You are what you read.
Kristine Anthis Ph.D.
If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to be a nicer person who is more sensitive and aware of other people’s feelings, read more novels. Really.
Once you are absorbed in the world of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and other popular novels, you might find yourself a more empathetic person. Researchers who study how reading literature affects us have found that just like anything else, we get better at a subject the more we practice it; the more fiction we read, the more we understand how and what other people think (Djikic & Oatley, 2014).
It may be that in the process of appreciating others’ lives, we incorporate these experiences into our own personality, resulting in a new and reconfigured self. Readers often experience emotions similar to those of fictional characters, which increases our empathy for them. In doing so, “Literature can help us navigate our self-development by transcending our current self while at the same time making available to us a multitude of potential future selves” (Djikic & Oatley, 2014, p. 503). So the more we read, the more we expose ourselves to other ways of being, and other potential identities.
If you are wondering whether or not television or film have the same effect, the answer is unclear, given more research is needed. But television and film provide audiovisual information that novels do not, so literature likely requires more cognitive effort unless the television show or film is complex and challenging (and many contemporary media are).
Novels therefore provide ideal opportunities to practice our emotional intelligence skills such as empathy, as well as the awareness and monitoring of our emotions (Mar, Oatley, Djikic, & Mullin, 2011). And what we read matters, suspense and romance novels seem to foster greater interpersonal sensitivity than do science fiction novels (Fong, Mullin, & Mar, 2013). There are subtle distinctions within genres though. As a fan of Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction, I look forward to more research on the differences among various genres and sub-genres of literature.
Regardless, the next time you are running errands and waiting in line, consider dipping into that novel you started rather than texting mindlessly or zoning out with a game — if you do so regularly, you will likely become a more sensitive and thoughtful person.
Djikic, M. & Oatley, K. (2014). The art in fiction: From indirect communication to changes of the self. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 8(4), 498-505.
Fong, K., Mullin, J. B., & Mar, R. A. (2013). What you read matters: The role of fiction genre in predicting interpersonal sensitivity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7(4), 370-376.
Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Djikic, M., & Mullin, J. (2011). Emotion and narrative fiction: Interactive influences before, during, and after reading. Cognition and Emotion, 25(5), 818-833.