Empathetic, moi?

Sites and Soundbites mentioned this article, which claims that
  • People who frequently read narrative fiction scored higher on tests of both empathy (the ability to understand and identify with another person's feelings) and social acumen (the ability to make quick judgments of people and situations).
  • Frequent reading of non-fiction was associated with poorer empathy and social acumen.
I'm not sure I agree. Reading - looking at words on a page - is not the equilvalent of seeing a face or hearing a tone of voice. In other words, how can you tell from the writen text that someone is really angry or sad, except that the author tells you. Perhaps the researchers got the results they did because those that tend to read narrative fiction are empathetic to begin with, rather than (as they seem to claim) learning or strengthening that skill by reading.

I would also venture that the type of reading one does makes a difference. Reading purely genre fiction might lead one to read into things more than others - always seeing conspiracies, crimes or passion where it doesn't actually exist.

And what about those of us that read both?


camillofan said...

I'm not sure what it is you don't agree with, LG. I mean, if the results showed a correlation, then there's a correlation-- unless the tests used to assess "empathy and social acumen" were not actually good measures of those skills.

It may not be clear precisely how reading would increase empathy, but I'm not sure it's any more clear how already being empathetic would cause you to become a fiction reader as opposed to a non-fiction reader (or, indeed, a fiction reader as opposed to a non-reader).

Lazygal said...

I guess I just don't think that there's a real correlation - one doesn't cause (or increase) the other. It's like saying that children that eat ice cream also like birthday cake; couldn't it just be that the two are commonly found together? I'm sure there are many empathetic non-readers and readers of non-fiction, and non-empathetic fiction readers. It just doesn't seem (to me) that one follows the other.