for a copy.)
Katz, P. A., & Zalk, S. R. (1978). Modification of children's racial attitudes. Developmental Psychology, 14, 447–461.
Litcher, J. H., & Johnson, D. W. (1969). Changes in attitudes toward Negroes of white elementary school students after use of multiethnic readers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 60, 148–152.
I've not read the paper, so perhaps should not comment. But, since both conditions used drama, does the experiment show that fictionality causes the reduction in prejudice? Might not a succession of true stories have the same result?
Emeritus, University of Florida
Hi Prof. Holland,
Thank you for this comment. You are correct in noting that the study does not test whether fictionality is a key component of the intervention, since the control program was also a fictional drama. Thus, it is entirely possible that the presentation of facts might have had the same effect. Of note is that in this context such an approach would have been impossible. Direct mention of the two ethnic groups in question (Hutus and Tutsis) would have been censored by the Rwandan government, according to the paper. Also, Sonya Dal Cin wrote quite a nice chapter a while back arguing that persuasive arguments are more likely to be effective when embedded in fiction, because readers and listeners are not as accustomed to engaging in counterarguing as they are with an explicit persuasion attempt. To my knowledge, however, there hasn't been a direct test of this. The key finding of interest for this study is that these changes in perceived norms and behavior were witnessed in a very real-world context, with personal experience and powerful emotions all in the mix.
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