Research reveals how compelling stories can make us better people.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt even just a teensy bit guilty for carving precious time out of your busy, full life to dive into a book and relish a made-up story. If your hand is in the air, it’s there alongside a bevy of others. National Public Radio (NPR) has a program called “My Guilty Pleasure,” featuring books that authors savor privately. Some scholars argue that Oprah’s Book Club eases people’s guilt for enjoying works of fiction by highlighting stories that simultaneously educate and entertain. A piece in The New Yorker explicitly spells out our unease with leisure reading:
“Basically, a guilty pleasure is a fix in the form of a story, a narrative cocktail that helps us temporarily forget the narratives of our own humdrum lives. And, for not a few readers, there’s the additional kick of feeling that they’re getting away with something. Instead of milking the cows or reading the Meno, they’re dallying somewhere with ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.'”
With work, errands, chores, and family obligations, the notion of giving ourselves permission to walk through a pretend world for a while may seem a bit frivolous or fruitless. Why read stories when there’s so much to do?
For now, I’m going to just set aside the fact that leisure time and personal enjoyment are meaningful and important for their own sake, and get to the heart of what this piece is actually about: How the world of fiction enriches who we are in the real world.
In a 2018 study, researchers reviewed experiments on the effect of reading fiction. They found that it modestly improves people’s capacity to understand and mentally react to other individuals and social situations. And by and large, that was after reading a single story.
But why does reading fiction fine-tune our social awareness? That’s not entirely clear. One possible reason is that when we devote our mental energy to stepping into an imaginary person’s inner world, we’re essentially honing our ability to do the very same thing with actual people. Indeed, scientific evidence suggests that the same regions of the brain are at work when we’re thinking about other people and their points of view, regardless of whether those individuals happen to be real or fictional characters. Another potential reason is that even though we’re trekking into a make-believe realm, the struggles and concerns, the pleasures and hopes, the nuances and social dynamics that unfold for the characters in the story can offer valuable insights on humanity and life. And this knowledge may put us in a better position to understand the people in our social world.
But reading a good tale doesn’t seem to be enough, in and of itself, to boost our capacity to empathize with others. For reading to help us do that, we need to actively step out of our own lives and mentally and emotionally carry ourselves away into the story. You can picture the scene you’re reading like it’s a movie; you feel with the characters and for them. Sadness bubbles up with poignant moments in the story. Absurdity awakens confusion, surprise, or amusement. Cliff-hangers and tense dilemmas evoke jitters and disquiet. As you’re winding through a murder mystery, with characters who are absolutely terrified because they know that the killer is among them and one of them is next, your muscles tense and the hairs on your arm stand up.
And when you mentally travel into a story, picturing it in rich detail and getting into the minds of the characters, not only will you be more adept at relating to people, you’ll be more inclined to assist others when they’re in need. What’s more, there are other significant fruits of fiction, such as lessening people’s racial bias and raising their interest in the well-being of animals. There’s even evidence that reading a book for 30-minutes every day forecasts a sharper, healthier mind, which predicts 20% lower odds of dying about a decade later.
To sum it all up, we can take time to delight in a compelling yarn, and in the process become better human beings who may even live a little longer. That sounds more like a worthwhile investment than a guilty pleasure. Happy reading, everyone.
Bal, P. M., & Veltkamp, M. (2013). How does fiction reading influence empathy? An experimental investigation on the role of emotional transportation. PLoS One, 8(1), e55341. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0055341.
Bavishi, A., Slade, M.D., & Levy, B.R. (2016). A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity. Social Science and Medicine, 164, 44-48.
Dodell-Feder, D., & Tamir, D.I. (2018). Fiction reading has a small positive impact on social cognition: A meta-analysis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 10.1037/xge0000395.
Holly Parker, Ph.D. is a lecturer at Harvard University and a practicing psychologist and Associate Director of Training at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital.