Wednesday 7 February 2024

Research Bulletin: Does Reading Foster Morality or Lead to Moral Erosion?

The effect of reading on a person’s morality has been a topic of debate for decades, with people raising arguments that it either helps or hinders moral development. Two competing theories argue that fiction either promotes morality by increasing empathy (i.e., fiction as moral laboratory), or that exposure to fiction that portrays deviations from real-world morality increases acceptance of “immoral” things (i.e., moral boundary erosion). To better understand which of the two theories is most likely true, Black and Barnes (2021) investigated the relationship between literature consumption (i.e., non-fiction, adult fiction, and young adult fiction) and individual differences in morality. Across two cross-sectional studies, undergraduates were given measures of empathy, morality, and moral permissibility, as well as measures of exposure to adult fiction, young adult fiction, and non-fiction. If fiction acts as a moral laboratory, there should be positive associations between fiction exposure and both empathy and morality. Conversely, if the theory of moral boundary erosion is true, there will be an association between exposure to different types of literature and moral permissibility. Across both studies, fiction exposure predicted empathy and morality, which offers support for the theory of fiction as a moral laboratory. They also found that reading both fiction and nonfiction was associated with greater moral permissibility, lending support to the theory of moral boundary erosion. Findings regarding the different types of fiction (i.e., adult fiction and young adult fiction) were inconsistent across studies and small in size, and therefore difficult to interpret. Overall, the findings suggest that the association between reading and morality is complex and multi-faceted, and that more research on this topic is required in order to further understand how, and why, the two are related.

Black, J. E., & Barnes, J. L. (2021). Fiction and morality: Investigating the associations between reading exposure, empathy, morality, and moral judgment. Psychology of Popular Media, 10(2), 149–164.
Post by Shyamaly Vasuthevan

Photo by Yaroslav Shuraev via Pexels.

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